SALISBURY If youre Reid Leonard, the best thing about running Piedmont Players Theatre may be the chance to hold production meetings in your own bathtub.
Leonards official title, according to the PPT website, is resident director/designer. His unofficial title might be selector of shows, director of plays, designer of sets, hanger and focuser of lights, coordinator of volunteers and (on the morning of my visit last week) the guy who cheerfully hangs the name of the next show up on the theaters marquee.
Technically, that should be the theaters marquees: He oversees not only the Meroney (for adult shows) but the Norvell (for childrens plays) both of which opened during his tenure. And the man in charge of them continues to defy preconceptions.
Hes an English major who can make sound business decisions, a guy who can wrangle small details or step back to see the big picture without (according to confederates) turning into a control freak.
Hed been footloose when he arrived at PPT and planned to stay a few years, but hes just passed the quarter-century mark there. And although he programs plays for a volunteer-based theater in a small city, he manages to mingle old favorites with area premieres even Charlotte hasnt seen.
The shows this month typify this thinking. You Cant Take It With You, the Kaufman and Hart comedy that hit Broadway in 1936, begins at the Meroney July 26. 13, a 2007 musical by Jason Robert Brown, gets its regional debut in the Norvell this week; its about a boy jolted by a move from New York City to Appleton, Ind., shortly before his bar mitzvah.
Warm weather seems to bring new growth: Last June, Leonard directed the regional premiere of The Farnsworth Invention, Aaron Sorkins drama about the early days of TV. But he knows his job requires a delicate balance every season.
Says Leonard, When I first came to Piedmont Players in 1986, the board picked all the shows and said, Here. Youll have fun directing these. That was because board members chose plays where they wanted roles. I quickly changed that.
But if theres something I want to do that actors wont want to be in, thats no good. If theres something actors want to be in but nobody will want to attend, thats no good. The thing that should guide every choice is the directors hunch: If I read the script, and I cant see how its going to go (onstage), then it wont work.
Local boy makes art
If anyone understands Rowan Countys theatrical tastes, it should be Leonard. He grew up in Lexington, one county to the east. He graduated from Catawba College in Salisbury, where he taught playwriting for a couple of years in the early 1980s. (He has a masters degree in directing from Northwestern University, but he also studied playwriting there. One of his classmates, Bruce Norris, just won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Clybourne Park.)
Leonard has taught in the Greensboro public school system and at the Governors School in Winston-Salem, where he learned in 1986 that PPTs director had just quit. He leapt in to do Pump Boys and Dinettes and has never left his position.
I expected to stay only a couple of years, he recalls. A director says No all the time: No, youre not going to be in this show to an actor, or No, youre not going to do this show to the board. I thought a little of that would be enough for me.
When I came to PPT, the board had thought about disbanding, because money was so tight. We were (performing) at Catawba College, and we knew two theater companies in that space didnt work. Then the Meroney became available.
That 361-seat venue had gone through many avatars. It was built in 1905 as the place where John Philip Sousas band played and Sarah Bernhardt brought Camille on her first of five farewell tours. Its stage remained intact long after it closed as a movie theater, and a $1.8 million renovation restored it for a 1995 re-opening.
Leonard remembers Tom Smith, former CEO of Food Lion who later became a big supporter telling him, You can open an outhouse on Sunday, and 5,000 people will come see it, simply because its new. But will they come back Monday?
They have, in such numbers that PPT added a second theater and source of revenue in 2010: the Norvell, which cost $3 million and does shows by and for young people. Its named for Lucille Norvell, who gave a big chunk to start the ball rolling. (She attended the lunch led by Salisburys Sidney Blackmer, of Rosemarys Baby fame, to form the Players in 1961.)
Handling words and money
We bought the (Norvell) building totally on faith, and Reid is the one who had the vision for that, says Edward Norvell, who led the fund drive to honor his mother. He knew exactly what needed to go into it; he knew how to build it without frills but with everything we needed.
He also had the vision for the Meroney. Hes not only a director who designs sets but someone who can run a business and make mid-course corrections. If he sees a show isnt as successful as wed hoped, he can make changes in the next shows, to make sure well come out well overall.
Is he a controlling, hard-driven guy?
Hes not a type-A personality, but hes definitely in charge, says Norvell. Hell keep a (room) full of kids from age 6 to high school so quiet you hear a pin drop.
The staff has always been bare-bones, so he depends on a working board one persons in charge of costumes, one is in charge of props and lots of volunteers. You cant be too forceful with volunteers, but Reid hangs in there and keeps pushing ahead. He works day and night at it. Hes totally focused on that theater.
Leonard, who likes to come to the job with his Irish setter, Izzy, cooks and eats to relax: He worried that putting an elevator into the theater might add weight to his lanky frame, but it hasnt: When you do 10 shows a year, climbing up and down ladders all the time, you lose weight.
By chance, an ideal set of skills
Good luck has helped him do his job well. He was one of three drama teachers who designed a theater for Greensboros Weaver Education Center in the early 80s, so he knew how the Meroney should go. Hed designed sets and lights for Livestock Theatre in the 1970s, so hed learned those basics long ago. Hed been directing since the early 70s, when he danced in Horn in the West in Boone and helmed shows in a black-box theater on that site.
I loved teaching myself the process of running this theater, he says of PPT. My job is to get everyone started the right way, then let them do their jobs. Step into the middle of it, and you may think nobodys in charge. But Im coordinating everything.
Says board president Alexis Greer, I dont know of anything at PPT he hasnt put his hands on. He has a way of visualizing not just what the cast is supposed to do but what the set and lights are supposed to do to create the right atmosphere.
I remember the first time I met him. I hadnt been to a show here since the 90s, and I was auditioning for a musical in 2008. Theres a rocking chair on the third floor of the rehearsal hall, where we do auditions, and I thought, Whos that man sitting in the rocking chair? He came right over to shake my hand and welcome me.
Leonard can still surprise co-workers: Greer never expected him to do a magic act at PPTs 50th anniversary gala, and Leonard still isnt sure that cast members in Laughter on the 23rd Floor realized he was playing the offstage saxophone.
And within the Players framework two comedies, one drama, one musical he hopes to surprise audiences, too.
Ive looked for shows people didnt know and other groups havent done, he says. But for the last couple of years, weve discovered these arent the shows audiences support so much. For the big names, the Hairspray titles, we turn people away. So weve had to say, Yes, there has to be some name recognition. Thats why next season has Monty Pythons Spamalot and The Color Purple. Both are local premieres and names that sell.
I read a Ford Foundation study once that said you can count on about 4 percent of your population no matter where you live to consistently support arts endeavors. Rowan County has about 100,000 people. If we can get 4,000 people from Salisbury and Mocksville and other towns nearby, we can stay in business.