Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Look Inside the Studio Roanoke Split

"Financially, we're doing well for a year-old theatre, I think. We manage resources carefully and make it all work through economy of scale." --Kenley Smith on Studio Roanoke (above).

"I'm a bit put off that the Times article tried to characterize the situation as some kind of divorce between Todd and myself. It was not a personal issue, and the final disagreement was not between the two of us." --Kenley Smith (left above with Todd Ristau)

Roanoke’s movie and theater world is rocked occasionally with an explosive artistic difference, a clash of ego, a collision of money vs. art, a financial meltdown. The latest in the continuing saga was reported Saturday in the local daily newspaper by former arts beat reporter Kevin Kittredge, who noticed a title change (artistic director) on Studio Roanoke's Web site, and involves a dispute that leaves Roanoke’s newest and highest-profile theater in a lurch.

Artistic Director Todd Ristau (who heads the theater master's program at Hollins University) and Studio Roanoke general manager Chad Runyon have resigned, leaving those tasks to founder and owner Kenley Smith, a former graduate student of Ristau’s, and the board of directors.

Ristau and Runyon won’t comment on the specifics, other than to refer questions to the board of directors, but Smith will and what follows is his take. Ristau says he will continue to advise the theater and Chad says he’s going back to grad school (at Hollins, under Ristau). Both said they wish the theater well and their wishes sound genuine.

Let me say at the top that I know all the players, like and respect them and can only imagine what made this interesting coalition fall apart (though I am pretty confident the imagining is reasonably accurate), so I won’t speculate. If there is a loss here, it’s Roanoke’s. We are a community struggling to find a theater base, since our professional theater—Mill Mountain—may or may not return from a re-structuring that could eventually take two years.

Studio Roanoke—along with Star City Playhouse, Showtimers, Hollins Playhouse and a couple of others regionally—have filled the void nicely, but if there is turmoil here, the future looks shaky.

Here’s what Kenley has to say about it (and it’s a long statement, but it’s important if we are to begin to understand):

"I'm currently the artistic director. We needed someone in place immediately, I felt, to ensure continuity of operation and to maintain public confidence. At a board meeting [Friday], I resigned my position as board president--one can't do both, of course--and agreed to serve as unpaid AD until August 31, at least.

"Kristen Moses is the new board president, with William Penn taking over her former duties as secretary. We'll all proceed with open minds and see how it works out. I'm a playwright. I never set out to be an artistic director, and the role I'm taking on is one of necessity.

"Since my identity isn't wrapped up with the job, I won't be shy about asking for help and advice, and that alone may give me a decent chance for success. I think it will be enjoyable to be on the artistic end of things, however, and I'm looking forward to diving in.

"I assembled most, if not all, of the board. Our original members were myself, Catherine Leonard, William Penn, Martha Bensinger and Keith Martin. After the first year, Cate and Martha rotated off, and we added Kimberly Jew, Angela Wright and Kristen Moses. The current board includes two theater MFAs (Angela and myself), one theater Ph.D. (Kimberly) and an MA in art history (Kristen). Keith is a successful local businessman, and William, of course, is a renowned local musician and a performer/director with the Dumas Drama Guild.

"My goal was to bring together a working board, one driven by personal talent and not by personal wealth. That's the dilemma with the current non-profit structure, I feel; boards so often go after the "usual suspects," those with disposable incomes and some sense of noblesse oblige. I didn't want that.

"Studio Roanoke was to be, and I hope is, a theater that dares to be challenging, provocative, even transgressive. It's not mainstream, and it never should pretend to be. I wanted a board that bought into that ideal. It may be my tragic flaw, but I'll always prefer deep thoughts over deep pockets.

"Financially, we're doing well for a year-old theater, I think. We manage resources carefully and make it all work through economy of scale. We don't try to replicate Broadway and focus instead on smaller, character-driven pieces. You want a singin', dancin' spectacle? Go see what's loading into the Civic Center. You want sharp writing and fresh ideas? Try us out.

"Did money play a role in this week's events? I'd say it was more a question of oversight and philosophy. Sometimes we simply agree to disagree, and move on. I'm a bit put off that the Times article tried to characterize the situation as some kind of divorce between Todd and myself. It was not a personal issue, and the final disagreement was not between the two of us. We remain cordial, and Todd will be at the theater often in the new season. He's directing two plays and writing another; that involvement should speak for itself.

"The stakes are high. I've invested a great deal in this theater, obviously, which is also an investment in the community. I think that Studio Roanoke's survival is critical to the future of theater in this town. How so?

"Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Mill Mountain's failure, along with the short-sighted treatment of its season-ticket holders, threatened to poison the well for start-ups such as ours. Why invest in tickets or donate to some unknown little venture that features unknown plays by unknown playwrights, especially when a decades-old institution lay dead on the beach? We had to prove ourselves, even more than might be expected.

"With Todd's efforts (with recent help from Chad Runyon), I felt we really turned a corner this year. If we cast aside this work and allow Studio Roanoke to flounder and become another casualty, theater downtown will suffer for years to come. That's why we're dedicated to moving forward.

"Studio Roanoke is in no danger. We're committed to the 2010-11 season that Todd established, and I'm excited about my new role, however temporary it may be. As I told the board, all I want to do is put on the show. The next one is 'Devil Sedan,' and it's great to be working toward bringing it to life (which involves figuring out how to pull a '66 Cadillac out of a field in Patrick County. If that last statement makes you curious, come and see the damn play.

"Theater in Roanoke is bigger than any one person, including myself. Studio Roanoke is just getting started on a long, long run. Our board and staff are dedicated to bringing this town great shows, every time. Count on it."

Kenley had one other interesting observation, though not about the theater. Here's his thought on the local daily's coverage of Studio Roanoke: "This morning's newspaper story left me wondering why, if a personnel change at Studio Roanoke warrants that kind of coverage, no one at the Times can be bothered to do a damn play review. It's frustrating that important local work is so often overlooked."


  1. This news is so unfortunate. Studio Roanoke, what a brilliant theater - both the productions and the way they work in partnership with the community...

  2. I'm a fan of Studio Roanoke. It's one of the only places in Roanoke where we can get entertainment with an "edge." I hope the theater survives this. We want drama in Roanoke, not "drama."

  3. I told Kenley I'll write reviews for the Roanoke Star for him, and offered to do a preview piece for their next production (I'm on vacation during the play itself).

  4. One has to believe that this change is best for everyone involved. If all the players, the board, Todd and Chad could not agree on differences, Studio had no future. Doors have opened for everyone in this case. Tom Anderton