Flat Rock Playhouse’s Lisa K. Bryant
Since Flat Rock Playhouse’s earliest beginnings, women have been integral to the theatre. The husband and wife team who founded the Playhouse, Robroy and Leona Farquhar, were just that: a team. “It is said that he was the dreamer and she was the doer. From day one, a woman was helping to lead FRP, and was celebrated for her contributions,” says Lisa K. Bryant, who—as the Playhouse’s first female Artistic Director, and one of only about a dozen female artistic directors among 74 regional theaters similar in size to FRP—is carrying on Leona’s long-ago legacy. “So from day one, I don’t think it was a ‘thing’ that Leona was a lady. She was just Leona who worked hard to create an artistic haven for artists, summer after summer, alongside her husband.”
Many would describe Bryant the same way: an Artistic Director who works hard to create an artistic haven for artists. It’s a role Bryant’s been invested in for the majority of her adult life, even if her title has changed.
It began in 1994, when she was welcomed into the Playhouse’s prestigious Apprentice program. It was then that she became aware of the complexity of theatre. “Working alongside not just professional actors, but also professional designers, directors, artisans, opened my eyes up to the world of theatre and all of the players involved,” she recalls. “I was also very taken with how everyone worked together toward a common goal week after week as we built shows, rehearsed shows, and opened shows over and over throughout the summer… I just found such a respect and admiration for all of the departments. And I absolutely loved how all of the parts came together in an almost magical feat for every Opening Night.”
Taking inspiration from her apprenticeship at the Playhouse, over the next 20 years Bryant dedicated herself to a life under the lights. The majority of her career has been as an actress and teacher, and many of her roles have been on the stage that raised her at FRP. “At the root of all of the positions is working with people in a creative and collaborative way, and I loved learning from everyone around me,” she says.
Bryant continues to employ that collaborative, creative skillset in her role as Artistic Director. When she took on the role three years ago, it was paired with a host of nearly unnavigable challenges. “The recession hit regional theatres nationwide extremely hard, and ours was no exception,” she points out. When she took over in 2014, she feared the theatre would close its doors before the year was out, but she righted the sinking ship and today it sails on smooth waters.
With the threat of shuttering the theatre finally in the past, Bryant’s hoping to truly employ the creative skillset she learned on the FRP stage all those years ago. “Because so much of my focus in the first three years has been about learning the business side of theatre and keeping the doors open, I haven’t had the great luxury of entertaining grand artistic visions. That has certainly been a consternation for me since my title is Artistic Director. But, I look forward to turning my attention to more of that vision work,” she says with a smile.
Some of that vision work includes providing more opportunities for women inside the theater, a objective she’s already accomplishing; for example, in the Playhouse’s 2017 season, 77.8% of the shows were directed by females, compared to 33% industry-wide. “Where I am growing ever more conscious is in considering the material that is available to produce at a commercial, regional theatre. There is simply more material for men than women. Fact. So finding shows that really highlight women and their stories is tricky. But we’re doing that.” She’s also making a concerted effort to help more women share their thoughts and ideas, both on the stage and off.
“When there is a balance of voices at the ‘proverbial table’ then the representation is inclusive and each unique voice gets a chance to express itself,” Bryant says. “I believe it’s important to tell as many varied stories as we can. Theatre helps us all learn and grow and reflect. It fosters empathy and understanding. It creates opportunity for discussion, debate, and exploration of humanity—everyone’s humanity. As 50% of the population, we need women’s voices included and reflected.”