Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


John Miller-Stephany named new Producing Artistic Director of Arkansas Rep

John Miller-StephanyArkansas Repertory Theatre announced today that John Miller-Stephany has been named the theatre’s new Producing Artistic Director. He assumes his new role in mid-October. The announcement by Board Chair Brian Bush ends an extensive national search.

John Miller-Stephany has worked at some of the most significant theatres in the country,” said Bush. “He is without a doubt the right leader for our organization at this point in our history. His leadership ensures a bright future for The Rep.”

“I’m tremendously excited and deeply honored to be appointed Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s next Producing Artistic Director,” said Miller-Stephany. “By all accounts – and from my personal observations over the past few months – The Rep is one of the most vibrant cultural organizations in Arkansas. I’m thrilled to join the greater Little Rock community and to work alongside my new neighbors and colleagues as together we write the next chapter in the life of this remarkable theatre.”

Miller-Stephany has enjoyed a distinguished career as a director, administrator, educator and non-profit theatre producer. From 1996 to 2015, he was Artistic Administrator and Associate Artistic Director of The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. From 1989 to 1996, he was Associate Producer of The Acting Company in New York City.

“Because of the vital role non-profit, professional theatres play in the life of their communities, I have proudly dedicated my career to serving them,” said Miller-Stephany.

At the Guthrie, he held a key leadership position during several major transitions and over a period of unprecedented growth. From 1997 to 2015, the theatre more than doubled its budget, going from $11 million in 1997 to $27 million in 2015. He was instrumental in the artistic development of the company, helping to guide more than 200 productions from their inception through their final performances.

Founded in 1963, The Guthrie Theater has been recognized as one of the most successful resident theatres in the country, receiving the 1982 Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre. With an annual audience of 400,000, the theatre focuses largely on classic productions. Miller-Stephany’s productions of The Music Man, Jane Eyre and 1776 are three of the top ten highest grossing productions in the history of the Guthrie.

“While I have loved living in the Twin Cities, and am deeply grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve enjoyed at the Guthrie, I’m very eager to make a new home in Little Rock and to provide leadership for The Rep,” said Miller-Stephany.  “I believe that my experiences working with one of America’s largest resident theatres have given me insights about programming, education and community engagement that will serve The Rep well.”

As an educator, Miller-Stephany has conducted classes and workshops with students at many levels including professional, college, conservatory, high school and avocational.

Miller-Stephany’s directing credits at the Guthrie include To Kill A Mockingbird, The Music Man, Born Yesterday, Roman Holiday, Charley’s Aunt, God of Carnage, A Streetcar Named Desire, When We Are Married, Jane Eyre, 1776, The Constant Wife, She Loves Me, The Night of the Iguana, Wintertime, Merrily We Roll Along, To Fool the Eye, and Sweeney Todd. He has also directed 10X10 (Barrington Stage Company), The Odd Couple (Geva Theatre/Cape Playhouse), Little Shop of Horrors (St. Louis MUNY), Queens of Burlesque (History Theater), The Poetry of Pizza (Mixed Blood Theatre), Biloxi Blues (Theatre L’Homme Dieu), Farm Boys (History Theater), and Murder by Poe (The Acting Company). He was the Associate Producer of the 1995 Broadway revival of The School of Scandal, directed by Gerald Freedman, co-produced by the National Actors Theatre and The Acting Company.

Miller-Stephany’s appointment follows a national search conducted by David Mallette of Management Consultants for the Arts. The search committee included members of The Rep’s Board of Directors, community representatives, and The Rep’s managing director Michael McCurdy.

Miller-Stephany will become the third artistic leader in The Rep’s 40-year history. He assumes his new role in October, succeeding Bob Hupp (1999-2016) and Founding Artistic Director Cliff Baker (1976-1999), who is currently serving as Interim Producing Artistic Director.

