At first glance, Satch Huizenga seems like a guy who’d be more at home hosting a TV show about fishing and trapping than a man in charge of the city’s best-known theater organization, which, at 20 years of age, has become, despite its best efforts to stay on the edge, an institution, capital I, of local culture. In fact, Huizenga is an enthusiastic fisherman, though at 6’3" and comfortably carrying a big build, he’s suited as a sports coach, too—something else he has done with gusto. So, when discussing the new regime at Live Arts, he readily picks up the sports talk.
“I’m coming from this place that it’s not so much about ‘I, I, me, me.’ It’s a little more ‘We, we, us, us,’” he says, explaining his approach to utilizing committees and Live Arts veterans to think through problems and select the season. “If I’m playing the 2 guard or something like that—which I like to play—I’ll hit a couple of shots for you, get you some rebounds. It’s not about me being the star of things. That’s kind of with this thing, too. It’s that kind of perspective.”
Among Live Arts insiders—what he calls the “family”—Huizenga (pronounced Hi-zing-ah) is well known for his team metaphors, despite his 30-plus years in theater and film, including university teaching stints. And for four years, he was what might be called the Assistant Coach for Live Arts. He aided John Gibson, a man whose name became virtually synonymous with that theater and whose departure from the roles of Artistic Director and Executive Director in January, after 15 years at the helm, forced the theater onto a new course. Huizenga is now Producing Artistic Director, and he shares top billing for running the place with Matt Joslyn, an Ohio theater transplant 20 years his junior, who came to Charlottesville nine months ago to become Live Arts’ Executive Director.
It’s no easy task to walk in cold to an organization that has so successfully made good on its mission statement, “Forging Theater and Community.” At least 500 volunteers feel they own a piece of it, which means at least 499 people feel they have the boss’s ear. Not to mention that Joslyn got here when the organization’s fiscal health sorely needed a doctor’s attention. In the eight months between Gibson’s announcement that he was returning to civilian life and Joslyn’s arrival, donations sort of dried up. As with all nonprofits, donations are Live Arts’ lifeblood. “When I came in, we were in a cash flow crunch,” Joslyn says. “I wouldn’t use the word crisis, but cash was really tight. Some of that I would attribute now to the fact that donors don’t want to give as an Executive Director departs, because they’d be giving on blind faith as to who that next person is going to be.”
“Gabe Silverman offered to rent the space to us at 50 cents a square foot, so we grabbed it,” says Fran Smith (back row, left), one of Live Arts’ founders along with (clockwise) Michael Parent, Will Kerner, Thane Kerner, Mark Schuyler, Cate Andrews and Bill Thomas. John Gibson, who volunteered for his first show in 1992 and became Live Arts’ Artistic Director and its first full-time employee in 1995, became synonymous with Live Arts. He left that position at the start of this year. “The best service I can give is to get out of the way,” he says, in support of the new leadership. Satch Huizenga (left) and Matt Joslyn now share responsibilities for running the theater. “We have as complex a relationship as a married couple or two people who own a business together,” says Joslyn.
But the marks so far are high for the new leadership team of Huizenga and Joslyn—and the money picture is no longer dire. “Matt has certainly made a great deal of difference in a short amount of time in making us more comfortable on a financial level,” says Lotta Lofgren, who chairs the Live Arts’ board. “We are also enormously excited about the fact that Satch and Matt are working so wonderfully well together. They make a fabulous team.”
Gibson, meanwhile, has held true to his promise to stay as far away from the place as possible. “What I told Satch and Matt and anyone else for whom it seemed to matter was that the greatest service I could provide for Live Arts would be, the day I left the building, to vanish.”
But even with a new leadership structure taking firm hold and finances under control, Live Arts, like any performing arts organization, faces big challenges. In a time of diminishing interest in theater or really anything that might be deemed a “face time” activity—and that’s speaking nationally, not just in Charlottesville—how does a theater that once defined do-it-yourself and avant garde keep local audiences interested? Add to the puzzle the matter of Live Arts’ home—a cold, steel structure on Water Street that doesn’t exactly shout “community” and whose shortcomings come up at some point in nearly every discussion of the group’s challenges. Plus, many more local theaters dot the landscape than did 20 years ago when Live Arts carved out a home in the Old Michie Building, one block from a vacant Downtown that was pleading for a cultural scene. How does Live Arts stick to its mission and stay on the edge? With so many live performance options here now, as one 20something, a newcomer to Charlottesville put it, “What’s the big whoop about Live Arts?”
