A theater doesn’t become the nation’s longest running professional theater without determined visionaries at its helm. Since 1933 Barter Theatre has been fortunate to be in the hands of a series of ambitious, enterprising leaders who created it, sustained it and cultivated it into a thriving gem of theatrical excellence.
In 1992 Richard Rose joined the ranks of those intrepid leaders as the third Producing Artistic Director at Barter Theatre, a role he performed for 27 years. In doing what he loves best, sharing his passion and dreams for creating theater of superior quality, his guiding force has graced our region with bountiful benefits.
Growth at Barter Theatre during his tenure has been stunning. To accommodate prolific expansion of performance and educational offerings, the number of full-time employees has increased from 7 to 125. Yearly average play attendance has grown from 40,000 to 160,000. Rose’s vision, fueled by his super-charged energy, spawned many initiatives that make Barter the unique and praiseworthy center of creativity we cherish.
Only a few years into his position, Rose engaged strategies to improve the patron experience on all levels. He spearheaded a massive renovation of Barter’s Main Stage (now Barter Theatre’s Gilliam Stage), bringing about many welcome upgrades and modern touches while maintaining historical authenticity in the décor. Later, Rose continued to oversee expansion at Gilliam Stage as well as renovation of the Playhouse (Barter Stage II, now Barter’s Smith Theatre), construction of Porterfield Square and major improvements to Barter’s production campus.
The major stamp of an effective leader is the talented and capable people they choose to work with them. Rose has an eye and ear for identifying individuals with incredible talent and intelligence.
Katy Brown, a 21-year veteran of Barter and Rose’s successor, is a prime example. “Rick gave me my career,” says Brown, describing an opportunity Rose gave her when she was in her early 20s: directing her first union show. “He didn’t hover over the process. He let me discover every piece of it myself.” Brown adds, “It was an incredible gift that he gave me and has continued to give me: his trust.”
Brown was present when Rose first announced the birth of Barter’s Resident Acting Company. “He described with passion a company where actor’s children and dogs would be in the rehearsal hall, where artists could challenge each other because they knew each other deeply,” said Brown. “I see those children in the rehearsal halls; I see the family that he built here at Barter. Rick’s vision has become a reality, and we have all been incredibly lucky to live inside that vision.” Barter is one of only two regional theaters in the nation that have resident companies.
“Rick Rose brought a new energy and broad scope to the theater at Barter,” says Barter Resident Company alum Eugene Wolf, explaining that Barter brought in people not accustomed to attending theater. When he portrayed A. P. Carter in “Keep on the Sunny Side” Wolf recalls, “We had people from all walks of life sitting in the dark theater side by side with hearts beating as one to the story of the music that came from the dirt of Southwest Virginia. The same dirt that Robert Porterfield had grown Barter Theatre out of.” Wolf is also grateful to Rose for the opportunity to have a theatrical career locally, adding, “And he grew an accomplished acting company that could compete with any company in America.”
Resident Company member Rick McVey describes Rose as a tough director, but one with a really warm heart beneath the intimidating exterior. “He certainly can be demanding but more than once I’ve seen him wipe away tears in rehearsal. He hates sentimentality but honest emotional moments truly move him.” McVey also describes Rose as incredibly generous. At an auction of Barter props McVey tried in vain to bid on the Robert E. Lee field desk he had used in “The Road to Appomattox.” Rose won the bid, then gave the desk to McVey. “He knew what it meant to me. I still treasure it. But even more I treasure the friendship that we’ve built working together over the past 17 years.”
If theater at its best is defined as storytelling that is bold and fearless, then Rose is the consummate storyteller. Long-time Barter Associate Artist John Hardy observes Rose as an incredibly hard worker who fostered growth via broad-minded innovation. “Rick was instrumental in bringing risky subject matter to Barter’s stages,” says Hardy. “Fostering new works was important to him.” In addition to producing premiers of countless new plays, Rose founded Barter’s Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, as well as programs serving young people including The Barter Players, Young Playwrights Festival and Barter Youth Academy.
Another Rose initiative that sets Barter apart is installing Catherine Bush as Resident Playwright, a rare but important position at a regional theater. “Rick Rose is the reason I have my career. He trusted me with several commissions,” says Bush. Since coming to Barter Bush has proved an invaluable asset, creating numerous main stage shows and over 25 Barter Player shows.
Heartfelt gratitude for Rose’s legacy is expressed by Mary Lucy Bivins, a Resident Company member since 2003. “If actors are dreamers, and I believe that to be true, then Richard Rose’s vision of Barter as a year-round, repertory theater with a resident acting company has certainly made my dreams come true. He has both continued and built on Robert Porterfield’s legacy of a regional theater in Southwest Virginia that is honored, and honors the state, as the State Theatre of Virginia. How do you say ‘thank you’ to someone who has made one theater in your career your livelihood, your home, your family?” A lesson Bivins learned from Rose that she passes on to others: “Never stop dreaming!”
In my own youth my grandfather blessed me with a valuable lesson. “There are three kinds of people,” he said. “Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask, ‘What happened?’ Only the first kind makes the world a better place.” Richard Rose is the kind that would make Granddad proud.