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The Classic Theatre, located in Fredericksburg Road’s Deco District, has been providing quality theater to San Antonio since 2008, but its goals are even more ambitious this year. Kurt Gardner for the Rivard Report spoke with Classic Theatre Executive Director Kelly Hilliard Roush about the plans she and her staff have for the theater, and how many they have been able to achieve.
KURT GARDNER: WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS BEHIND THE FOUNDING OF THE CLASSIC?
Kelly Hilliard Roush: There were seven original founders whose mutual goal was to do great professional theater in San Antonio. They wanted to create an equity theater where the artists get paid a living wage. We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but that’s our aim. And when I say artists, I don’t just mean the actors. I also mean the designers, the stage managers, the board operators – everyone involved.
KG: HOW DO YOU VIEW THE THEATER’S ROLE IN THE COMMUNITY?
KHR: We want the theater to be a place where people have conversations about what it is to be human. I was in Minneapolis for over a decade as an actor and director, and the Guthrie was an amazing place that did the classics, but it was always tied to a conversation about what can be found in these works that is relevant in this day and age. The theater became a cornerstone where people would see a classic and then have enlightening conversations about their relevance today and how it affects them, their partners, and their friends.
So that’s what we strive to do here at the Classic – provide excellent storytelling that gives us a way to connect and, indeed, become better human beings.
KG: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PART OF THE CLASSIC?
KHR: I have been on board as executive director since June of 2015. Interestingly enough, I grew up in San Antonio, so I’d been friends with many of the founders before they started the theater. I was here visiting and saw its first show, The Glass Menagerie, in 2008, so I’ve been a fan and colleague over the years. When I came back to town in 2014, I served as consultant and officially came on board in 2015.
KG: WHAT ARE YOUR DUTIES IN THAT ROLE?
KHR: Everything. I’m working on state grants and reporting. We have a visit from the Texas Commission on the Arts coming up. They’re checking out our site; they’re supporters of ours. I’m working on things for the Department for Culture and Creative Development (DCCD), San Antonio’s funding source, who’ve also been of great help. There’s also the day-to-day work – signage, contracts, programs, press releases, fundraising, grants; when you’re working with a small nonprofit, there’s a lot to be involved with.
KG: SOUNDS LIKE YOU HAVE YOUR HANDS FULL. WHAT ABOUT THE CLASSIC’S EDUCATION PROGRAMS?
KHR: We have an amazing director of education, Kacey Roye. As we consider the work our theater does and how we can ensure conversation within the community, we also always look at how we can bring in the educational aspect.
We always believed that Shakespeare and the classics help students learn, and there are now studies that prove it. It helps them with their language skills and their SAT scores. It’s amazing how many positive things it does. So Kacey’s job is to work with the young people in our community and help them connect with these plays.
We have three major programs. One of them is the AIM High Program which stands for Apprenticeship, Internship, and Mentorship. We have high school and college students who work with us, sometimes one show at a time and sometimes for an entire season. They come in and apprentice. They tell us what their ultimate goals are, whether it’s acting or set design. They get to meet Kacey and the cast, and we connect them with a mentor to serve as a sounding board for their questions.
We also do Classics in the Classroom, where we take professional artists and educators to the schools, mostly middle school and high school. We bring in the classics like Shakespeare and Greek tragedies and do workshops with the students. It really makes the language and relevance come alive for them, whether it’s a language, a humanities, or history class – anywhere students can enjoy Shakespeare or other classical works.
The last program is Student Performance Night, held at the theater. Students can attend for free. They get an opportunity to see the plays and performers they’ve been involved with in the actual setting. We also provide them with study guides and offer talkbacks with the cast and crew afterwards.
KG: IN THE AGE OF KARDASHIAN, IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT TO EDUCATE THE YOUNGER GENERATION ON THE CLASSIC WORKS.
KHR: Absolutely. To kids, “classic” can mean “eat your vegetables,” and that’s a negative. But the younger you get them, the better the result. I did a workshop couple of years ago at an elementary school with a fourth grade class. We did hands-on things with Shakespeare, such as saying their name in iambic pentameter, and it went over really well. At that age, these kids aren’t jaded yet, and they really loved it. It gets them to think beyond the Kardashians – beyond the twelve words that are traditionally used in sitcoms.
