Sunday interview with Paul Pierce: ‘If I croak in this theater, that will be fine with me’

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 25, 2014 

Paul Pierce is comfortable, confident and commanding on the stage of historic Springer Opera House.

And he is steeped in its history.

“If the Springer Opera House were not here, there would be a big hole in the world,” Pierce said. “Something would truly be missing and a lot of it in modern times really has to do with the fact that we’re not a presenting theater. We are producing theater. We create art from the ground up.

“This is an art factory.”

And Pierce, as producing artistic director, is the affable, driven foreman. Whether he is telling you to cut off your cellphone prior to a show or he is in character, he owns the stage and the moment.

Recently, Pierce sat on the set of “The Odd Couple” for an interview with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

How is it to come to work in this place, in this historic building every day?

It’s really amazing because the building is very much the same way it was in 1871. So, my office on the third floor probably wasn’t the office of the manager in 1871, but the path down to the stage, that’s what I think of every day is I am taking the same path to do the same things that managers of the Springer Opera House have been doing in the same building for 143 years. As I’m walking, just the rhythm of my day, I’m constantly aware of the ghosts of past Springer managers. They were doing the same thing during the day that I’m doing. I’m going to walk downstairs and talk to the box office manager. I’m going to walk down and talk with the technical director, I’m going to walk down and talk to the stage manager. And they had to have been right around this stage here. And, so, that’s amazing to me — and sometimes scary.

Why is it scary?

Because I don’t want to be the guy that messes it up. And I’m constantly thinking the Springer Opera House has to get better this year. It has to get better the year after that. You can drive past this building and it becomes part of the wallpaper of Columbus if you’re not careful. “Oh, the Springer has always been there, the Springer will always be there.”

We’re on the set of “The Odd Couple,” which is the production currently going on. Bringing plays like “The Odd Couple” is part of keeping it alive, right?

Definitely. It’s a strong title. One of the challenges that Columbus, Ga., has is the public is much more title crazy today than they were 26 years ago when I got to the Springer. There was much more of a feeling then, although the audience was much smaller, that, “Hey, we’re going on an adventure to the Springer Opera House and I’m sure it will be wonderful.” These days, if the title does not ring a bell to people, they don’t come. So the challenge of doing new works, the challenge of doing something that recently won the Humana New Place Festival in the Actors Theatre of Louisville, it becomes much more of a dicier affair, because the cost of doing it is the same as this, but the revenue is going to be much lower. You have to say, “Well, we’re going to do this for artistic cultural reasons. We’re going to do this because it’s a GOOD PLAY, not just because it’s a familiar title.” But, it is plays like this that keep the lights on at the Springer Opera House.

I’ve done a lot of these interviews over the course of the last two and a half months, and I’m a little intimidated being on this stage with you because this is your world. You own this place in a way that is intimidating to people who are not actors and who can’t do this kind of work. What is it that makes an actor or actress special?

An intense and sincere desire to communicate and an almost inescapable passion to communicate ideas. From my point of view — and I think you would relate to this — it’s part of my background as a Southern storyteller. I’m always aware that I’m telling stories. Sometimes I have to stop and say, “OK, this is not a good time for a storytelling session.” But the Springer Opera House is a big idea. It’s really a big idea and I have to think of the Springer Opera House not just as a building where we do things, but as an expression of Columbus’ identity, an expression of the South’s identity.

Part of the identity of this place is the Historic State Theatre of Georgia. What does that mean?

In terms of financing this operation, it doesn’t mean anything.

So, there’s no money involved?

We get as much money being the State Theater of Georgia as the Brown Thrasher gets for being the state bird. That’s where it stops. However, we are the oldest operating theater in Georgia and the seventh-oldest operating theater in the United States. We’re a founding member of the League of Historic American Theatres, and it was the renovation of the Springer that partly brought together all the other communities in the country at that time that were trying to save their historic theaters in downtown areas. So, we have that, but it’s part of our story.