Ben composite


1 Comment

Little Rock Look Back: Ben Piazza

Ben compositeActor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock.  Piazza graduated from Little Rock High School in 1951 as valedictorian. He also had starred in the senior play that year (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and edited the literary magazine.

Keeping the Tiger as his mascot, Piazza attended college at Princeton University.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.  Following his 1955 graduation, he moved to New York City and studied at the Actor’s Studio.

Piazza was an understudy in the 1956 play, Too Late the Phalarope at the Belasco Theatre.  In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. Other cast members included Claudia McNeil (who originated the part of Lena in A Raisin in the Sun) and Sandra Church (who originated the part of Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy).

In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre. This two actor play also featured Sessue Hayakawa, who played a Japanese soldier who spoke only his native language.  Therefore, Piazza’s part was largely a very lengthy monologue.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

As the 1960s dawned, Piazza joined a small cadre of actors who had achieved status on Broadway who then also returned to acting Off Broadway.  Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones were others in this select group who helped establish Off Broadway as an entity in itself, instead of being just a farm team for Broadway.

piazzaPiazza started the 1960s on Broadway starring at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in A Second String with Shirley Booth, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nina Foch, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Carrie Nye.   Following that, he started his association with Edward Albee by appearing as the title character in The American Dream.  That play opened at the York Playhouse in January 1961.  Later that year, he appeared in Albee’s The Zoo Story opposite original cast member William Daniels at the East End Theatre.

 

Also in 1961 Piazza starred in several plays during a South American tour sponsored by the American Repertory Company.  He played Christopher Isherwood in I Am a Cameraand Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth.  In 1962, he starred in a series of plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  Piazza returned to Broadway to star along with Jane Fonda and Dyan Cannon in The Fun Couple at the Lyceum Theatre. This play had a troubled rehearsal period, which was documented in a short film about Jane Fonda.

Ben Piazza stayed on Broadway and returned to Albee in February 1963.  He took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when original actor George Grizzard left to play Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre.  (He had participated in earlier readings of the play prior to it being mounted on Broadway.)

This play was at the Billy Rose Theatre, which marked a return for Piazza. He had acted at this theatre when it was the National while appearing in Winesburg. Piazza played Nick for the remainder of the run and acted with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, fellow Arkansan Melinda Dillon, Eileen Fulton, Nancy Kelly, Mercedes McCambridge, Rochelle Oliver and Sheppard Strudwick.

Exact and Very Strange cover

During the run of this show, Piazza’s novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth was published.  It is a fictionalized account of his growing up in Little Rock during the 1930s and 1940s.  The book is filled with references to Centennial Elementary, Westside Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era.  The Piazza Shoe Store, located on Main Street, was called Gallanti’s.

Following Virginia Woolf, he starred in The Zoo Story at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1965.  In August of 1967, his play The Sunday Agreement premiered at LaMaMa.  This was Piazza’s first playwright output to be professionally staged.

As Sunday Agreement was opening, Piazza was in rehearsal for his next Broadway opening. He appeared with Alfred Drake in The Song of the Grasshopper in September 1967.  In 1968, he returned to Albee and starred in The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story in repertory on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre.

Later that season, in March 1969, a double bill of his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  It was directed by future Tony nominee Peter Masterson and starred Louise Lasser, Robert Walden (who starred in the 2013 production of Death of a Salesman at Arkansas Repertory Theatre), Clinton Allmon and Dolores Dorn-Heft, to whom Piazza was married at the time.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. He also appeared in major regional theatres as an actor and a director.  During this time period he was in productions of Bus Stop, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, You Know I Can’t Hear You when the Water’s Running  and Savages.  In 1970, he starred as Stanley Kowalski in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans.  As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

BDP early

Piazza’s film debut was in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell and George C. Scott in The Hanging Tree.  Though he received positive reviews for his performances, Piazza chose to return to New York and perform in stage and TV productions.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows including Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre, The Naked City and Dick Powell Theatre.  He had a recurring role during one season of Ben Casey and appeared on the soap opera Love of Life.

