The Arkansas Repertory Theatre
has had only two artistic directors in its 40-year history, a fact which spoke loudly to incoming director John Miller-Stephany.
Founding Artistic Director Cliff Baker
introduced Miller-Stephany at a meeting earlier today, handing off his duties as interim director, a role he's played since the departure of former Artistic Director Bob Hupp
. Miller-Stephany assumes his role in mid-October, and comes to Little Rock from The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where he served as artistic administrator and associate artistic director from 1996 to 2015. Citing the leanness and dedication of the company's staff and the breadth of programming at The Rep, Miller-Stephany related some of the reasons the job opening here caught his attention.
"That The Rep produced both 'Macbeth' and 'The Little Mermaid' in the same season spoke to me," he said.
Miller-Stephany talked about his childhood experience as a boy soprano at Eastman School of Music, and about his experience in musical theater and classical theater.
Pointing to this season's production of the Monty Python parody "Spamalot" being followed by a production of Arthur Miller's 'the Crucible," he also spoke about striking the balance necessary to keep theater relevant to an audience with widely ranging interests, and about his inclination to not only enlighten audiences, but to engage, even if it means inviting a bit of controversy. "I love full houses, but that doesn't mean you have to pander, or insult anyone's intelligence. You can do really successful populist work, but you have to make it accessible."
Miller-Stephany emphasized the importance of The Rep's status as a "resident theater," a term which he says he prefers over "regional theater" because it better communicates the artistic work's placement within the community, he didn't shy away from clarifying the core of the company's purpose. "We shouldn't be the 'big house on the hill,' and theater is a social service, but we are not a social services organization. We can't be all things to all people, and we are first and foremost an arts organization."
When asked about the relationship to the nonprofessional corps of playhouses in downtown Little Rock, Baker was quick to point out a testimony he'd received from a colleague of Miller-Stephany's in Minneapolis, who told Baker that any night [Miller-Stephany] was not working at the theater, he was out seeing other productions. "That's how he operates, on inclusion, on knowing what's happening around the corner," Baker said. Miller-Stephany followed by professing his love for community theater, noting that he'd recruited local talent for The Guthrie in such a manner, and joked about the welts he'd inflicted by pinching himself on the thigh to stay awake during some particularly horrendous productions. "This is a professional theater. We don't want to be elitist, it's just the difference between the major and minor league. But, God bless the minor league!"
Miller-Stephany will spend the upcoming months getting to know the staff at The Rep and developing relationships in Little Rock, focusing on what he called "the human factor," saying "Theater is all about human connections, and the human connection I made on that first visit made me think that this could be a good artistic home for me."