TheatreSquared's Martin Miller on their new home, community ownership and legacy.
Paint us a picture of Northwest Arkansas – would you consider it a natural home for theatre?
The region has always been a place that has defined itself as artistic – as having passion for culture. I think that goes back to decades ago when people were arriving, in the ‘back to the land’ movement – they were novelists and poets, artists, ceramicists. And 25 years ago, the performing arts center, the Walton Arts Center, grew out of community efforts to create the first community-owned performance space.
We were really picking up that conversation when TheatreSquared was founded 13 years ago—so much so that our first few seasons were entirely supported by passionate individuals in the community who wanted to drive that idea forward, whatever it took.
Of course, there’s a much longer history, a rich history, of the Native American presence in the area and their incredible cultural exchange that predates our efforts by thousands of years. It’s also an area of great beauty—and so the interchange of art has, I think, in every tradition has been a natural fit.
In the nine seasons you’ve been with TheatreSquared, audience numbers and budget has grown exponentially. What’s your secret?
There’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of people. It helps to be in an area where people actually take ownership as audience members and supporters. It helps when there is support amongst the civic leaders and citizens so when they see something that is being supported by the community, they step in and deepen that support as well. We’ve seen that from the Walton Family Foundation, the University of Arkansas, from a lot of people who came here to work.
Each year has just been about finding new audiences and continuing to engage our core audience and making the case for why philanthropic support is crucial to the company’s long-term prospects.
“As an Executive Director, it’s just a little bit of everything, without trying to meddle too much in anything.”
Charcoalblue's Clemeth Abercrombie, TheatreSquared's Artistic Director Robert Ford and Marvel Architect's Jonathan Marvel travel through London by bus visiting different theatres.
Martin Miller attends a community design workshop in 2016.
Is there such a thing as a typical day in the life of an Executive Director? What have you had on the books this week?
The typical day has changed quite a bit since our early days when it might have included driving a brochure to a patron’s house who called up to say she hadn’t received it.
These days the basic idea is the same – placing our audience and our artists first in terms of how we prioritise our time. For me a typical day, as we’re in the midst of construction, often includes meetings with our construction managers, phone calls with our design team, including Charcoalblue, and a great deal of conversation about the season we’re about to start. As an Executive Director, it’s just a little bit of everything, without trying to meddle too much in anything.
It’s that saying ‘hire the right people and let them get on with it’.
And we really do have the right people!
You and Artistic Director Robert Ford make a formidable team, tell us about the relationship between Executive and Artistic Directors, how do they enable and respond to each other?
I met Bob Ford when I was just starting high school. He directed me in a few plays, so our relationship goes back quite a ways and I think that’s been the basis for a really trusting, informal, and collaborative relationship.
I think what I appreciate most on a daily basis is his passion for the work, his desire never to compromise artistically, and also his willingness to say ‘OK, well if that’s what you think, maybe we should give that a go!’ And I try to do the same in reverse. It’s a rare situation when we disagree and when we do it’s productive and we usually arrive at some third path that is better.
“We are lucky to have a community that saw the potential for TheatreSquared to be an anchor cultural institution for Northwest Arkansas.”
TheatreSquared's Executive Director Martin Miller and Artistic Director Robert Ford, Jonathan Marvel and the project team attend a design meeting.
Marvel Architects' Jonathan Marvel sketches out some ideas for the building.
Your big project at the moment is the creation of your first permanent home for TheatreSquared – tell us about the project, why now?
I think the most important thing about doing a project at this scale is not even how you start the design process, it’s really about what you did to get yourself to the place where you’d be ready. In our case we are lucky to have a community that saw the potential for TheatreSquared to be an anchor cultural institution for Northwest Arkansas.
When we started to have conversations with Charcoalblue, we were already in the midst of a community conversation. Along with Charcoalblue, we talked about what we wanted our programme to be and how that translated into space well before we started any design conversations.
We found for our work it made a lot of sense to be close to the state’s flagship university which is the University of Arkansas. We wanted to be close to the performing arts centre which up until this point has been our landlord. We were lucky to be in the right part of town in the one space that was available for us to rent 13 years ago. We recognised that and we didn’t want to go very far.
The conception of the design has taken you to theatres across the US and the UK – are there any theatre buildings you saw and thought ‘that’s what I want to bring home for TheatreSquared!’?
We absolutely loved the Everyman Theatre, we loved the Young Vic, we loved the Dorfman space at the National Theatre, we liked the temporary space there as well – I know these all happen to be Charcoalblue projects – but there were different elements of each of these spaces that helped us create a common language amongst ourselves and our architects and design team. We were able to say ‘we want our lobby area to have the feel of the Young Vic, the seats and the sense of the warmth you see at the Everyman or the flexibility in the Dorfman – all these elements were what we wanted to bring together in the building.
