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Philly People Behind the Curtain: Walnut St. Theater's Bernard Havard

The Theater

The Walnut Street Theatre, founded in 1809, is America's Oldest Theatre.  It is also the Official State Theatre of Pennsylvania, and a National Historic Landmark. With more than 56,000 season ticket holders, the Walnut is also the most subscribed theatre company in the world! It stands alone as the only theatre operating continuously as a theatre since it opened in 1809.

From President Thomas Jefferson, Bill Cosby and Groucho Marx have all graced The Walnut! Ethel Barrymore, member of the legendary Barrymore family, made her stage debut at the Walnut in 1901.  George M. Cohan brought his new musical Little Johnny Jones, to the Walnut in October 1904.

Bernard Havard

This season Bernard is celebrating his 25th anniversary since founding The Walnut Street Theatre Company.  He came to America in 1977, recruited from the Citadel Theatre in Canada. After running the ALLIANCE THEATRE in Atlanta for six years, Bernard was approached to take over The Walnut, which at that time was a struggling rental facility.

Bernard was familiar with The Walnut from its illustrious past, and persuaded the Board to establish a not-for-profit, self-producing regional theatre.  He then built a subscription audience from zero to where it is today—57,000 subscribers; the largest in the world.

Pati Buehler: Bernard, these are really impressive numbers. How did you make this grow?  

Bernard Havard:  Thank you. Well, we have a high renewal rate; from 75 to 82% and the key to a high renewal base is that you need to have a high level of satisfaction.  The cost of selling a new subscription is relatively high whereas a renewal is far more effective.  I think the subscribers would agree that they have seen the quality and scope of the work over the years to help insure that growth.

PB: I can attest to that having enjoyed many of your productions over the past 6 years.  So simply put, what makes the Walnut Street's productions enjoyable enough for 57,000 people to return to the theater?

BH:  There's a striving for quality.  I've been auditioning actors now for over 40 years in a number of cities.  I think by now I've got a pretty good handle on talent and I not only choose the plays and musicals but I also choose the directors, the actors and the musical directors.  So in effect, whatever standard of quality that has been maintained, I've been involved every step of the way. Honestly, I choose pieces on the main stage that I happen to like.

PB: Obviously many people agree with your taste.  Having produced Hello Dolly, Annie, Sound of Music, 42nd St. Beauty and the Best and most recently Peter Pan, just to name a few; what goes into such huge staged musicals that make your productions so successful?

BH: For example, a lot of the credit for design elements for Peter Pan has to go to Mark Robbin, the director.  When I choose a director, I give him complete authority to put together the design team because they will be held accountable for the quality of the work.  Robert Kovach, who designed our set for Windy City, last year also worked with Mark (Robbin) many years ago in Chicago where Mark had won a number of Jefferson Awards for his work.  So Mark was bringing a team of people that he had worked with successfully in Chicago, so we became the beneficiaries of that.

Bernard has spent his life in theatre as an actor, stage manager, director, managing director and producer.  He has worked in England, Australia, and Canada and is very proud to be an American. Bernard comes from a leading family of theatre artists and sculptors in England and France.  His ancestors include Louis Havard, palace sculptor for Kings Leopold of Belgium and George V of England, and Kate Rourke who created the role of "Candida" for George Bernard Shaw and was the first woman to smoke a cigarette on stage at Wyndham's in London.

PB: What have you enjoyed and taken with you in all your years in this business?

BH: Besides what I'm doing now, which I enjoy thoroughly, I enjoyed my ten years as a stage manager.  I found out that as an actor I had very little control over my career and as a stage manager I had more control because the contracts where I would be employed at would be much longer and I could establish relationships that were not dependent on my size my age, my height, my ethnicity and that gave me a lot more security.  I could build upon those experiences.  But as I said, I thoroughly enjoy producing and I was given a great opportunity in Philadelphia to run a theater single handedly.  Most theaters have a managing director, an artistic director, a team of sorts.  Here when the board hired me I was hired to be the point person and they gave me the title of executive producing artistic director.  I answer solely to the board and I was able to hire everybody.  There's been little to no disagreement since I've been here. I work with myself, quite well!

PB: Needless to say you've made your board quite proud.

BH: They are a very supportive group of people.  I believe in an ensemble of successful people. We have built a wonderful family of talented people who are tremendously supportive of one another.  The actors I like to think of as a floating ensemble as they sort of float in and out.

PB: Any advice to young people wanting to break into this industry whether it is as an actor, director, stage manager?

BH: On the first day of rehearsal we have what we call our "meet and greet".  All the staff comes upstairs to meet all the cast, directors, designers and invariably the actors are outnumbered 10 to 1 and so the opportunities in the theater are much greater in the other (non acting) areas of the theater .  Even as an actor he/she should be able to dance, sing, act and if they play a musical instrument that's even better.  The combination of these provides more employment opportunities.  If, while backstage, they can gather information as to how to stage manage, or design or whatever then that's an added element that is going to increase their employment opportunities.  There's going to be a point when if you are a dancer, you are going to be limited after the age of about 35.  Your body is going to wear out, so you start developing other skills because you are not going to continue to dance for the rest of your life.

PB: What draws you to a project to bring to a stage?

BH: It starts by my reading a play or musical; often having been exposed to the music, as in the case of Windy City.  It generally hits me on an emotional level.  I'm generally not an academic person and I don't analyze things all that well, at least at the onset. Although I have to analyze them at some point as a producer with many components, initially it has to have an impact on me emotionally.  For example I saw Spring Awakening in New York and it had a visceral emotional effect on me and while I feel it may be highly offensive to many of my subscribers, it had a great impact on me.  I would like to produce it perhaps in our new theater next door.

PB: The Walnut Street will be celebrating its 200th birthday. What special things are in store?

BH: The board and the staff have met a number of times to talk about our 200th anniversary.  Obviously we want to celebrate such a milestone not only in our theater but in American Theater.  We really want to celebrate those people who have kept theater alive. February 2, 1809 was the date we actually opened so what we're planning is a series of events over the course of the 2008-09 season that will celebrate some of the moments in our history.  In all probability we will have a big event on that day, a Monday, which is fortunate for us as we're dark on Mondays.  We're hoping to have a postage stamp printed.  There's talk of a medal, pins being designed of the theater.  Certainly we're talking about re-lighting the outside of the theater.  I'm putting a season together that's quite essentially very American so we can celebrate the great American theater writers.  Those are a few of the things we will do.  We will of course pump up our gala which will be in the Crystal Tea Room. We hope to invite actors back to the Walnut who have made artistic contributions to us over the 25 years I've been here and before.

PB: Many are looking forward to your upcoming production of Les Miserables. I've heard that much of your cast is in place. What can you share about Les Miz?

BH: We are very excited about this.  We have Philadelphia's Jeffrey Coon playing Enjolras, Paul Schoeffler will play Javert and we are in negotiations with an actor whose career started in Philadelphia to play our Valjean.

In closing Mr. Havard has this to say, "This has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to run America's oldest theater, to have the good will that exists in this community.  Generations of people have come to the Walnut.  It is like buying a business with a lot of good will and I am very fortunate to be part of this wonderful community."

Photos Courtesy of The Walnut Street Theater

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