How close did this come to being gone?

It had been condemned and there was a crane out on 10th Street waiting to start knocking it down.

Would that have been tragic?

Yes. ... This is Columbus’ Statue of Liberty. This is Columbus’ Eiffel Tower. And it’s been here for 143 years. This is the place where the community has been meeting for over a century. In fact, when the Springer Opera House opened, there was no Statue of Liberty. When the Springer Opera House opened, there was no Eiffel Tower. When the Springer looked out on the world, there was no Washington Monument. When the Springer opened, the Wright brothers had not been born. It was a different world and the idea that in the wake of the Civil War devastation that ruined the economy here, a little guy from Alsace-Lorraine, raised his hand — a grocer — and said, “I know what we need to do. We need to build an European-style opera house on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.” He had to have been considered the town nut for a while, but he put together partners and one thing lead to another, because in his part of the world, there was an opera house in every little community and it was part of the identity of those communities. When he moved here, there were lots of people, Germans and French from the Rhine Valley, living in Columbus. They had already started businesses, so there was already a group of people living here who loved music and dance and opera and theatre. He saw there was an audience here, and guess what, if we build this place and bring the very best talent in America and Europe to this devastated city, people here will start thinking differently about their town. Just because our mills and foundries have been burned to the ground doesn’t mean that this town is done for.

I understand what you’re saying and you say it very eloquently, but all you have to do is look across the street from here to realize ... we had a spectacular courthouse. It was torn down to make way for whatever that is ...

An electric shaver.

This survived. That county courthouse and its beautiful architecture didn’t. Why?

I don’t know. There is a couple of interesting things that did happen right at that moment. First of all, they tore down the courthouse to build the Government Center and they needed parking. And here was this old decrypted building across the street. They saw this lot as perfect parking.

This would have been a beautiful parking lot.

It would have been a beautiful parking lot, but at the time, there was a man by the name of Robert Porterfield who came to Columbus to speak to some civic clubs. He was from Abingdon, Va. He came to talk about using the cultural arts to boost the economy. He was the founding director of the Barter Theatre in Virginia. He showed up here to speak to the Rotary Club, the Kiwansis Club, and he found out that they’re getting ready to tear down the Springer Opera House which he had already heard of and he was incensed.

So, he changed the nature of his speech to talk about all of the people who had performed on that historic stage in there, and how the fabric of this building reflected the true nature of this community. And you’re getting ready to destroy it? So he planted a seed there. People started talking and looking at the Springer Opera House. It was an exotic idea. The idea that saving something old to make the future better, that was a new thing for Columbus, Ga. So, the saving of this theater started the historic preservation movement in Columbus, All the people who did that, Janice Biggers, Clason Kyle, Dot McClure, Chuck McClure. The immediate next thing that happened was the founding of the Historic Columbus Foundation, and saving the fabric of these other buildings nearby became the next thing.

How important are the arts in the economic development of downtown Columbus?

The arts industry in Columbus over the course of a year employs about 1,500 full-time equivalent people, and the total economic impact is about $52 million a year.

Have the number and the quality of downtown restaurants finally caught up with the ability to deal with the patrons on show nights?

Finally, yes, I think they do. I really honestly think at some point we ought to put up a statue of Buddy Nelms in the middle of Broadway. What he’s done with the downstairs at the Loft is just what we needed. Yes, OK, it’s another bar. Good, good, people seem to want bars on that one block of Broadway, but the food is just fantastic. And it’s not the only place to dine down here.

You can get in and out now and make a show. Use to it was a gamble, right?

Exactly, and when your server comes to the table, you can say, “We’re going to a show at the Springer so could you snap it up?” and they know exactly what to do.

That has not always been the case.

No.

You’re not from Columbus, right?

I grew up in Rome, Georgia, went to the University of Georgia, but I’ve lived all over the country as a professional. I was living in Virginia running the Wayside Theatre in Shenandoah Valley before I came back to Georgia.

