This continues a series of interviews where Epic artistic director Kevin Broccoli interviews other ADs in the area to create a more in-depth conversation about theater in Rhode Island. This month’s interview is with Theatre by the Sea’s artistic director Kevin Hill.
Kevin Broccoli: I ask all the Artistic Directors about the community they’re operating in. Can you talk about how working in and with the South County community has affected your company over the past few years?
Kevin Hill: The South County Community has always welcomed us with open arms. We absolutely love working in and with this community. We’ve actually grown in the community over the last few years partly because of producing top quality productions, our Corporate and Community Relations Manager, Karen Nascembeni, who has reached out to the Chambers of Commerce to bring our company to the forefront and our brilliant marketing campaign, with Mike Ceceri, our creative marketing director, leading the way.
KB: Is it more challenging to put together a concentrated season with four shows back-to-back instead of spread out over a traditional theater season?
KH: I think putting together any season is challenging. You need to find the right mix of musicals, which is based on our extensive knowledge of shows and audience reaction to them and most importantly, what your audience wants to see. Bill and I listen to each and every suggestion from our patrons. We truly value their input.
KB: When you’re choosing a season, what helps a show make the final cut?
KH: We have been successful following a formula. Our first musical is usually a small cast musical because our vacationers tend to not be here yet. Our second musical is our oldie but goodie title, usually a big classic. Our third musical is geared toward families and cultivating our younger audience and lastly, our fourth slot is our “push-the-envelope” musical. A bit more risqué, if you will.
KB: Are there certain elements you’re looking for that inspire you to tackle a project?
KH: Since we are a theater that happens to produce musicals in the summer season, I think our patrons want a night to get away, enjoy the beautiful grounds at TBTS and see a well-put-together musical where they can forget about their problems for two hours and get lost in a story.
KB: As someone who also directs and choreographs, how do you decide which of the shows in your season you’ll direct yourself?
KH: Throughout my career, I have directed and choreographed over 150 musicals. So, if it is a musical I have done before, then that’s a thrill to take another stab at the musical. There are also musicals that I have never done that I am very passionate about that I would jump at the chance of directing and choreographing, but because I am artistic director at two theaters (Theatre By The Sea and North Shore Music Theatre) I have to carefully look at my schedule and see if I am able to make it work.
KB: Having produced/directed classical shows and more contemporary works, do you take a different approach to something if it’s more well-known, or is your process the same for any show?
KH: I take the same approach for any piece of work. Usually in our business, there is never a budget for a Dramaturg, which is so important in the business. That is sometimes my favorite part of the approach. Finding out about the writer and his/her characters and the era in which the musical takes place is the exciting part, then researching the choreography of that time and creating steps that tell the perfect story to further the plot.
KB: I wanted this interview to focus on TBTS, but I also wanted to ask about the differences when it comes to Massachusetts and Rhode Island audiences since you have experience with both. Do you notice any major distinctions between the two?
KH: I feel, because TBTS is in a predominately vacation mode area, we try to keep things lighter and feel like we can take bigger risks here with more fun, adventurous musicals.
KB: And since I asked the previous question — in regard to juggling your work at North Shore and TBTS, do you find it to be difficult or is it second nature by now?
KH: It is definitely a juggling act. I also run a dance studio in Newton, MA…yes, I am nuts. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. They say when you love what you do, it ends up not being work. I do love my job(s) and my calendar is my best friend. We are well into rehearsals at TBTS and NSMT, so our season has officially begun. Anyone who knows me well, knows that my busiest time will be the next four months. And it excites me!!
KB: Can you talk a little bit about casting?
KH: We have a unique process to cast our season at TBTS. Bill and I will go to NYC where we will spend a total of seven days to cast four shows. It’s a crazy week to say the least, but with the help of my associate producer, Thom Warren, we have it down to a science. We have to make sure all of our directors and choreographers are available that week and find space in NYC to hold the auditions. Although, we always start with our local auditions to kick off our audition season. My thought has always been, if we are able to find the perfect person for the role locally, we are that much ahead of the game. We hire the best of the best of local actors. Hiring them also helps us in housing.
KB: Every theater has to deal with space limitations to some extent. Is that something that’s been a challenge?
KH: It’s a huge challenge, especially if we hire a director or choreographer who has never worked at our theater before. My first thing I tell everyone, “WE HAVE NO STAGE RIGHT.” You have to think outside the box with our space. Our musicals seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Last summer I directed and choreographed Young Frankenstein, which won the Broadway World awards for Best Director, Best Choreographer and Best Ensemble, and I had many conversations with our talented set designer Kyle Dixon to make sure we could fit everything AND have the production be seamless. One of my biggest pet peeves is waiting for a set to change.
KB: This season air-conditioning is arriving at the theater. Are you excited about it?
KH: We are so excited about this! Our new climate controlled system will work well with our hot matinees. It will take the bite out of our hot summer afternoons, but if the evening is nice and cool, we will turn it off and open the doors to our beautiful breeze from the ocean. Bill doesn’t and will never want to change the look of the theater, but we are trying to find ways to make our patrons happier and more comfortable.
KB: Let’s talk a little bit about design. When you’re working on a production, how important is it to have a set that makes an impact?
KH: As artistic director, I am big on story. I want our sets to enhance and support the story that is onstage. To create an atmosphere that draws you closer to this experience. This summer we tried something new. We have our talented set designer, Kyle Dixon, designing all of our shows. I have to tell you, I am amazed at his creativity. Bill, myself and Kyle worked hand in hand to make sure we have the best sets for this season. You are in for a treat.
KB: I ask every AD this — is there any decision you’ve made as an artistic director that you regret?
KH: What a great question. I am constantly making hard decisions as artistic director for two theaters, but I am human and do make mistakes. Without going into details, for one of my decisions I listened to others rather than follow my gut. I will always regret that decision.
KB: Is there a show this upcoming season that you’re really looking forward to?
KH: Yes! Two shows, actually. West Side Story is one that I am looking forward to because I simply love the show and we’ve hired a husband and wife team (Bob Richard and Diane Laurenson) to direct and choreograph the show. West Side Story is such a love story, what better way to present the show than with the love of a husband and wife who are so passionate about this musical? Secondly, I am thrilled to direct and choreograph Sister Act this season. I directed the production at NSMT and it was a huge hit and we have some heavy hitting Broadway performers coming to reprise their roles. Jeannette Bayardelle and Ellen Harvey will knock your socks off in this production.
KB: So many people in Rhode Island have a favorite memory from TBTS. Do you have one as well?
KH: Not necessarily of a specific show, but something about the experience of working at the theater? Well, let’s start by saying I am a sap when it comes to good musicals. Closing night of Mary Poppins, which I directed and choreographed, we had Mary (Kerry Conte) fly over the audience at the end of the show and she found me and blew me a kiss. Well, that did it, tears running down my face. That musical was such a beautiful experience and so well-received that it made my heart quite full. I am hoping the magic continues as I am directing and choreographing the production this year for NSMT
KB: Where do you see the company in the next five years? What would you like it to look like and what kind of work would you like to see it doing?
KH: My plan (and Bill’s) for both theaters is to keep them open and thriving. It would be wonderful to start producing musicals/new works to take and produce on Broadway. Our goal is simple, we want to make our audiences happy.