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Spokane Civic Theatre kicks off its 70th year with new artistic director Lenny Bart

Lenny Bart is shown on the stage of the current production of “Beauty and the Beast” at the Spokane Civic Theatre Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. Bart is the new artistic director of the Civic. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Lenny Bart is shown on the stage of the current production of “Beauty and the Beast” at the Spokane Civic Theatre Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. Bart is the new artistic director of the Civic. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in early September, and Spokane Civic Theatre, 1020 N. Howard St., is quieter than most patrons will ever see it. Lenny Bart, the theater’s new artistic director, sits in an oversized leather chair in the lobby, his reading glasses dangling around his neck, and he’s positioned in front of a glass case displaying the theater’s many awards.

“Having run other large community theaters and being involved with the American Association of Community Theatre, I had always been aware of the national stature this organization has,” Bart said. “As we look at all the first place awards we have here” – he gestures to the case behind him – “we’re now the most awarded (theater) in our circuit.”

Civic Theatre ushered in its 70th year with more than just a new roster of shows, with Bart and CEO Mike Shannon being added to the theater’s staff this summer. Bart is replacing artistic director Keith Dixon, who resigned in February to return to his native Louisiana.

Bart just moved from Quincy, Illinois, a small town about 300 miles southwest of Chicago, officially taking over for Dixon in the same week season opener “Beauty and the Beast” hit the stage. Bart says he’d only visited Spokane once before, and that was to interview for his new position with the Civic’s board of directors.

“The offer came, and I shared it with my family,” Bart said. “I’d asked for a couple days to think it over, but right away we knew it was a good match for us. I came back to them the very next day and said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

Bart, 55, is originally from Minneapolis, and although he spent much of his adult life in New York and New Jersey, his Midwestern accent occasionally peeks through during conversation. He says the theater bug bit him when he was cast in a kindergarten production of “Rumpelstiltskin.”

“In the title role,” he added with a mock sense of import.

While attending Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, Bart was accepted into the National Shakespeare Conservatory in Manhattan, where he later worked as a producing director. (The company folded in 1998.) He also toured as an actor with the company from the mid- to late ’80s.

“When I was young and single and single-minded, I found it freeing,” Bart said. “As an actor on the road, you’ve got one job – you go in, you do it and you’re done. When you’re living in Manhattan, you need one or two or 17 survival jobs, and you’re working your butt off doing all sorts of stuff.”

Those jobs included driving horse-drawn carriages in Central Park and working as a waiter in several different restaurants simultaneously – “the traditional actor job,” Bart said.

“I’ve always said that the two things I think I do best in the world are wait tables and parallel park,” he added.

Bart realized he wanted to do more than just act, so he formed an independent theater company that he dubbed Dauntless Productions. He later started a drama program for junior high and high school kids in New Jersey’s School District of the Chathams and did some acting with the state’s Pushcart Players, which toured the country with original productions for children.

“We’d perform anywhere from the cafetorium of a small elementary school to some of the biggest, most prestigious performing arts centers in the country,” Bart said. “After doing that for a few years, I wanted to get back into actually running theaters again.”

In the early 2000s, he became the artistic director for the now-defunct 12 Miles West Theatre Company in Rutherford, New Jersey; in 2011, he landed the position of managing artistic director for the Quincy Community Theater in Illinois. Bart shifted his focus to the Quincy Society of Fine Arts in 2014, and he served there as executive director until earlier this year, when he amicably resigned following artistic differences with the organization’s board.

Bart was working as a stage manager at Bluff City Theater in Hannibal, Missouri, when he began searching for artistic director positions, which is when the Civic first appeared on his radar.

Jack Phillips, who served as Civic’s artistic director from 1991 to 2004 and stepped back into that role for the past six months, said the Civic’s board of directors began the hiring process with more than 50 applicants. Bart’s application and letter of intent immediately piqued their interest, he said.

