At first glance, Baton Rouge, La., and Spokane seem pretty different. One city is nestled in the hot and humid deep South, while the other is on the dry side of the Pacific Northwest.
A closer look reveals surprising similarities. Sure, Baton Rouge is predominantly black, while Spokane is overwhelmingly white. Baton Rouge, at least according to 2012 U.S. census data has a population of 230,000, compared to 210,000 for Spokane. In terms of community theater, the similarities are even more striking. Theatre Baton Rouge was founded in 1948 and produces dramas, comedies and musicals on a main stage and in a studio theater. Spokane Civic Theatre, meanwhile, was founded in 1949 and also produces dramas, comedies and musicals on a main stage and in a studio theater.
So it makes a little sense that Keith Dixon would trade in the balmy Southern college town for a not-often-at-all balmy northern locale.
Which is what he’ll do this June, when he leaves Louisiana and moves to Spokane, where he’ll become Civic’s new artistic director.
His line of work is one that requires a person to go where the job is. After 10 seasons as managing artistic director with Theatre Baton Rouge – formerly known as Baton Rouge Little Theater – Dixon said he was ready for a new challenge.
“These jobs are few and far between,” he said. “As I told them in my interview, I’m not looking for the next job. I’m looking for the right job.”
By the time Dixon, 40, takes the reins at Civic, it will have been nearly a year since the community theater parted ways with its previous artistic director, Yvonne A.K. Johnson, whose wrongful termination suit is still pending.
Despite the personnel turmoil, Dixon is coming to an organization that is financially healthy, and is coming off a year that saw it stage a widely acclaimed production of “Les Miserábles.”
Civic’s board president, Larry Wooley, said when they started their national search to replace Johnson, they wanted someone with experience as an artistic director, someone who’d been in the trenches and who had done the work.
“That was terribly important for us,” Wooley said, “because we have a lot of wonderful things on our agenda.”
In a statement he read on behalf of the board, Wooley said they were impressed with Dixon’s vision and artistic leadership: “We anticipate many years of excellent productions and continued growth for our community theater.”
Despite the statistical similarities between Spokane and Baton Rouge, Dixon is coming from a smaller organization – smaller staff, smaller facilities, smaller budget, but similar offerings. Part of the size difference he chalks up to the economic realities of Louisiana, “Louisiana is a poor state,” he said. “The economic makeup is different. That’s some of it. There’s a different culture for theater here than there is
there. And you find that typical in the South.”
That’s true. In much of the South, sports rule, especially football, Dixon said.
Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium, home of Louisiana State University football, seats 92,000. That’s big enough to fit the entire population of Spokane Valley, with room to spare. It has the capacity of two Martin Stadiums, Beasley Coliseum and the Spokane Arena combined.
“Football is king. And that’s OK. That’s what it is,” he said.
All this has meant that Dixon has had to learn to produce shows with less. Yet it hasn’t seemed to stop Theatre Baton Rouge from doing big and adventurous shows. This season has seen “Avenue Q,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Judas Iscariot,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Woman in Black,” “9 to 5,” “The Women,” and “You Can’t Take it With You” before wrapping in June with “Annie.”
Jody Banta, Theatre Baton Rouge’s administrative director, praised Dixon’s directing abilities. “He wasn’t very seasoned when he got here,” she said. “But he has done some work.”
Civic has worked hard in recent years to keep the books in shape, Wooley said, and Dixon’s awareness of the bottom line is appreciated.
“He has to be fiscally conservative,” Wooley said. “You see in the paper other theaters struggling. That’s in our field of view. We did years ago. Now we’re on the other side of that. We know what we don’t want. ” Leaving Louisiana means leaving behind his 4-year-old son, but the opportunities at Civic were too good to pass up. “I think there’s opportunity for growth here,” Dixon said. “I get that sense.”
He caught the theater bug as a youngster. His first three plays, he said, were national touring productions of Broadway shows – the first national tour of “Annie” in 1979, Sandy Duncan in “Peter Pan” and Yul Brynner in “The King and I.” “I was very fortunate my parents took me to see those shows,” he said. “I did a couple things. I was in ‘Sound of Music’ when I was a kid. I did some stuff in high school and was in band and sang. … But I actually didn’t come to theater as a profession until I was 25.”
He worked in restaurants, but didn’t want to make a career of it – “I love food, but not that much” – so he went back to school. Once he started directing, he lost the acting bug. “I’ve been on stage since …
but I’m much happier behind the scenes.”
It’s clear Dixon is a theater fan. He peppers his conversation with lines from “The King and I,” “Avenue Q” and “Shakespeare in Love” with ease. And “Steel Magnolias”? “I could probably quote the entire show,” he said with a laugh. “I know those women inside and out.”
His passion for directing, he said, is probably related to his childhood interest in architecture. “It’s like putting together a puzzle, especially musicals.”
While his roots are in Louisiana and Tennessee, which he considers home, he has spent time in Chicago, New York and Colorado, his first taste of the West.
“I am enamored with the Mountain West. I direct occasionally in Denver, or used to, and those were always some of my favorite times, being in the mountains,” he said. “It feels like a good spot.”
Wooley mentioned Dixon’s demeanor as a key selling point in his hiring. “Not only is he qualified, but he is a great guy,” Wooley said. “I believe the phrase is ‘WYSIWYG’ – what you see is what you get.”
“He is a wonderful human being,” she said. She also credits Dixon with helping modernize Theatre Baton Rouge. “He dragged us into the now.”
Dixon doesn’t have any grand plans right away. He’s not into making change for change’s sake “It’s going to be a ‘getting to know you’ period, if you will, to steal from ‘The King and I,’ ” Dixon said.
“Then we’ll go from there.”
He wants to see how things work, to engage with the artists and volunteers, to visit with community leaders.
Especially the volunteers, he said.
They’re the force he credits for the success of companies like Civic and Theater Baton Rouge, because they’re not doing the work for a paycheck. They’re doing it because they love it.
“You cannot teach that passion,” he said. Looking ahead, he will make his Civic directing debut with a “A Christmas Carol,” the musical adaption of the Dickens classic this coming holiday season. “We do an annual production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Baton Rouge, but it’s just the straight play. This will be a little different. It’s going to be fun.”
When asked about his vision for Civic, Dixon said his goal is simple: to tell stories.
“Our job is to tell stories,” he said. “It’s about opportunity for the community to come together for a shared experience, whether that’s as an audience member, or actor or backstage crew. It’s the opportunity to do that, and the vehicle is theater.”