In the 1970s, he starred in the films Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; The Candy Snatchers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.  He also starred as the City Councilman who recruits Walter Matthau to coach a baseball team inThe Bad News Bears.

Among his numerous TV appearances in the 1970s were The Waltons, Mannix, Switch, Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Lou Grant (where he was reunited with Walden).

BDP final

In the 1980s, he appeared in The Blues Brothers, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Hart to Hart, Family Ties, The Winds of War, Dallas, Dynasty, Too Close for Comfort, The A Team, Saint Elsewhere, Santa Barbara, The Facts of Life, Mr. Belvedere, Moonlighting and Matlock.

Piazza’s final big screen appearance was in the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion.  He played studio head Darryl Zanuck in this Robert DeNiro-Annette Bening tale of Hollywood during the Red scare.

Ben Piazza died on September 7, 1991.


Happy Father’s Day with Rabbit Reach

Cherry - Rabbit ReachToday is Father’s Day.  In honor of that, today’s Sculpture Vulture revisits Tim Cherry’s Rabbit Reach.  The sculpture was given in memory of two fathers.

The sculpture is a gift from Whitlow Wyatt and the Carey Cox Wyatt Charitable Foundation. It was given in memory of George Wyatt and Frank Kumpuris.  Those two gentlemen were the fathers of Whitlow Wyatt and Dean & Drew Kumpuris.

The sculpture is located at the corner of Sherman Street and President Clinton Avenue across from the Museum of Discovery.

Cherry’s sculpture was selected for this spot because of its proximity to children at the Museum and in the River Market district.  The design and size of the sculpture encourages children to climb on it and to play around the rabbit.

While some public art is situated so it cannot be touched, this one is situated to be touched as part of the appreciation experience.

Rabbit Reach received national publicity in 2015 when Melissa Joan Hart featured it on her social media while she was in Little Rock filming a movie.


Little Rock Look Back: Former LR Mayor Sprick takes on Muhammad Ali and Loses

Ali SprickDan T. Sprick was a Little Rock Mayor for two years in the 1940s after having previously served on the City Council.  From 1961 until 1970, he served as a State Senator from Little Rock and was a reliable ally for Governor Orval Faubus. Once Faubus left office and was replaced by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Sprick continued to wave the banner of segregation and agitation.  One of his new focuses was boxer Muhammad Ali.

In 1969, the University of Arkansas announced that Ali would be one of the speakers for its public appearance series.  After refusing to be drafted and go to Vietnam, Ali was barred from earning a living as a professional boxer and so was making a living giving lectures.  His refusal to submit to the draft was based on his religious beliefs as a recent convert to the Nation of Islam.

Opposition to Ali’s appearance rose almost immediately, and from Little Rock not Fayetteville. The Pulaski Businessman’s Association sent a letter to UA president David Mullins asking him to bar Ali from speaking. President Mullins insisted that he had the right to speak on campus. When that didn’t work, Senator Sprick and his cohorts in the state’s upper chamber went to work. A resolution calling for Ali to be barred from speaking failed on a voice vote after much debate.

While there were certainly some racial overtones to Sprick’s opposition, he and others seemed to be more concerned over the former Cassius Clay’s conversion to Islam plus his ensuing refusal to be drafted.  Senator Sprick declared that if President Nixon would draft him now he would go to serve in Vietnam.  (Sprick was in his late 60s at the time.)

Ali’s speech on the campus actually caused some controversy on its own.  One of the things he advocated for segregation. He praised Alabama Governor George Wallace.  The Arkansas Gazette which had been following the saga in both news stories and editorials, noted that remarks like that should have endeared Ali to Dan Sprick and others.

Ali, of course, resumed his boxing career and defined that sport in the 1970s with his talent in the ring and his showmanship.

Based on an editorial, Sprick sued the Gazette for libel. The paper settled with him out of court because his health was poor. Sprick died in 1972.


