Putting the pieces together: Bristol Riverside Theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary

PHOTOS: BRISTOL RIVERSIDE THEATRE

PHOTOS: BRISTOL RIVERSIDE THEATRE

Live theater is often referred to as the collaborative art, with so many people on stage and behind the scenes working to make each season, and every production, come together. Going into her third decade as the person in charge of it all, Susan Atkinson has another way of describing it.

“Theater isn’t making a widget. It’s making a whole car. It takes a special person to understand how the pieces all fit together,” she explained. “And it doesn’t mean you know it immediately, but you come to know it. Because the more you know, the better you are at it.”

Atkinson learned this by working virtually every job at the Bristol Riverside Theatre. As the founding director, she started off working with Len Snyder of the Grundy Foundation to renovate an old movie house right on the Delaware River in Bristol Borough.

Since then, she’s cultivated it into an award-winning regional theater with nearly 150 productions to its name, including 23 new works that debuted on its stage. And, for the first few seasons, Atkinson had a hand in everything from directing to fundraising to the box office.

Her original vision for the theater was to mount only new plays, based on her time as a freelance director in New York City developing new works, But she soon discovered a regional theater couldn’t sustain solely on unknown pieces, and adjusted the programming accordingly.

“I was trying to learn everything I could, as quickly as I could — basically before people realized I didn’t know what I was doing,” she laughed. “But that’s very often the way it happens in theater, because if you knew what you were getting into, you would never do it.”

Fortunately, Atkinson wasn’t alone for long. Over the years, the theater has gained passionate, longtime employees as it grew its audiences and prestige. The first big break, so to speak, was Keith Baker, who came on as an actor in the mid-’80s and today is the artistic director.

He made the leap after acting for a few seasons, when he offered to direct an upcoming musical to help out an overloaded Atkinson. It turned out he was also an accomplished director, trained opera singer, musician and composer.

“Keith doesn’t talk much about himself,” she laughed now.

Their contrasting approaches to productions — the difference between male and female energy, she suggests, or how her first reaction to a script is emotional while his can be more cerebral — are a major asset that gives the theater’s audiences a wide spectrum of styles in a given season. But, they’re far from the only ones who have put years of hard work into making each season a success.

Atkinson calls to mind people like Rayna Adams, who started out as an intern and is now the marketing director for the theater, or artistic administrator David Abers, who’s worked nearly every position there over the last 20 or so years.

It takes an “eclectic mind” to work in a place like the Bristol Riverside, she said, and also a lot of passion: “You don’t stay in theater if you don’t love it. It’s essentially nonprofit.”

The Bristol Riverside may take in a million dollars in ticket sales each year, Atkinson explained, but takes more than double that to operate. That’s sort of the point, though. “If we tripled our ticket sales, we’d be fine. But they would be about $100 each. The mission of regional theater is to make theater affordable.”

Thanks to subscribers, benefactors and community support, the theater been able to honor that mission for 29 years. Its 30th season, in many ways, is about giving back to those people.

It kicks off with “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” presented as a complement to last year’s audience favorite “Always … Patsy Cline,” and also includes “Witness to the Prosecution,” which Atkinson describes as mystery writer Agatha Christie’s best work.

Mysteries are often difficult to mount, she says: a theater has to find one that people enjoy but aren’t overly familiar with — the ending is different than the movie, Atkinson stresses — and can be larger in scope than other productions. But it’s a popular genre, so she’ll make sure they’re up to the task.

And, alongside the more overt social and political overtones of the upcoming productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” is “Working.” It’s a musical celebrating the working man at the satisfaction of a job well done.  At this particular theater, it pays homage to the town where it’s being mounted and the passion that keeps both of them going.

“I’m of the belief that if you find that thing that makes you feel happy, whether it’s construction, acting, etc., it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how many things you have,” she said. “What matters is you have a sense of satisfaction with what you do with your life.”

It’s also a reflection of Bristol Borough itself: “There are so many different ethnic groups, so many different kinds of professionals: this person’s a college professor, this person’s a mechanic. This woman is an executive secretary, this guy’s a plumber,” said Atkinson.

“I have never been in a place where people take so much pride in what they do. And I love that.”

For information, visit http://www.brtstage.org.

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