Bristol Riverside Theatre Announces Leadership Change At End Of 2019-2020 Season
Bristol Riverside Theatre announces that Founding Director Susan D. Atkinson and Artistic Director Keith Baker will be stepping down from their day-to-day roles at the end of the 2019-2020 season. Atkinson is credited with helping to rejuvenate Bristol Borough during her 33 years of service. She led the way in turning an old adult movie theatre into a professional theatre company that has produced five world class productions a year for the past 33 years. Baker steps down after 28 years of service to the theatre. He wore many different hats at BRT, directing, singing and acting in over 120 plays and musicals, and steering its artistic vision. The duo will step down from their roles at the conclusion of the current season. The BRT Board of Directors has launched an extensive search for a new artistic director. Later in the season, look for news of a special event that will honor Atkinson and Baker's service to the organization and the community.
"Susan Atkinson and Keith Baker have been vital to the longevity and success of Bristol Riverside Theatre and the Borough of Bristol," said Salerno. "Together, they have given our theatre and community a combined 61 years of service. We are so thankful to have them generously share their vision, leadership, creativity and dedication for all these years. Bristol Riverside Theatre is thriving with an amazing line-up as we enter our 33rd season. We wouldn't be here today without all of their efforts."
It all began in 1984 when the Grundy Foundation acquired an adult movie theater with the intention to close it down. Atkinson approached Grundy with the brilliant plan of turning the building into a professional regional theater. Several consultants advised that such an enterprise would not be successful in Bristol. Len Snyder, Executive Director at Grundy at the time, convinced his board that the experts were wrong. After fundraising, design, construction and renovation, the doors to Bristol Riverside Theatre officially opened on October 15, 1987. Now, Bristol Riverside Theatre is still flourishing with nearly 3,000 subscribers. The regional theatre has gone on to produce five world-class productions a year for the past 33 years.
"From the beginning, Susan Atkinson was a visionary who saw possibility when no one else saw it," said Grundy Foundation Executive Director, Eugene Williams. "It is that kind of foresight that has allowed Bristol Riverside Theatre to not only thrive artistically but also operate as a good civic organization that gives back to the community. In fact, the Theatre has generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Her efforts have laid the groundwork for fostering the next generation of artists and patrons of the art."
Salerno echoed the sentiment and added, "What stands out to me most about Susan is her persistence. She just would not take "no" for an answer. Thirty-three years ago, no one would've believed that this Theatre would still be here. Additionally, Susan is not just committed to the theatre but to the community. She is truly a one-of-a-kind passionate visionary."
On top of opening the theatre, one of BRT's greatest contributions to the community under Atkinson's tenure was the establishment of ArtRageous, a free summer theatre camp for local at-risk youth. The program beckons children and teens off the streets, provides two free meals a day, and offers mentorship and daily classes in acting, improvisation, dance, poetry, and arts and crafts. ArtRageous has changed the course of many lives. The program commits to students for ten consecutive summers of growth and development.
Atkinson has also been responsible for nurturing young talent that first found their artistic grounding in Bristol. These include acclaimed names like Ryan O'Gara, Gary Adler, Charlie Saxton, Don McCloskey, and many more.
From its humble beginnings under one fiercely capable, creative woman, Bristol Riverside Theatre has burgeoned into a cultural hotspot in Bucks County. Atkinson has positioned the Theatre as an artistic powerhouse where theatrical arts truly touch lives.
Throughout her career, Atkinson has directed over 150 plays and musicals, including world and area premieres from such playwrights and composers as Doug Katsoras, Mark St. Germain, Jon Marans, Alan Knee, John Henry Redwood and Larry Gatlin. For BRT, Ms. Atkinson has directed such shows as The Good Earth, Wintertime, Irma La Douce, Alive and Well, The Price, 110 in the Shade, A Sunbeam, Inspecting Carol, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Arsenic and Old Lace, A Little Night Music, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Holiday, Talley's Folly, Proof, Little Women, A Raw Space, Steel Magnolias, What A Glorious Feeling, Inherit The Wind, Tuesdays With Morrie, Little Shop of Horrors, Always...Patsy Cline, An Enemy of the People, Bus Stop, Mountain: The Journey of Justice Douglas, Witness for the Prosecution, Quartet, Time Stands Still, and On Golden Pond. In 1998, Ms. Atkinson directed Larry Gatlin's Texas Flyer both here at BRT and at Theatre Under The Stars in Houston, Texas. She also directed The Little Prince at the New Victory in New York City and which then toured the country for a year under the BRT banner.
