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Proudest Moments: Arts organizations rejoice in 2022 success

by Becca Martin-Brown | December 25, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
The best thing about 2022 was seeing full houses for shows like “It Came From Outer Space,” agree TheatreSquared Executive Director Martin Miller and Artistic Director Robert Ford. (Courtesy Photo/Wesley Hitt)

With the end of the year in sight, we asked some of our friends in the arts what happened in their organizations in 2022 that excited them most. These are their answers. It’s an enlightening look at the arts community from the inside out.

Lara Jo Hightower

TheatreSquared

Jerry Perez didn’t know much about TheatreSquared — or live theater at all — when he won tickets to a show at TheatreSquared in 2010. But he’s gregarious and outgoing and always up for a new experience, writes publicist Lara Jo Hightower, so he thought he would give it a try. He says that first exposure to the organization’s work was like a lightning bolt.

“We went, not knowing what to expect,” he says, adding that he was so astonished by what he saw, he started talking to other audience members afterwards in a kind of “Did you see what I just saw?” fact-seeking mission. “I was saying, “That was fun! And weird. I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ And they said, ‘Well, this wasn’t a one-time thing. They have other shows!’”

A dozen years later, Perez is a season ticket holder, a generous donor, and a good friend to the theater company he’s grown to love so much. So on March 13, 2020, when a global pandemic forced T2 to shut its doors to live audiences for a time, he was devastated.

“You just want to be there and have a good time and talk with other people about the things we’re all experiencing,” he explains. “Because I think shared experiences are important. I remember receiving tickets in the mail during the pandemic, realizing there was supposed to be a show that day — but there was no show that day. So you just sadly put them in the trash. As far as you know, you’re not even really sure when you get to go back.”

Flash forward to the first week of December 2022. “A Christmas Carol” — the stage adaptation by T2 co-founders Amy Herzberg and Robert Ford that first captured the holiday hearts of Northwest Arkansas in 2019 — is opening in West Theatre. Meanwhile, audiences are packing the smaller Spring Theatre to see playwright Marie Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets.” The Commons Bar/Cafe, on the first floor of the T2 complex, is redolent with the smell of baking cookies, and tables are full with the lunch crowd. Staff is making finishing touches on holiday decor as the events team gives a tour to a prospective client interested in renting the space for a holiday event.

There’s no contest: Seeing the building full of people — staff, actors, patrons, and donors — is what Executive Director Martin Miller and Artistic Director Robert Ford are most proud of this year. It’s everything they imagined the space could be back in August 2019, when the company first opened the doors of its brand new, 50,000-square-foot, $31 million theater building to audiences flocking to see “Shakespeare in Love.”

We all know what happened next. But the team that built TheatreSquared from a conversation around a kitchen table to a nationally acclaimed company tries to look at the pandemic as a learning experience.

“We take nothing for granted,” says Ford. “You want to embrace every returning patron, thank everyone individually.”

“Certainly, it’s been a tough few years,” admits Miller. “ But look at this space, look at this lineup of shows, look at the people who are making them — how could you be anything but excited for what’s ahead?”

Jason Miller Arkansas Philharmonic

“A doubling of the number of students in our Youth Orchestra to over 80 is the most exciting thing to happen to us in 2022,” says Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra Executive Director Jason Miller. At least he thinks so.

“Kristine Olefsky saving our concert in April was extraordinary as well. When our soloist from Ohio came down with covid on the second night of rehearsal, we weren’t sure what to do. Kristine stepped in at the very last minute and performed Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue for Orchestra’ like the pro she is. It was amazing and very memorable.” And in October, the APO sold out its first concert since before the pandemic. So many last-minute attendees created a traffic jam outside Crystal Bridges. “We had to wait 20 minutes while people parked.”

But more than 80 students committing to intense weekly rehearsals, autumn through winter, feels especially important because it means, quite literally, growth. “The APYO (Y is for Youth) is probably training future APO players but definitely contains its future audience,” observes Miller.

Violinist Christy Paxton leads the APYO as both education director and conductor. But with more than 80 students ages 8 to 18, Paxton welcomes help from other conductors. Other leading musicians conduct smaller groups in APYO sectional rehearsals: violinists Robin Sumpter, Jenelle Sisco, cellist Ron Juzeler and flutist Kristen Young.

APYO students must study their instrument for at least a year before auditioning, though most have taken lessons much longer. They don’t pay for training or rehearsal space, just bring their own instrument. It’s special, Miller says. Every week, some parents are driving their kids from over 100 miles away.

“You can witness the APYO’s progress first on Feb.

11. A complement will join the APO onstage in the Thaden School Great Hall for a world premiere — speaking of firsts,” Miller says. “Floridian flutist Brian Dunbar plays composer Carlos Simon’s Movements for Flute and Orchestra. Then in March, the APYO plays its own annual concert.”

Find out more at arphil.org.

Jennifer Wilson Walton Arts Center Walmart AMP

Walton Arts Center’s 30th anniversary season was full of great programming along with a notable first, says WAC spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson. The first full P&G Broadway season after covid included the debut of “Hamilton” in Northwest Arkansas. The tour was here for two weeks and sold out almost all of the 16 performances.

“We are used to getting great shows in Northwest Arkansas,” Wilson says. “However, it was a coup for Walton Arts Center to get ‘Hamilton.’ Walton Arts Center was the smallest house that the tour had played to date. The fact that the producers decided to include our venue and market in the tour speaks volumes about how we are perceived in the industry.”

And, if you ever question whether the arts are an economic driver, Wilson says, just remember that those 18,300 patrons who saw “Hamilton” also bought dinner or drinks on the day of the show, possibly stayed in hotels and supported local businesses. “According to the Broadway League, a touring show contributes an economic impact of 3.27 times the gross ticket sales to the economy of the metropolitan area where it plays.”