Has that been difficult for you to be a manager?

Yes, it’s difficult everyday.

Are you a natural-born manager?

I had the great fortune right out of college to work for a producer named Drexel Riley in Texas who had been running a company called Repertoire Theatre of America, a national touring company. He had three repertoire companies on the road 10 months at the time and each one of those repertoire companies had three shows. So, my first job was touring for him. I did a 10-month national tour and then did two more for him. So, for over a seven year period, I performed in a thousand theaters.

And you were the road manager.

I became the road manager for him and eventually he brought me into the company as associate artistic director, but his point of view about all of this is it’s a fight. And there’s a threat and there are people who don’t want us to exist. There are people who are trying to wipe us out and we have to fight them. And it’s every day. And it’s true. There are people that think the money that’s going into the Springer Opera House either for tickets or for contributions, grants, or whatever, is a waste of resources. Why would we do that?

How do you fight it in Columbus?

First, I tell them the story. What’s your problem? Is it that money could be better spent? Let me tell you something, Fort Benning has been here for a long time. The Springer Opera House has been serving audiences from the Spanish-American War up to the recent wars. People have been coming in and out of this community, this community has seen caskets and body bags coming back to Columbus and over the years there has been real grief here.

Our friends, our neighbors, people we’ve gotten to know, and the Springer Opera House has served as one of the healing elements of some of that grief. I see over the course of time that people’s lives are better when they encounter theater.

How has Columbus changed in the 25-26 years you’ve been here?

First off, the fear of coming downtown. I think a lot of people who have moved here in recent years really don’t have a grip on how fearful people were about coming down here at night, parking their car on the street and coming inside this building for two hours. Cause they don’t know whether their car is going to be there, what shape it’s going to be in ...

You got here in 1988, I got here in 1989. What you’re saying resonates to me. There used to be a great fear of downtown Columbus.

We’ve been talking about this a good deal lately and I don’t think I have really done a good job of telling this story recently, but there is a description of this area that we should be using that we’re not using — Theater District. This is a theater district. Our theater is here, we’ve got the RiverCenter’s three theaters, we’ve got the theaters down at the river at CSU, all within walking distance. Name another city in Georgia that has a theater district.

You can stand in one place and hit every stage with a rock. Where else do you see that?

I’ve never seen it. You have to go to New York, Boston, Chicago.

Is that part of the DNA of this community?

I think it is now. I think the people who were thinking about the Columbus Challenge, for instance, and trying to conceive what kind of impact that might be, I think they understood that. I have to believe that the first day Rosier Dedwylder came to talk to me about the Columbus Challenge ...

What was the Columbus Challenge?

The Columbus Challenge was the capital campaign for nine arts organizations that took place in the late ’90s.

Nearly $90 million, right?

Yes. Ultimately it ended up being over a $100 million, but it started with a $25 million challenge from the Bradley-Turner Foundation, and it grew from there, because the initial match, the initial challenge, was met almost immediately. But Rosier came and said, “Paul, the Springer has demonstrated that there’s a capacity for Columbus to do something that it’s not currently doing. You’re attracting audiences.”

By that time we had recovered a lot. In the late ’80s, the Springer’s subscriber base had pretty much collapsed and people weren’t coming here and it was a pretty sad operation. And the building was just in shambles. As we invested in excellence, little by little the audiences came and the Springer became more vital and prosperous and things like that. He said, “You’ve proved that this can be done here.”

Have you had the opportunity to leave?

Oh, yeah.

Why haven’t you? ... Because all of the blood, sweat and tears that I, and not just me, but lots of people here who have joined the crusade, of those past years. I’m 61 years old now. I don’t want some young man or woman coming in here and enjoying all the fruits of my labor.

That’s selfish.

It is selfish. If I croak in this theater, that will be fine with me, while a bunch of young people are standing around taping their feet waiting for me to get out of the way. TOUGH! I’m going to be the director of the Springer Opera House until I croak — or as long as I keep doing a good job. The board of directors does have something to say about that.