Little Rock Look Back: Cornice placed on Robinson Auditorium

JTR CorniceOn June 1, 1939, the cornice was installed on Robinson Auditorium.  This granite slab noted the name of the building as the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  (It is interesting to note that it used the more modern “u” instead of the classical “v” which was often used in buildings during prior decades – as evidenced by the Pvlaski Covnty Covrt Hovse across the street.)

This was a milestone marking the completion of the front facade of the structure.  Much work would continue on the interior of the structure.  This step in the construction was considered major enough that the Arkansas Gazette mentioned it in a news article.

Today the cornice is again surrounded by construction materials and braces. The front lobby, the cornice and columns are pretty much the only parts of the building not currently under construction as Robinson Center is readied for its second act.  It is scheduled to open in November 2016.


1 Comment

War Hero Cinema: Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck as LR natives

Dr. WassellThe exploits of two Little Rock natives during World War II have both been turned into Hollywood movies.  One was released during World War II and starred Gary Cooper as Dr. Corydon Wassell. The other was released in the 1970s and starred Gregory Peck as General Douglas MacArthur.

Born in Little Rock on July 4, 1884, Corydon McAlmont Wassell (called “Cory”) was born to Albert and Leona Wassell. A grandson of Little Rock Mayor John Wassell, he graduated from what is now UAMS in 1909. In 1911, he married Mary Irene Yarnell, with whom he would have four children.  In 1914, the couple volunteered to be Episcopal missionaries in China.  He served there until 1927. Following Mary’s death and his remarriage, he and new wife Madeline Edith Day Wassell returned to Arkansas in 1927.

Dr. Wassell resumed his medical practice. Given his experience with malaria in China, he proved to be an asset fighting malaria among Civilian Conservation Corps members in Arkansas. He was subsequently called to active duty in the Navy in 1936 and stationed in Key West.

After the outbreak of World War II, he was stationed in Indonesia. In early 1942, he refused to abandon his patients after the Japanese started invading Indonesia. Instead, he was able to evacuate a dozen severely wounded men over 150 miles to get to a ship. It took ten days for the ship to get to Australia, during which time it was attacked numerous times.  His official Navy Cross citation notes that he disregarded personal safety while caring for others.

He became an instant international hero. During the early days of the war, his heroism was one of the few bright spots. James Hilton wrote a biography of him; President Roosevelt praised him in a fireside chat. James Hilton wrote of Dr. Wassell in a book which was then adapted by Cecil B. DeMille into the 1944 movie starring Cooper.  Originally Arkansan Alan Ladd was wanted to play Cooper’s sidekick, but Ladd was pressed into military service and unavailable.

Thirty-three years after The Story of Dr. Wassell was released, MacArthur was brought to the screen by Universal Pictures.  It was their attempt to capitalize on the success of the movie Patton, including sharing some of the same members of the production team.

macarthur-gregory-peck-1977-everettTold entirely in flashback, it stars Gregory Peck as the fabled World War II general who was born in Little Rock. It focuses primarily on events in 1942 during the war, his dismissal by Truman in 1952, and his famous address to West Point in 1962.

Peck initially did not care for the subject or the script, but eventually stated that he grew to admire the challenges MacArthur faced.  Peck later called it one of his favorites roles, if not one of his favorite movies.

Producer Frank McCarthy, who worked on both Patton and MacArthur once said of Patton and MacArthur: “Both were complex men but General MacArthur was complex on a much broader scale. Patton had no ambition except to be a soldier and to command a field army. He was strictly command.”

Most of the film was shot on the backlot at the movie studio, which impacted the quality of the film.  The production budget simply would not allow for overseas location filming.

The film was released in July 1977.  One of the premieres was held in Little Rock. Peck attended a reception in the Arsenal Building where MacArthur was born. Now the home to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, in 1977 the building still housed the Museum of Science and Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery).  Since MacArthur only spent a few hours in Little Rock as an adult, it is possible that Peck spent more time in the building than the General did.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,677 other followers