It was also a record year for the Walmart AMP on several levels, Wilson says. “There was a record number of 39 shows this season. We also saw the highest attended show and highest food and beverage sales at one show; both of those happened at Morgan Wallen.

“Those successes can be attributed to a couple of factors,” she explains. “Touring acts hit the road in force in 2022 after almost two years off due to covid. The geographic location of the Walmart AMP, an easy drive from several larger cities and in the center of the country, makes it a perfect stopover point for tours. The artist and patron amenities that were added in our 2020 renovation have also made the Walmart AMP an attractive venue. Those additions and the reputation that we have developed with tours and fans over the years really help keep the venue booked and busy.”

Serena Barnett Rogers Historical Museum

This year the Rogers Historical Museum celebrated both its 47th anniversary and the fourth anniversary in its new home in the renovated Hailey Building, says its director, Serena Barnett.

“Each year since opening our doors in 1975 has brought various achievements that led to our growth as an organization committed to the preservation of the history of Rogers and the surrounding region, and this year is no exception. As we near the closing of another year, I look back at all the accomplishments that RHM has had in 2022 and three words come to mind — community, collaborations, and collections.”

Community — The RHM community consists of not only those who live geographically nearby who are easily able to visit in person, but also those who stay connected online through social media, website, virtual programs, email newsletters, and such, Barnett says. “This community, our community, has grown in the past year to serve over 250,000 individuals! This same community also voted RHM as the No. 1 museum in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat- Gazette’s 2021 Best of Northwest Arkansas contest. I want to thank everyone in this community for your continued interest and support! RHM is able to fulfill its mission ‘to enrich lives through education, experience and exploration of our heritage’ because of you!”

Collaborations — Another achievement this year for RHM was the opportunity to collaborate with other community organizations on events and projects, Barnett says. “The biggest event was the 2022 Southeastern Museum Conference, which was held in Rogers. This was the first time this regional conference was held in Northwest Arkansas and RHM, the Northwest Arkansas arts and museum community, and the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce worked together as hosts. It was through our combined efforts that nearly 450 museum professionals from all over the southeastern region of the United States were able to experience the history, arts and culture that Northwest Arkansas has to offer.

“[But] one of the project collaborations that I’m most excited about that came together this year is that RHM and city of Rogers Parks Department have partnered with the Benton County Master Gardeners to transform the museum’s Hawkins House Memorial Garden into a true Victorian flower garden,” Barnett adds. “As an extension of the historic 1895 Hawkins House, this project will provide an outdoor educational area where visitors will be able to have an immersive experience in a garden reminiscent of Rogers’ past. … We can’t wait to see this new space in bloom and share it with our community!”

Collections — The last of these annual highlights is of course the museum collection itself, Barnett says, “which is the heart and soul of the museum’s mission to preserve our history. The museum collections currently include over 65,000 objects — everything from furniture to postcards, clothing to farm tools, photographs to newspaper archives. The list continues to grow. We’ve had approximately 55 donations with at least 300 individual items so far this year — that averages to about five donations a month, more than one per week!”

Barnett adds that work has already begun on plans for 2023, “such as our new preschool program, Museum and Me, which is in partnership with the Rogers Public Library and begins in January.” For more information, visit rogershistoricalmuseum.org.

Terry Vaughan

Smokehouse Players

“Our biggest accomplishment in 2022? We reopened our doors after a two-year hiatus due to covid and ended up having our most successful year yet,” says Terry Vaughan, co-founder with husband Tim Gilster of the Fayetteville-based theater troupe Smokehouse Players.

“It took courage, grit, and tenacity — but we progressed from performing ‘Love Letters’ to only a small handful of people in April to sold-out performances of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ in November,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, but with the help of the community and an army of actors, directors, and volunteers, Smokehouse Players survived and thrived. And, in the process we got to provide three vastly different free theater experiences to our beloved community while helping raise a total of $29,715 for Magdalene Serenity House. Now that is a win, win, win!

“What a happy ending to our efforts in 2022,” Vaughan enthuses. “It is important to remind everyone that creating theater is a team sport, and our victory is shared by many. We would like to thank everyone who supported us this year (actors, directors, playwrights, press, promoters, volunteers, matching donors, and audience members). It is because of you that we are still standing. … Thank you for helping us little guys keep fighting the good fight.”

Ezra Idlet Trout Fishing in America

Ezra Idlet, the taller half — and player of guitar, banjo and more for Northwest Arkansas folk duo Trout Fishing in America — says 2022 “has been a year of rebuilding.”

“Covid shut down live music pretty hard,” says Idlet, who has played as a duo with bassist Keith Grimwood for most of half a century. “We went from touring year ’round to creating monthly livestreams from our studio! This year we’ve started building a new normal. Gigs are coming back. We’re playing for real live people!

“There’s no way to overstate the joy we feel playing our music in a live setting,” he goes on. “We’ve reorganized our priorities to include more home time to be with our families. We’ve also spent a lot of time in our recording studio working on ours and other folks’ projects. Our routine has been to get together every week and rehearse, write, and record. What an amazing luxury it’s been to have the time to do that!

“What have we accomplished? We’ve maintained a friendship that’s lasted almost 47 years. Anyone who’s ever been in a longtime relationship knows that it’s something you work at. We released our 25th album, ‘Safe House,’ this year. It feels like we’re becoming more of ourselves every year. Our music is merging. Instead of dividing our shows into kids or adults, we’re playing for multiple age groups. It feels good to see multiple generations of Trout fans in the audience.”

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