I guess you’ll become a Springer ghost.

I’ll become a Springer ghost. I’m going to haunt this place for eternity.

Talk a little bit about the education in the arts. A couple of years ago, University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby said we need people learning how to make widgets and learning math and science skills rather than learning arts. Was he right?

He was totally wrong. I was offended that the chancellor of the University System of Georgia was saying some pretty insulting things about majors that the University System of Georgia offers. That baffled me.

Why is he wrong?

He’s wrong because the future of the economy of this country — and really of the world but definitely what we’re trying to accomplish in America right now — is based on two big things: innovation and collaboration. This is the land of innovation and collaboration.

People that are involved in the theater arts are working collaboratively solving problems in lots of pretty complex areas on a tight time frame, and they are creating something that is immediately either rejected or accepted. And people that are involved in theater are use to working on limited budgets and maximizing the resources available to them.

You walk all over this building and you’re going to see carpenters, electricians, stitchers, designers, marketing people, sales people and crafts people, all working together to create one thing. The age of specialization is long dead. It’s gone. This is about being able to be flexible and to do things that need to be done right now, today.

How many Columbus State kids are performing on this stage?

A lot. And the fact that they’ve moved downtown has been transformational for both of us, because now we have internship programs and there are classes where they get credit for doing things at the Springer Opera House. They are overseen by Springer staff and evaluated by CSU faculty. They are inside our building every day, and when they graduate they’re coming to work for us. Matthew Swindell, our production stage manager, two years ago graduated with a theater degree at CSU, came immediately out of school and came onto our staff because that position was open.

Cameron Bean came out of CSU, right?

Cameron Bean, Katie Underwood who is the manager of our touring program; she’s booking for us a national tour. She came to us as production stage manager and then was promoted.

I saw where Cam just got hired as director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Is that a good thing?

A very good thing. Very good for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and fantastic for Columbus. Cameron is one of those rare guys that has a vision and he has the energy to accomplish that vision.

Let’s say you are the superintendent of Muscogee County schools. How do you teach the arts k-12 in this city?

The first thing you’ve got to do is establish a graduation requirement that requires students have an art credit. Right now we don’t have that. You can go all the way through school and not have any art credits.

Is a student less rounded because of that?

Oh yeah. It’s the old thing, we’ve gone back to the future. We’re now, and I have to say our new superintendent (David Lewis) understands this better ...

He’ an old band director, right?

He’s a band director. He understands the value of the arts in education. But every student needs to have their hands on the stuff that art is made of. That means they need to do it. They need to paint. They need to draw. They need to sculpt. They need to make music. It’s not all about art appreciation. It’s not all about loading up buses and bringing them to the Springer Opera House. Although this is big, 15,000 students a year see shows at the Springer Opera House after getting off of a bus. And it is a big part of their education, but one, we’re paying for a lot of that — we’re raising the money for the buses and the drivers and the gas, and we’re subsidizing the tickets. That’s fantastic; that’s part of what the school system needs to be doing, but every student needs to get their hands dirty in the arts.

Where do you stand on a performing arts academy?

It’s going to happen, so what I think about it isn’t going to have any impact...

With your role in this town, you could have impact on curriculum. You could have impact on offering a venue for them in some ways.

Definitely, but the arts budgets in the schools for every student, the arts programs that every student could benefit from have been decimated.

Are you talking about ...

Every school.

Not just the Title I schools?

No. The arts programs have been stripped to almost nothing, and if it weren’t for teachers who, for one, are paying for materials out of their pockets a lot, and some teachers, mostly veteran teachers, who found outside funding for their programs ... If it weren’t for them, these kids would have almost nothing. And so it rankles me that we would build a separate institution, skim the best off the top of every program and put them in one school, while every other student in the other schools are in horrible circumstances. Some of their facilities have been neglected, their supply cabinets are empty, and there are schools here who have theater programs but they can’t afford the bulbs for the lighting instruments on their stages. And so I say fantastic. There is going to be a fine arts academy and the Springer will participate and we will support it in every possible way we can, and we want to. But I say at the same time, let’s make sure that every music, theatre and visual arts teacher has the supplies they need to give every child a meaningful experience in the arts.