KG: WHAT’S YOUR OPINION OF THE SAN ANTONIO THEATER COMMUNITY IN GENERAL? AND WHAT ABOUT ITS FUTURE?
KHR: That’s a great question. I think it’s grown so much since I was here 25 years ago, when I went away to work. I loved coming back and seeing how much the city has changed, how much we’re a city on the rise. The future is bright, and there’s an important place for theater here. There’s always a place for community theater and the enthusiastic “let’s put on a show” attitude, but San Antonio is big enough to host professional theater as well, to have people living in the community who are artists and do it for a living, as opposed to juggling two or three jobs to be able to do what they love.
And San Antonio is in a place that is acknowledging not only the arts but also how important they are to revitalization. Theater has constantly proven to be an early piece of the revitalization of cities all around the world.
I’ve been out in the community at breakfast meetings, meeting with various Council members, and we’re all in agreement that San Antonio is poised to achieve so much more. We’re one of the Top 10 (most populous) cities in the country, so how do we take advantage of that? One thing we realized is that businesses from D.C. and other large cities who have relocated or are considering relocating to San Antonio are looking for the culture that they have traditionally gotten at home, and that includes theater.
We have great culture here, but it’s been focused on dance and other things, not so much on theater. Other Texas cities have active theater. Austin’s got not only the Zach, but it also has a handful of small professional theaters. So I think there’s a new awareness. We’re at a place of great possibility, but it’s also a place where we’re still educating the public. Theater is what we do. We want to make our living doing it, and we want to do it in San Antonio, since it’s such a great place to live.
KG: THE THEATERS IN TOWN ARE WORKING TOGETHER ON THIS GOAL, THOUGH?
KHR: Absolutely. We all support each other, and that’s how you create a theater district. People can see one show one night, and a different one another night. Actors, too, can go from theater-to-theater and keep working. So this builds a community not only for the patrons but for the artists, too. We get more opportunity, we get to tell more stories, people are employed – and it’s fun.
We’re also involved in other aspects of the arts. One of the exciting things we’ve been a part of is On and Off Fred, where there’s a thriving visual arts community. We connected with them and have since been hosting art shows in our lobby. That’s another great connection. We’ve done things with The McNay and we’ve brought in sets to exhibit. We want to work with everybody, because all these pieces are important.
KG: HOW CAN MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC GET INVOLVED WITH THE CLASSIC THEATRE?
KHR: There are so many ways. You can volunteer to come in and build sets. You can serve on a committee. You can come in and help with public relations. You can help us send emails and get flyers and posters distributed around town. We have people who go out and advocate in the community.
We send out a monthly newsletter, and at the bottom, I invite people to call me if they want to chat, either one-on-one or as a group. I invite them to see the theater and all of its workings so they can go out and be advocates, too. Of course, the best thing to do is come see a show. If you can’t afford it, you can volunteer to usher. Students are always $10, and there are discounts for seniors, educators, and the military.
Be a part of the theater. Come to our community talkbacks and bring your ideas and opinions. We welcome them.
KG: GIVE US AN OVERVIEW OF THE COMING SEASON.
KHR: In the past, our artistic directors have given themes to the seasons, and the patrons really spark to it, so this year is no exception.
This season’s theme is “Passages,” so we are doing four great classic plays that convey places of passage and people who are on voyages of passage. We are visiting a house in House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros; we’re entering the gossip-mongering world in School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which is a cornerstone of Restoration comedy; Shakespeare’s The Tempest is set on an Island; and William Inge’s Bus Stop takes place in a restaurant during a snowstorm.
So we’re asking people to come and take a passage with us – and hopefully have a transcendent experience.
The Classic Theatre’s ninth season starts Friday, Sept. 2 with The House on Mango Street. Tickets and more information can be found on the theater’s website or by calling (210) 589-8450.
Top image: The Classic Theatre on Fredericksburg Road. Photo by Siggi Ragnar.