Bob Walsh has taken the helm as the artistic director of the American Stage Festival in New Hampshire, where this spring he directed That Fascinatin' Rhythm and Intimate Exchanges at the Court St. Theatre. He has also directed Bus Stop, Jacques Brel, and A Midsummer Nights Dream at ASF, and was the associate artistic director in 1992. As an actor, he's appeared in ASF's The Children's Hour, Malice Aforethought , and Intimate Exchanges, and staged all of the fight sequences for Cyrano De Bergerac.
Other New England and regional directing credits include: The Norman Conquests, Holiday Memories, Later Life, and K2 at Merrimack Rep; I Hate Hamlet at StageWest; The Liar at the Lyric; The Speed of Darkness at the Nora Theatre; Misalliance for the Two River Theatre Company; and The Little Foxes at the Barter Theatre in Virginia. Last summer, he directed the on-field ceremonies for the All Star Game at Fenway Park. He is an artist-in-residence at Boston University and also at Brandeis University, where he teaches with his wife, actress Marya Lowry.
How does it feel to be the new artistic director of American Stage Festival?
I don't have time to think about it.
ASF had to close down shortly before the 1999 season opened. What happened?
There had been a lot of hiding of accumulation of debt, bills not paid, all manner of things. The third producing director began to unearth these things. It became overwhelming. There was some funding in place that collapsed. There was about a half-million dollars of debt. The board put the brakes on and shut [the theater] down. The theater space in Milford was about to be foreclosed.
In a year's time we've raised money through private funding, have secured a deferment of payment of the mortgage for five years, and have begun to chip away at the debt. We've been setting up payment plans since we got back into production mode. All our bills are paid in a timely fashion, a new business plan has been implemented; we have new board members and a part-time person working in development. We also have some commitments from corporations under Community Partnerships. The subscribers didn't get their money back, but we have various options for them in terms of rolling over their subscriptions, getting a half-price deal next year, donating their subscription. Most of our subscribers just want to go to the theater.
How did you come to be recruited for this job? Is it daunting?
As associate artistic director at ASF in 1992, I had some experience dealing with this type of problem. It was an intensely critical time, financially speaking. Coming into it this time I found that this particular group of trustees was committed to rescuing the theater. The board [acts as] the managing director of the theater. For myself, I identified that I'm not a comptroller turned artistic director, but an actor/director who could help to organize and create the art. I could collaborate with the individuals in a small corporate setting and exercise my management skills as well.
What are some of the problems you face?
The theater is in a lovely, bucolic setting, but it's not really a resort area. If indeed we have 60 to 70 percent ticket sales, we have to raise the rest. New Hampshire is 50th in the union as far as contributions to the arts. We are also within striking distance of Boston. Many folks go there when they want that kind of night out. We also have two identities: September to May in Nashua, and our summer season in Milford.
Tell us about your summer season.
We're starting with Lend Me a Tenor, which originated at ASF as Opera Buffa. We're reviving the play as we work to revive the theater. We're recognizing our illustrious past as a theater that fosters new plays. Painting Churches, a beautiful little three-character play is next, directed by Michael Murray. Then WMKS, (Where Music Kills Sorrow). It's a fun piece using traditional folk songs, bluegrass, Gospel, and "oldtime" music (a precursor to bluegrass). It's set in the '30s at a live radio broadcast. It should do well here; there's a big contingent of bluegrass and folk music fans in this area. The playwright, Frank Higgins will direct. I'm directing Sherlock's Last Case by Charles Marowitz. It's very clever, tongue-in-cheek, fun. Our children's theater component continues to excel: The Young Company (interns presenting plays for children) in the summer, and in the winter, The Peacock Players, a huge program including plays and classes.
If you had no monetary restrictions, what would you produce?
There's a production of Zorro I've been sitting on for a while, written by a friend. There's a straight version and a musical--I don't know which one I'd do. I'd like to do my adaptation of All the King's Men, and there are two musicals I'd love doing: Sweeny Todd and The Secret Garden. I haven't been able to focus my attention on our Early Stages series--new plays that I would really like to do. It's just plain fun working with authors, re-crafting, looking at the play in workshop form. Our audience is interested in new material, but it's hard to roll the dice on a new piece during the summer season.
If you went the way of Signature Theatre, and chose one playwright's work for a season, who would it be?