There were other places that helped inform other elements, like artists’ housing that’s been done in Detroit and Minneapolis, and our architects drew inspiration from any number of buildings that may or may not have been theatres. Having that palette of precedents that we had seen in person has made a huge difference.
“We absolutely loved the Everyman Theatre, we loved the Young Vic, we loved the Dorfman space at the National Theatre...there were different elements of each of these spaces that helped us create a common language amongst ourselves and our architects and design team.”
The Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre and its reconfigurable auditorium provided inspiration for the TheatreSquared team.
The Young Vic provided inspiration for the TheatreSquared team.
Speaking of the café culture at the Young Vic, how important is it to consider the daytime economy as well as the night time economy and programming to sustain the theatre?
The reason we want to have our lobby area, which we’re referring to as the Commons, be open all day is that we understand that people may feel intimidated to walk into a theatre and watch a play for the first time. Yet it’s not too intimidating to walk in and buy a cup of coffee or have a beer or simply sit with your laptop in a publicly accessible and beautiful space. Once you’ve taken that step, the next step into the theatre is a much lower bar to clear.
Our hope is that seeing those spaces as public community spaces will help members of our community to see the theatre experience as something that is for them as well.
We’re proud to be working with you as Lead Consultant – are there advantages to having a theatre designer at the helm?
Every design process and project administration process is complex, and so no model is perfect—but we’re very glad that we worked with Charcoalblue as Lead Consultants on the design team. At the heart of it, it’s all about these theatres; everything in this building serves these theatres, they don’t exist in isolation. It does matter what the HVAC is like in the hallway next to the theatre and it does matter how the back of house feels to the artists who are key stakeholders for us as much as the audience is. Having Charcoalblue part of all those decisions was very important.
We also were lucky enough, with the help of Charcoalblue, to bring in Marvel Architects who I feel have been the perfect collaborative partners who have embraced this model, despite the fact that it’s unusual, and who have always treated the process with TheatreSquared as if we were members of the design team as well.
“Our hope is that seeing those spaces as public community spaces will help members of our community to see the theatre experience as something that is for them as well.”
The project team at the groundbreaking.
The theatre begins it's fit out.
Has there been a memorable challenge or difficult decision you’ve faced along the way?
There were certainly numerous challenges. In the gearing up phase there were even some organisations in the community that would rather we didn’t build a theatre — but who eventually were won over by the sheer groundswell of community excitement.
Within the design process we had numerous, extensive, and significant value engineering periods. Which reflected in part the acceleration in construction demand in our area and the complexity of the number of programme functions we were trying to bring under one roof, or in our case two roofs.
I will say that I found those processes to be extremely productive—we really interrogated every choice we were making. ‘Do we really need the rehearsal room to be the same size as the stage?’ ‘Yes, we do!’ Even though we found it a challenging process, I really appreciated Charcoalblue’s leadership in that process, particularly our Project Manager Clemeth Abercrombie.
How important is the idea of legacy in the creation of this building – how do you envisage it impacting the lives of the people of Fayetteville?
There’s always a chip on your shoulder coming from Northwest Arkansas – ‘Is this a big enough region to support what we envision as a world-class theatre company within a world-class facility?’ Relatively quickly you get to a point where you say ‘well why wouldn’t we?’ This is where we live, you shouldn’t have to get on a plane to have this kind of experience.
I have three kids and seeing them look around this region and take advantage of a destination museum, Crystal Bridges; TheatreSquared just around the corner; and the great quality of artists who are visiting this region on a regular basis. There’s a whole generation coming of age in Northwest Arkansas who are going to take for granted cultural experiences which, to some extent, we barely knew existed when we were kids here. Yes, I think it’s a legacy—but it’s an immediate legacy.
Do you have any advice for organisations looking to undertake a project like yours?
It’s just like putting on a great play. You can do a terrific script incredibly poorly with a bad director or a bad ensemble. You can do a middling script quite well with the right team. Or you can get all those things right, and then you have a hit. I think that with a major building project—in terms that theatre-makers will recognise—it’s all about the people you put in the room.
Martin Miller, TheatreSquared's Executive Director
Now in his ninth season with TheatreSquared, Martin has produced 45 plays and 40 developmental works and overseen a period of major growth for the organisation. Currently, he is leading the construction process of TheatreSquared's new home, set to complete in mid-2019. He established the National Stages Program (nationalstages.org), a pilot consortium of 20 major producing theatres offering reciprocal member benefits, and has served as a panellist for the National Endowment for the Arts. Previously, as associate producer at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, he produced the bilingual Romeo y Julieta, led the inaugural tour of Funk It Up About Nothin’, and created Talk Like Shakespeare Day. He is a graduate of Carleton College and holds an MFA in Arts Leadership from The Theatre School at DePaul University.