ABINGDON, Va. — With the 2020 season at Barter Theatre recently unveiled, Katy Brown knows she has big shoes to fill as the theater’s new producing artistic director.
Not only does she follow the artistic vision and focus of Rick Rose, who recently announced his retirement, but at age 43, she is the first woman to take the helm at the nation’s longest running professional theater.
“I’ve gotten to ride along on this incredible growth journey that Rick created here,” said Brown, who has been the associate artistic director for 13 years. “The amount of people we serve each year has grown to approximately 160,000 audience members who walk through the doors.
“I am aware of the incredible work he has done here to grow this organization — stunning growth over his tenure — and I want to be able to continue the great work he has done,” said Brown, who has been at Rose’s right hand since 2006. She has helped to produce more than 100 professional productions at the theater and led the Barter Players, a group of professional artists who perform world-class theater for young people, to remarkable heights.
A theater for everyone
The new trailblazer isn’t afraid to take risks while also preserving the heritage of the theater that has made it one of the area’s greatest attractions.
“I want to throw open the doors on who believes they can enjoy a show at Barter Theatre. This isn’t an elite art form. Barter Theatre belongs to everyone. I want to make sure people have a voice in what happens here.
“But I have much to learn about the mechanism of how to make that work.
“It’s an incredible gift to serve the audience,” Brown said. “I believe first and foremost that theater has to be about the people. Without the audience, theater doesn’t exist.”
Brown described her leadership style as a collaborative effort.
“When I direct a play, it’s like everyone is on a boat — it’s always a boat in my mind,” said Brown with a laugh. “As director, I have to know the direction we are going, but I need everyone’s help to get us there. When everyone’s spirit is participating, that’s the way you create great art and also the way you make great business.”
Brown addressed the shortfalls that have occurred at the theater over the past few years; a loss of $500,000 precipitated an urgent campaign earlier this year, in addition to the regular requests for donations at the end of the season.
“Barter was built for hard times. It was built during the Depression era. The Barter is built out of this place in a way that other theaters are not. What’s important is we have a spirit that will get us through,” she said.
“Nonprofit theater depends on the support of people to help them work. Your ticket covers only a portion of what it takes to put a show on the stage.”
The new artistic director also hopes her work will recognize the distinctive heritage of the Southwest Virginia area.
“It seems that Appalachia is celebrating itself. We have restaurants serving Appalachian foods and families returning to Appalachian arts. As the theater of Appalachia, I want to be a part of that celebration — the way in which we tell stories.”
Brown believes the community will be glad to see some of their favorite plays returning to the stage next year, such as” 9 to 5,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Macbeth.”
“It just feels like a Barter-y season. We’re bringing back some best hits but also some great new work that we think is going to connect with people,” she said.
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Brown came from a family of educators.
Her father, Jim Brown, was a college professor and her mother, Linda Brown, taught kindergarten.
Her grandfather was James Seay Brown, the dean at Tennessee Tech’s College of Engineering.
While at Berry College in Georgia, Brown decided she wanted to be an English professor or a dancer. When an injury took her out of dancing life, she changed her majors to English and theater.
“My goal was to become an English professor. I took a year off from studies before earning my doctorate degree to do something that was different and exciting.”
Little did she know that decision would lead her to a career in the theater world.
Brown met John Hardy, who operated the First Light Theatre before it became the Barter Players.
“I met him at a conference where he talked about theater as a service to people. I loved that concept,” she said.
As a result of their meeting, Brown later accepted a summer acting internship at Barter Theatre, as well as toured and performed for a year at schools along the Eastern Seaboard with the theater’s touring group.
When Hardy became the associate artistic director about 20 years ago, she was offered the job of directing the First Light Theatre.
“We changed the structure in 2002 so that the group only toured part of the year and did in-house shows so that local schools could attend,” Brown explained.
Brown built the Barter Players from a company that was losing money to a company that was making money in no time flat. The company has grown from a $100,000 budget to $800,000.
“Barter Players was really the hallmark of my work. We built the company not only in excellence but in business success, through consistency of excellence of the work and consistency of communication with the audience,” she said.
In 2018, the Barter Players served more than 100,000 children from St. Louis to New York.
“But we’re an Appalachian company first and foremost,” she said.
As the new producing artistic director, Brown anticipates the theater will continue to grow with community involvement and support.
“I believe Barter Theatre will be doing incredible work 10 to 20 years down the road. I think this can be the best regional theater in the country because of this region,” Brown said.
“Those roots will just get deeper, and our work will just get better.”