It’s a daunting question and one that Huizenga and Joslyn understand to be at the core of their work as Live Arts enters its 21st year and its third act.
Act 1: Do you like my acid rock?
In the beginning, there was the rave. And it was good. Will and Thane Kerner, brothers and music cognoscenti, needed a place to DJ the European sounds that captured their imagination in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, Fran Smith (then known as Francine Sackett) and Michael Parent were local actors tired of the itinerant production life of small-town artists. They needed a permanent home for theater. And Gabe Silverman was a relatively new developer on the scene, trying to figure out what to do with the former publishing site at the corner of Market and Seventh streets known as the Old Michie Building. There was a contradance group in the mix somehow, too.
“Gabe was looking for an anchor for that place, where people would come to. So, I think in his mind he thought we were a good idea. He looked at me and Michael and said, ‘Do you have any money?’ and we said, ‘No.’ Somehow he took a chance on us. He felt we’d find some way to do it. Then we hooked up with Thane and Will. They were looking for a place to do their dances. So when Live Arts started, we were an umbrella for three different organizations,” says Smith.
In the end, the theater survived that experiment, though in the first couple of years, the raves, Smith says, “sustained us.” Eventually they grew too raucous and crowded for the low-ceilinged space with the two pillars dead in the middle, but the all-hands-on-deck theater was taking off, so Live Arts became home to a single entity. The contradancing probably never stood a chance.
To appreciate how radical this notion of starting a theater Downtown was in 1990, which is when Live Arts presented its first play—a light evening’s entertainment known as No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre (which famously gave the world the notion that “Hell is other people”)—it’s important to have a picture of Charlottesville in those days. C-VILLE was barely a year old. Jazz at Miller’s was the only thing happening on Main Street, though one could venture to Water Street for entertainment at the C&O Restaurant. There was no Regal, no Pavilion, no Bizou, no Mudhouse, no hot dog vendors, no ice park, no Landmark Not-Hotel. “The Mall was still a completely unproven proposition,” says Gibson. “You could fire a cannon down the middle of the street after 5 o’clock and it was pretty good odds you wouldn’t hit someone. There was virtually no arts scene…”
Perhaps for precisely that reason, things quickly got busy at Live Arts. “Everyone was excited about us,” says Smith. “That’s what I liked about that initial energy. People were really excited.” As the choice to open with No Exit suggests, there was no lack of daring to mount difficult shows. Smith speaks fondly of her production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros from the early days. Live Arts sponsored loads of original works written by local talents, too, and when the dances were no longer tenable as a means of support, they were replaced by coffeehouses, which featured short, original sketches, music and food. And the audiences started to grow.
“We just kind of evolved it step by step,” says Will Kerner. “[Former mayor] Bitsy Waters called Live Arts ‘the intellectual theater of Charlottesville’ and I really like that, because I think overall the content has been fairly intellectual along with some populist stuff and some entertainment stuff, some comedy. But there’s been a pretty rigorous intellectual core to the program over the span of time that suits this community. In a way, to some extent all that happens as a spin-off of the seed that Thomas Jefferson planted with the university, because people go to school here and a certain amount of creative types try to find a way to stay here.”
Although Live Arts’ impeccably succinct and profound mission statement, “Forging Theater and Community” did not surface for a few years to come, from the start there was an abiding sense of community on Market Street. In interview after interview, people connected to Live Arts as performers, administrators, audience members and volunteers talk about how they came home to Live Arts. Cate Andrews, now a gallery director in New York City and who, along with the Kerner brothers, Parent and Smith, was a co-founder of the organization: “Almost everything I did was touched by my involvement with Live Arts—jobs, relationships, friendships. That’s the thread.” Clinton Johnston, actor, director, playwright, Mary Baldwin College drama professor: “I still think of it as home.” Lofgren, 14-year board member and UVA English professor: “I think Live Arts is the kind of place where when you become involved in it, it becomes your family.” Alice Reed, actor: “I’ve made amazing, wonderful, lifelong friends from being there.” Boomie Pedersen, actor, director, and now co-artistic director of Hamner Theater: “It saved my life in more ways than one.” Sian Richards, actor who met Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, with her a co-founder of Performers Exchange Project, when both were cast in a Live Arts show: “Live Arts was sort of the beginning of my adult life in Charlottesville. I don’t know how many close friends I’ve made—there are some—that aren’t directly someone I met through Live Arts.”