“His energy, his understanding of theater and process and his experience really came out,” Phillips said. “We knew this was the kind of person we wanted to be here.”

“He has a collective mentality, I think,” said CEO Shannon, a Spokane native who moved back to the Inland Northwest two years ago. “Others may come in and have more of a personalized point of view on things, but he seemed to be more about, what’s the collective thought and how can those resources be used properly?

“I think that resonated with people because they weren’t looking for an autocrat. They weren’t looking for someone who had designs on being this artistic juggernaut. I think it was more about building up a community theater to be bigger and better.”

“It’s about knowing how to balance time, knowing how to use your time efficiently, and being able to work with people who may have not had training for awhile,” Phillips said. “We wanted to make sure we found the right personalities to run a 70-year-old community theater.”

Despite the change in management following Dixon’s unexpected departure, Bart says the atmosphere at the Civic Theatre has been nothing but warm and hospitable.

“I felt very welcomed here,” Bart said. “I think everyone is welcoming to stability. … I think they’re welcoming having this position filled again, and I welcome the opportunity to alleviate that pressure from them and make sure that we’re working to put on the best show we can without killing ourselves.”

Bart says he’ll always consider himself an actor, but you likely won’t see him in a role on the Civic stage any time soon. He will, however, make his Spokane directorial debut in February, overseeing Civic’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

“That’s a great, challenging show that I’ve always wanted to do,” Bart said. “It’s one of those shows I’ve never seen a production of, so I don’t have any preconceived ideas. Same with our designer, David Baker – he’s never seen a production, and he just loves the music as well. We’re very excited to take a fresh, unprejudiced look at a dynamic piece of theater that I believe will attract a huge amount of high-caliber performers. Everybody loves Sondheim.”

Going forward, Bart says he would ideally like to see updates to the theater’s lighting and sound equipment, as well as the construction of rehearsal and audition spaces and expansions to the Civic’s student-focused Academy program. He’ll be running the Civic in tandem with Shannon, focusing on creative endeavors while Shannon handles business and development.

“In the past, the person in my role was also trying to manage the artistic side, and it wasn’t as highly effective as the board wanted it to be,” Shannon said. “We’re not going to step on each other’s toes. … We’re both coming in with a new set of eyes, and we’re both objective about what see as areas we can improve upon. We concur on what those needs are. We each have a set of skills that we can use to better the theater.”

Although Civic’s ongoing season was programmed before he came on board, Bart applauds its boldness and variety: He points to the dichotomy between the R-rated cult musical “The Rocky Horror Show” and Tennessee Williams’ drama “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which will soon be running concurrently on the theater’s two stages. He says allowing well-known material to coexist with edgier, more outré theater pieces will both attract new audiences and inspire conversation.

“We have the ability to reflect on what happens in society, and not necessarily make judgments on it, but to just put it out there. And I think that creates a culture where people have an opportunity to discuss things,” Bart said. “Some people may say, ‘That show is disgusting. They talk about sex and drugs and things like that.’ And they may have a point there, but what I think it does is present a starting point for discussion.

“They have to discuss it and dissect it, and I think that’s the power of the theater, that we can be a part of the national conscience and create openings for discussions in a safe way. And I think it’s important to keep theater alive just for that.”

Bart’s move to Spokane is still in progress: His house in Illinois is on the market, and his wife, Tricia, and her mother will eventually relocate to Spokane once it sells.

“It’s challenging moving to a new community when you have to sell your house in another community,” Bart said. “It puts a financial strain on you, and that personal strain of being away from my wife, who’s a very strong support system for me.”

But he plans to throw himself into the local theater scene in the meantime, and he sees the city’s other theater organizations as a springboard for collaboration.

“I don’t want us to think of everyone as competitors,” Bart said. “I look forward to getting to know the arts community in town, and not just the theater folk. If we’re working together in a collaborative matter instead of feeling like opposing forces, I think that’s to the betterment of all of us.”

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