July 11, 2012

For Piedmont Players, Reid-ing is fundamental

If you’re Reid Leonard, the best thing about running Piedmont Players Theatre may be the chance to hold production meetings in your own bathtub.

Leonard’s 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 theater’s marquee.”

Technically, that should be the theaters’ marquees: He oversees not only the Meroney (for adult shows) but the Norvell (for children’s plays) – both of which opened during his tenure. And the man in charge of them continues to defy preconceptions.

He’s 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.

He’d been footloose when he arrived at PPT and planned to stay a few years, but he’s 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 hasn’t seen.

The shows this month typify this thinking. “You Can’t 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; it’s 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 Sorkin’s 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. You’ll have fun directing these.’ That was because board members chose plays where they wanted roles. I quickly changed that.

“But if there’s something I want to do that actors won’t want to be in, that’s no good. If there’s something actors want to be in but nobody will want to attend, that’s no good. The thing that should guide every choice is the director’s hunch: If I read the script, and I can’t see how it’s going to go (onstage), then it won’t work.”

Local boy makes art

If anyone understands Rowan County’s 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 master’s 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 Governor’s School in Winston-Salem, where he learned in 1986 that PPT’s 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, you’re not going to be in this show’ to an actor, or ‘No, you’re 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 didn’t 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 Sousa’s 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 it’s 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. It’s named for Lucille Norvell, who gave a big chunk to start the ball rolling. (She attended the lunch led by Salisbury’s Sidney Blackmer, of “Rosemary’s 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. He’s not only a director who designs sets but someone who can run a business and make mid-course corrections. If he sees a show isn’t as successful as we’d hoped, he can make changes in the next shows, to make sure we’ll come out well overall.”

Is he a controlling, hard-driven guy?

“He’s not a type-A personality, but he’s definitely in charge,” says Norvell. “He’ll 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 person’s in charge of costumes, one is in charge of props – and lots of volunteers. You can’t be too forceful with volunteers, but Reid hangs in there and keeps pushing ahead. He works day and night at it. He’s 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 hasn’t: “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 Greensboro’s Weaver Education Center in the early ’80s, so he knew how the Meroney should go. He’d designed sets and lights for Livestock Theatre in the 1970s, so he’d learned those basics long ago. He’d 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 nobody’s in charge. But I’m coordinating everything.”

Says board president Alexis Greer, “I don’t know of anything at PPT he hasn’t 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 hadn’t been to a show here since the ’90s, and I was auditioning for a musical in 2008. There’s a rocking chair on the third floor of the rehearsal hall, where we do auditions, and I thought, ‘Who’s 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 PPT’s 50th anniversary gala, and Leonard still isn’t 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.

“I’ve looked for shows people didn’t know and other groups haven’t done,” he says. “But for the last couple of years, we’ve discovered these aren’t the shows audiences support so much. For the big names, the ‘Hairspray’ titles, we turn people away. So we’ve had to say, ‘Yes, there has to be some name recognition.’ That’s why next season has ‘Monty Python’s 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.”

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