I just made you the school superintendent. Now I’m going to make you the mayor. If you’re the mayor of Columbus, what are you going to do?

One, I would say, is corporate and private support, fantastic. That’s where Columbus is king. All over the state, anywhere else, even in Atlanta, those institutions don’t have the corporate support that Columbus, Ga., has. Corporate support is one leg of the three-legged stool. Another leg is the city and the city really needs something in the general fund to support, strengthen arts programs and leave some room for emerging groups.

Incubator stuff?

Yes, small groups. You’ve seen groups that have emerged and gone out of business. You know the Chattahoochee Shakespeare, the old Human Experience Theatre. That happened, in terms of theater, because the Springer and the RiverCenter have become the big box stores, and we are focusing on titles so much in order to get people in the seats that experimental work, new works, something edgy, offbeat, there’s really not much room for that.

Let me take the soapbox away a little bit and go back to this, the theater. What is the favorite role you ever played on stage?

The favorite role, well, that horse is out of the barn. For 12 years, I’ve been doing “A Tuna Christmas” with Ron Anderson.

That’s it; that’s your favorite?

We’ve done so many performances of that show — about 50,000 people have seen that show over 12 years in one of those two spaces over there. You know, it’s just the joy ... my gosh, I’m 61 years old. I’ve come back to the point where I remember when I was young and I had these lofty artistic goals and visions, and things I wanted to do, and I do get to explore them from time to time, but I’ll tell you, there is nothing that gets me more excited than giving joy to a room full of people. For people to be smiling and laughing and having a good time, and they leave and their day is better, their world is better, they feel complete, they love their families more, whatever. This is the house of joy.

What advice would you give those entering the arts industry today?

First, do everything that you possibly can do, even the things you’re not currently interested in. There’s so few jobs in the industry and people do tend when they get hold of them hang on to them as long as possible. But when something becomes open, you need to be able to say yes, I can do that. It may not be the thing that you want to do this year, but take the job because you get to be on the inside. You get to see how the whole thing works day to day. You see the challenges that come with helping a theater company survive. We’ve lost 65 American theaters since the fourth quarter of 2008. They’ve gone out of business.

You just built a $9 million expansion. That is counter to the trend?

Yes. Well, the total was $11.5 million but some of that was endowment money. But somebody has to wake up everyday and say, “It’s not going to happen to my theater, now way.” I think one of the things you would get if you interviewed other members of the staff is they all have the feeling that this is a calling.

“That’s not going to happen to my theater.” Is that passion or stubbornness?

It’s both, it has to be. The fighting part is just a habit. That just becomes a life habit. The passion part is what the public sees and it’s what the other employees see. It’s what artists see in the rehearsal hall. That part of it has to be there because like I said, the Springer is a big idea. It’s one of the things, you know we were talking about mentoring somebody that’s coming up. If there was one thing I could tell my successor it would be: “It’s a big idea. You have to think about everything all of time. You’re on the third floor, the box office manager is on the first floor. You actually could go for days without seeing the box office manager, but the box office manager is on the front lines.

That’s a bad idea, right?

That’s a bad idea. The box office manager is the face and voice of the Springer Opera House to most people. When I come out here and give the curtain speech, there’s a lot of people don’t know who the heck I am. They think I’m the cellphone man. And yet, Izzy Brown in the box office, they know her. Izzy needs to hear from me from time to time, and she needs to see “Wow, Paul’s in the rehearsal hall and he’s excited about the cast he’s got” or something like that. It’s a big idea and everybody has to be hitting on all cylinders all the time. And I can’t say, “Well that’s Jamie’s job to look after Izzy; that’s somebody else’s job.