“Community theater is something that you have to be passionate about,” says Alice Reed who started her 19-year involvement with Live Arts as an 11-year-old. “You’re doing it on top of your 40-hour-a-week job, your family and your kids, and it takes a lot of extra time. People who do community theater are dedicated on a totally different level than people who do it as their day job.” Live Arts opened the door with No Exit, starring Mary Morris-Brookman (rear) and Lisa Newman. Productions went off-site, too, such as 1996’s The Visit, staged at the Coal Tower and counting Kay Leigh Ferguson among the cast. Ground Zero Dance brought “Rope” to Live Arts in 2005. Angels in America would have been impossible to stage at 609 E. Market St., but in Live Arts’ new home on Water Street it was a soaring success in 2004. This summer’s teen production of the musical 13 showcased Live Arts’ education program. “The caliber of the work I saw in 13 was really high. I was like, ‘This is working,’” says Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell a longtime Live Arts’ family member and co-founder of the Performers Exchange Project.
Live Arts also banded with other cutting-edge arts groups. Foolery, an erstwhile physical theater troupe based in traditional clown techniques, produced at least three shows at Live Arts with Gibson’s help. Ground Zero Dance, one of Richmond’s most exciting movement companies, has performed at Live Arts numerous times and premiered work there. Zen Monkey Project, a merry band of Charlottesville dancers, premiered an original work there. The tradition continued into last winter when Live Arts hosted the Performers Exchange Project’s original production, Our American Ann Sisters, a mock feminist consideration of the fates of three 19th-century New England sisters.
Seriousness of purpose also defined Live Arts from the start. It’s highly unusual to strive to make professional-level theater with amateurs, and it’s not an easy formula to explain in an age when most community theater ambitions can be archly summarized by the phrase “waiting for Guffman.” “It’s ‘community’ for the 21st century,” says Gibson. “It’s an ongoing experiment. It’s taking an old form and trying to teach it new tricks. Sometimes it works really well and sometimes it doesn’t.” Indeed, how many community theaters would even dream of staging Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America let alone Michael Frayn’s sidesplitting Noises Off with its near-impossible demand that the second act set look like the backside of the first act’s set? All the way down to the personnel, those high intentions pervaded. Alec Beard, now an actor living in Los Angeles, recalls his experience as a 17-year-old in Gibson’s original piece, The Journals of Lewis and Clark. “Other than high school, I’d never been in a play before and I’d never worked with so-called adults. We were an ensemble and I was treated as an equal even though I was a kid.”
Gibson came onto the scene in 1992 and started as Live Arts’ first full-time employee three years later. With him came the era of the Live Arts musical: Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweeney Tood, Gypsy, Urinetown, Assassins, Batboy and on and on. Meanwhile, the arid landscape of Downtown was slowly being nourished by a growing number of restaurants and entertainment venues. But the theater continued to churn out an impossible slate of projects—considering its cramped quarters—and to build its base of volunteers and audience. Many who stumbled through the door at the back of the Michie Building courtyard found a welcome mat. In a way, the warren-like physical set-up of Live Arts—everything cheek-by-jowl on one floor and facing out to a courtyard—was crucial in that much-celebrated forging of theater and community.
There’s a “bubble theory” that is sometimes evoked to describe Live Arts’ unusual achievements. Gibson attributes it to co-founder Smith. Essentially, Charlottesville is a town of many isolated bubbles: wealthy people, university people, artsy people, black people, white people, old people, horsey people, suburban people. Live Arts, says Gibson, was and is the place where the bubbles burst. “It’s where you can find Farmington rubbing up against Belmont rubbing up against Hardy Drive rubbing up against Western Albemarle…”
Live Arts’ pay-what-you-can nights have played a leading role in getting reluctant or nontraditional theater-goers into the seats. And they provide a necessary counterweight to subscriptions that can run as high as $200, as they do this year, for a season of opening nights.