"Theatre has been a tremendous influence all throughout my life, and I hope I've been able to share that joy," said Atkinson. "People have said to me, 'Walking into Bristol Riverside Theatre feels like walking into your home, Susan!' I've always taken that as a compliment because more than anything else, I've wanted the theatre to be a place where audiences are comfortable and welcomed."
As part of her tenure at Bristol Riverside Theatre, Atkinson was joined by Baker who will transition from his role after 25+ years of service.
Atkinson shared, "I've been very blessed because I've had some of the best to work with for many years, like Keith Baker. Without Keith and our amazing long-term staff members, I couldn't have executed the theatre's vision. These kinds of relationships are rare and seldom last these many years."
For Baker, his theatrical career spanned back to the 1960s in New York to Kentucky and Florida. Then, in 1991, Baker was hired by BRT as an actor, and eventually as the theatre's Artistic Director in 1995. A resident of Bristol, he wanted the theatre to be a must-see destination for theatre. To help create that destination, he set a standard that the artists he worked with know the audience and what the audience wants.
"Keith is dedicated to the Theatre's audience and they adore him for it," said Salerno. "He works hard to find out who they are and what they're looking for. It is a testament to his commitment that even through this transition period, he reminds us of the import of this relationship."
However, Baker also was known for pushing artistic boundaries, sometimes producing plays that were considered bold. In 2001, he was sent to Armenia for six weeks by the U.S State Department as a cultural ambassador of theatre. During this trip, he learnt about the Armenian genocide and wanted to reflect that reality back home. He invited Armenian director Armen Khandikian to direct a play about it at BRT as part of a cultural exchange.
"The ways BRT has nurtured me are simply unquantifiable," said Baker. "The theatre has made me search in myself for the best I can do in each capacity. My hope with each production has always been that the stage would reflect authenticity; that the audience would sense strongly that there was a mind, so to speak, behind the work. None of this would've been possible without the support of Susan Atkinson, BRT's Founding Director, who allowed me to bring to the stage my most honest and creative ideas. I've worked with the most fantastic artists and staff anyone could ask for, and I'm grateful for it."
Baker has directed over 90 plays and musicals for BRT, among them: Gypsy (starring Tovah Feldshuh), The Pirates of Penzance, Dear World (nominated for three Barrymore Awards), Chicago (nominated for six Barrymore Awards), The Balkan Women (winner of the Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play) and The Dresser (Barrymore Award nominated for Outstanding Direction of a Play), Pride & Prejudice, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Lost in Yonkers (nominated for two Barrymore Awards), Ragtime (nominated for nine Barrymore Awards), Rumors, Man of La Mancha, Working: a Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Producers, and The Sunshine Boys. A significant part of the legacy he has created is the Summer Music Fest series and An American Christmas Songbook. As an actor he won the Broadway World Award for Best Actor in a drama for Old Wicked Songs. He has been nominated 11 times and was twice the recipient of the Carbonell Awards for Best Actor. Recently, Baker was named Best Director for his unanimously-praised production of Jesus Christ Superstar by the Philadelphia Critic's Association.
Atkinson and Baker are currently hard at work doing what they do best - producing the art they love and ensuring a successful 33rd season. For this year, Bristol Riverside Theatre is proud to kick-off things in a big way with Kim Wayans playing the role of God, in An Act of God. The Mainstage season will continue with two musicals, a drama, and the world-premiere of the comedy/farce A Leg Up in May.
"It was important to share our bittersweet news at the start of the season," said Salerno. "We invite audiences to enjoy their many talents one final time. We are thrilled by the terrific line-up they have in store for us - it is definitely one of our most anticipated and memorable seasons. They are leaving us with a season for the record books - and one to remember."