When you have a set built like this, and getting toward the end of your season now, do you ever come in here and just sit on the set and look out at all the grandeur and all the detail and all the history?

Oh yeah. I’m in here alone a whole lot. Think about this. I saw something I believe in one of the old Enquirer Sun’s. When I got here I was spending my time at the library looking at microfilm reading stories about the Springer. In 1896, the Springer had reported 4 million admissions in 1896. So, in 1996, the year of the Olympics, the year of that ..... got here, it hit me. It’s been 100 years since the Springer had recorded 4 million admissions, and the Springer was only 25 years old at that point.

Four million over 25 years?

Over 25 years. And then this wave of realization came over me. My gosh, this is 1996. A hundred years have passed since then. And here we are in 2014, the ghosts, if you want to call it that, are here. The people who brought all of their joys and their fears and their pain and their brokenness and their hopes, into this room and laid them at our feet and then surrendered. That is an incredible ritual.

Is this your sanctuary?

Oh yeah. This is the place. This is the only place to be. That’s why I’m no longer the young energetic guy that came to Columbus in 1988. But, I’ve got to make the young people think, “Wow, where does he get that energy from?” Unless they’re seeing that, then I don’t think they understand how essential the Springer Opera House is to the world.

... We have a scene shop back there, we have costume shop, we have a property shop, there’s an electrical shop downstairs, we have a sound studio. These are people who are building something with their hands, they’re sweating. At the end of the day they stink. Really, art stinks. All art stinks. When you’re painting you get the oils on your hands, you have to put turpentine on them, wash it off. If your a dancer a choreographer, you go home and you’re soaked, you smell bad from the rehearsal or performance, and art is visual, it stinks.

I walk through the scene shop, sometimes I see a technician and shake their hand to thank them and they say “I’m dirty.” And I’ll say, “It’s my honor to shake your hand. I want to feel the sweat on your hands. I want to feel the sawdust because this is where I come from. You are what makes the art here.” If I walk home dirtier or if I stink a little bit because I came in contact with people who sweat for a living back here, it’s my honor, it’s my honor — I want that. And the people who come here now, they know that there is a difference when you built it.

The people that do this live in our homes, they pay rent and mortgages here, they shop in our stores, they send their children to school here, they go to church here.

The people who work here are part of the fabric of Columbus, Ga. And the things they put on the stage are uniquely ours. Yes, we have guest artists that come and go, they’re from some other place, even while they’re here, they are buying things, they’re shopping here, they’re eating here, there getting a drink here, whatever, and you see them on the street for weeks and weeks at the time. That’s what is amazingly wonderful about being a producing theater, and certainly being the Springer Opera House.

BIO

Age: 61

Job: Producing artistic director, Springer Opera House

Education: East Rome High School, 1971; attended Floyd Junior College; University of Georgia, BFA, drama, theater, 1977

If you hadn’t been an actor, theater director, a manager and a producer, what would you be doing right now? I came from a poor family, so I was working in a couple of the mills there so I could go to college and pay my rent. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know the world; I didn’t know anything. I really didn’t know anything. I went to work for Fox Manufacturing Company in Rome, which made finished wood furniture. And Fox was a fantastic old company — doesn’t exist any longer — but I went on just as a worker in the mill room. ... Eventually, while I was going to school, they made me a lead man, which is kind of like an assistant foreman, and then they were ready to offer me a foreman’s job and the owners of the company came to me and asked me if I wanted to be in the management training program.

At the time, Fox Manufacturing Company was like our TSYS. It was one of the big companies in Rome, Georgia, and they were asking me to become management, and they saw something there. A lot worse things could have happened than me becoming a manager of Fox Manufacturing Company and build furniture for the rest of my life. About the same time I had applied to the University of Georgia to transfer and I got accepted. I was standing there at that moment thinking I’ll either drop out of school and become a manager for Fox or I’ll leave town and go to the University of Georgia. And I went to Athens.

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