But while many bubbles have popped at Live Arts, among audiences it’s true also that others have not. Where are the 20somethings, some might ask. Where are the African-Americans? On this last point, Clinton Johnston, a longtime Live Arts actor and director, is particularly instructive. “First off, keep in mind that Live Arts is a theater,” Johnston says. “And just there you’re going to lose people—all people—because there are some people who just don’t care for theater.
“If there’s one thing that’s true about the African-American community it’s that it’s full of people. We’re not this one, big homogenous lot. For Live Arts to try to be dedicated to this idea of ‘Let’s reach out to community’ and at the same time be a place that fulfills an unstated but I think just as strong and understood a mission, which is putting out good theater—I mean Live Arts ain’t a community center! It’s not a community development organization. It’s a theater!”
Remarkably, given the town-gown divide that continues to permeate much of Charlottesville, Live Arts succeeds in bringing UVA drama faculty and students into the mix. UVA drama professor Bob Chapel has directed a couple of shows at Live Arts, as has his colleague Betsy Tucker. “It’s been a terrific outlet for our students,” he says. “It’s a safe place to be, which is good. The management has been steady. There’s been a consistency of good work over the years, and it’s a very sound place to work.”
Nonetheless, what some might term “community,” others might term a clique. That problem has worsened, arguably, since 2003, in that the new building at the corner of Water and Second streets can be imposing. “I’ve had people in the lobby ask me where they can find a human being in this building,” says Boomie Pedersen, who now runs Hamner Theater in Afton.
Kerner concedes that the perception of cliquishness has been an issue for Live Arts. “I’ve heard that charge fairly leveled at Live Arts, but I’ve heard that charge fairly leveled at this community by people who move here. So guess what? Live Arts is a reflection of the town and the town is a reflection of Live Arts. It has that characteristic where it can be cliquish.”
Act 2: Raise high the roof beams
If Live Arts’ first act is a story of overcoming odds to churn out edgy theater and cement its place in Charlottesville’s intellectual and cultural ecosystem, the second act dates to 1996, the first time Gibson recalls discussing “a new space” with Thane Kerner, then chair of the board. Fundraising and planning for a new home began in earnest in 1999. As charming as the Old Michie Building’s jumble of rooms continued to be, Live Arts was turning away audiences and otherwise stunting operations due to space constraints. The organization had exceeded capacity and it was time for the next chapter to begin.
“Thane was absolutely the crucial person in making the building happen,” says Gibson, “and it was his idea to make it a consensus art project by attracting two other constituents—the joining of forces with Second Street Gallery and Light House—so it wasn’t just about us. That was a powerful dynamic.
“He also attracted not just funders, but fundraisers. But it was clear then that not only did we need it, but the community needed it. Here was the Regal Downtown 6, which I think was a wonderful thing—who doesn’t love to go to the movies?—but you can’t cast Regal as a local success story. There were a lot of changes in Charlottesville and on the Downtown Mall, and for the home team to have a prominently sited, very visible marker in the community at that time was psychologically important.”
Live Arts moved into the City Center for Contemporary Arts—its official name—on October 31, 2003. And for every problem it solved, another was created. The shiny veneer obscured the scrappy spirit that remained, for one thing. And for the uninitiated, it’s a hard space to navigate. “One of the things that’s challenging about this building,” says Joslyn, the new executive director, “is when you come off the street, you don’t know what you’re in or where to go. It’s not a welcoming space to walk into and look to get involved.” Indeed, the days are gone when someone would wander in off the street and shout towards the back, “anybody here?” only to find herself quickly dispatched with a paintbrush and instructions to whitewash the walls (not an apocryphal tale). That’s because the seven full-time and one part-time staff now occupy offices on the fourth floor, an elevator’s ride away. On the upside, Live Arts now functions with two rehearsal spaces, two performance spaces, a costume shop, a scene shop, offices, a rooftop terrace, and two concession stands.
Joslyn puts retooling the space high on his list of priorities. When we talked at the end of last month, he was anticipating redoing the fourth floor office space and putting a more welcome aspect on the lobby with signs pointing the way to staff upstairs. Will Kerner says he joined the board this year specifically to lend a hand with the building issue as well as to be a bridge from Live Arts’ past to its future.
Still, for many for whom the “old” Live Arts is but a series of anecdotes, the setting has created little hindrance to forging either theater or community. Ray Nedzel has a long professional theater resume and when he got to Charlottesville in 2002, he says, he was worried that he’d landed in an artistic “wasteland.” Then he found Live Arts. “I could see they were theater artists, and not just people who happened to stumble into the theater. They had a passion about it, a history with it, and understanding,” he says. In little time, Nedzel was on his way to acting, directing, bartending, and moving furniture around Live Arts. He also initiated the organization’s “24/7” project, which brings casts and playwrights and technicians together to make seven quickie plays from nothing in one day’s time. In that way, “24/7” updates Live Arts’ familiar theater-on-the-verge-of-crisis spirit for the new setting. The first two were hilarious and fun and a third “24/7” is scheduled for January.
Live Arts continues to be a magnet for and gateway to Charlottesville’s many talented and passionate people, regardless of the setting. “Artists, interior designers, welders, musicians—it’s a conduit in a box,” Nedzel says.
Ray Smith, actor and director and now a Live Arts board member, believes that community theater, by its nature, will transcend architectural difficulties. Community theater types are determined people. “Theater for many people—at least community theater—is like a church. People congregate on the weekend. Pay a tithe to go in. People build a community around their community theater just as they do with a church. People get together to do things in a bigger way, kind of like a congregation.”
Act 3: Exit, stage left; Enter, stage right
Though Live Arts is bigger than any single individual, one name was intrinsically linked to the organization for 18 years: John Gibson. So when he said he was hanging up his gloves, there were more than a few ripples of concern. The board got to work quickly to prepare for Act 3, the post-Gibson era, knowing he’d given them the better part of a year to prepare for his exit. Committees were formed, questionnaires mailed. In very little time, the board decided to split up the job that had really become two jobs. The artistic piece went to Huizenga. For the executive director, they wanted somebody who could do the money, a Wall Street to Huizenga’s Woodstock-by-way-of-the-Big Ten. The problems that hit every arts organization when the Great Recession blew in hit Live Arts, too. For a significant period, the organization wasn’t even making its rent.
"Taking some chances"
A glance at the 2010-2011 Live Arts season with help from Producing Artistic Director Satch Huizenga
The Drowsy Chaperone
The Giver (A LATTE production)
Mapping the Dark
Live Arts Shorts Festival
The Memory of Water
Flight of the Lawnchair Man
“I love fundraising, because if we do our jobs correctly, if we’ve got the right foundation, we’re clearing the way for great work to happen,” says Joslyn. This would seem to make him perfect for his new job. Hailing from a round of Midwestern and New York State theaters, Joslyn brings his fundraising zeal to a theater that years ago raised the bar locally for fundraising events. As co-founder Cate Andrews says, “Live Arts set a new tone from the buffet-dinner-and-band fundraiser.” Part cocktail hour(s), part dinner, part dance party, part auction, part theatrical revue of the year’s best, part runway show, and absolute extravaganza, the Gala earns Live Arts about $100,000 in an annual budget of $800,000. It’s a $250-a-pop see-and-be-seen event, which, it might be noted, does little to dispel notions of cliquishness or elitism. Regardless, it carries as much buzz as a Broadway opening, and it seems to occupy an important enough role in the 2010 fundraising strategy that there are no shows planned for Live Arts’ main performance space until after it’s over on November 6.
Coming out of a professional theater background, Joslyn doesn’t limit his vision to fancy fundraisers. He comfortably drops terms like “annuity” and “three-year business plan” into conversations about Live Arts’ future. All of which can disturb people who date their involvement back to the days when raising money meant a jar at the Coffeehouse performances and who think of Live Arts as being what it is—a band of community volunteers. “I don’t think having a three-year business plan means you’re going to abandon the energy of your volunteers,” Joslyn says in response to those anxieties. “I think those can be very much related and I think it’s a necessity. It’s not sustainable. It would have been sustainable in the old building. We can live in a bubble when overhead is less. A $4.5 million building is a lot of overhead. You have to have a path to annuity building and you can’t do that by mistrusting a business approach.”
Joslyn envisions a $1 million endowment for Live Arts in the next five years.
Even more radically, Joslyn wants to venture where no Live Arts man has gone before: government grants. At the time of Live Arts’ inception, government arts funding was a hot-button issue (cf. Jesse Helms, “Piss/Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe et al). “I remember Thane saying, ‘We need to run Live Arts like a business. We need to know we can operate without taking grant money,’” says Smith. The organization held fast to Thane Kerner’s Libertarian values until this year.
After five months of soul searching on this topic, persuaded by Joslyn’s assertion that there’s “phenomenal operations funding” to be had from state granting organizations, the board changed its position on government grants. “We had to get through the conversation that applying for government money is not accepting government control,” says Joslyn. And, to avoid becoming dependent on any single source of funds, Live Arts won’t accept more than 10 percent of its budget from public grants. That’s a sustainable option, says Joslyn.
“Sustainable” is a word that comes up a lot with Joslyn and Huizenga. “Relevant” is another one. In the sustainable folder, file Live Arts’ education program. Key to that aspect of operations is Live Arts Teen Theater Ensemble or LATTE, which this summer staged the coming-of-age musical 13, as joyous and tight a production as anything I’ve seen at Live Arts. Bree Luck, an actor, director and theater educator who entered the scene during the second act, was just hired as the new Education Director. Theater ed, she says, is “a playground for taking some risks and developing the craft. The other function is to make an opportunity to reach out to more people in the community—more people than we’re able to reach in the productions.”
For Joslyn, education presents rich opportunities for funding sources. “Our biggest potential of fundraising from individual donors and grants is going to live in education,” he says. “We will grow the strongest in that direction.”
The question of relevance ties directly to programming. The new season—the first full season created in 18 years without any influence from John Gibson— bears the usual Live Arts’ mark of excellent writing, intellectualism and ambition (see season preview sidebar, below). But only time will prove if it’s relevant to local audiences. Some may need the lure of an instantly recognizable title, yet there’s no Ain’t Misbehavin’ or Streetcar Named Desire on the lineup. “That kind of freshness, the newness, is apt for where we are: new leadership structure and also a kind of—I hesitate to use the word ‘revitalization,’” says Huizenga. “We’re doing some new work. We’re taking some chances, and that’s kind of who Live Arts has been.” Of the eight plays in the season, two are Virginia premieres—Clybourne Park, to be directed by Huizenga and picking up where A Raisin in the Sun left off, and The Dishwashers, a dark comedy about downward mobility that opens the season in the smaller performance space on October 15.
Huizenga is appropriately concerned about getting audiences into the theater, but he puts as much weight on the quality of the experience for everyone involved in the production. “At the end of the process, no matter who it is—director, concessionaire, usher, board operator, dresser, whoever—who’s involved in with this process can look in the rearview mirror and say, ‘We’ve had some plusses and some minuses, we’ve had a bumpy road here and there, but God, I’m glad I did that. This was better than sitting on my ass at home watching Netflix.’ But you know, it’s always a juggling act. Live theater in this country is always going to be a challenge.”
As is the issue of 499 people having the boss’s ear. The world is full of opinions, but community and democracy are not synonymous.
“Every show that we’ve done this year—every show—I’ve had somebody come up to me and say, ‘God, that was awesome. I loved that script. The music was awesome. I brought seven of my friends,’” says Huizenga. “And I’ve had somebody come up to me and say, ‘Are you out of your mind? That show sucked so badly I left at intermission.’ Every show we’ve done this year. Both sides. And that will never change.”
Opinions are, of course, not restricted to the audiences. In interviews, many in the Live Arts family said they hoped the organization would move towards presenting more outside groups. Some want more original works. Some want a steady ensemble of actors. Some want more sure-fire seat-fillers. Sphinx-like, Huizenga promises nothing and rules nothing out.
Still, Netflix is cheap and the Rockettes or the Black Keys might roll through town and vie for your entertainment dollar. How will Live Arts keep its audience—grow it, even?
Maybe in the same way it always has for the past 20 years. Jane Foster has been a season ticket holder for a decade. She came to community theater, she says, because she “didn’t like sitting 40 rows back” in big theaters and “being yelled at.” “In a smaller theater, you get much better acting.”
At any rate, she continues to subscribe each year and her reasons are simple and profound: “It’s nice to know I’m going to see people I’m fond of over there. I always see someone I know.”