Longtime artistic director Steve Tomkins, who is retiring next spring, has helped build Issaquah-based Village Theatre from a small community theater into a major player in the local scene, while his successor, Jerry Dixon, mulls some changes.
Steve Tomkins isn’t really in the mood for reminiscing.
The longtime Village Theatre artistic director is retiring next spring at the conclusion of his 25th season at the helm. In that time, the Issaquah-based Village has grown from a small community theater into a major player in the local scene, with a new musicals program that’s served as the incubator for eventual Broadway shows, like the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal.”
It’s not hard for Tomkins to single out memories from the 60-plus shows he’s directed at Issaquah-based Village, from his first, in 1988, before he was artistic director (at four-plus hours, “probably the longest ‘Gypsy’ ever done,” he says) to a watershed “On the Town” in 1995. (“We were all out of our league, and somehow, with fire, energy and a pretty amazing cast, we took a jump.”)
But nothing animates him quite like the show he’s now working on: Disney’s “Newsies,” which opens Nov. 9.
“I haven’t done a memory lane in a long time,” said Tomkins, 70. “I’m a here-and-now kind of guy.”
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That may change once “Newsies” wraps up its run, and he’ll have only one show left on his docket to direct: “Hairspray” to close out Village’s season next year.
“I have a feeling the shortness of my tenure will hit me then,” he says.
Tomkins’ decision to retire wasn’t a sudden one. He’s been plotting the move for the past few years with executive producer Robb Hunt, who co-founded the theater in 1979. Knowing Hunt will be there to maintain stability during the transition makes it easier.
“That took a weight off me,” Tomkins said. “I can let this go.”
That doesn’t change the fact that Village Theatre and Steve Tomkins are nearly synonymous at this point.
“It’s going to be very strange to imagine a Village Theatre without Steve at the head of it,” says Brian Yorkey, the writer of “Next to Normal” and former associate artistic director at Village. “It’s bizarre.”
Tomkins had no inkling of his future in Issaquah during his first venture with Village: choreographing a 1987 production of “West Side Story.” A few years later, when he took on the artistic-director role, the theater was still a fledgling operation in many ways, with just Hunt and a few staff members.
“When we started, it was truly, in all good senses of the word, a community theater,” Tomkins said.
But some parts of the Village identity were already in place. Now, the theater’s Festival of New Musicals, which presents staged readings of nascent shows, is a key part of its infrastructure, but even then, Hunt and Tomkins wanted to program a new work on the mainstage in most seasons.
“The audience, at first, was not too thrilled about that,” Tomkins said. “You would have ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Brigadoon,’ and then there was this show they’d never heard of. But they were subscribers, so they came along.
“And then, over the years, we developed with the audience a way of understanding new musicals, supporting them [and] critiquing them.”
Under Tomkins, Village’s programming — which it presents both in its Issaquah home and at the Everett Performing Arts Center — settled into a familiar pattern: five mainstage shows a season, including one new musical and one play. The play choices tended to be old chestnuts, and the canonical works didn’t often stray too far from convention. Still, in the past five years alone, it’s presented vibrant productions of “Billy Elliot,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Dreamgirls,” “Les Misérables” and “Chicago.” All of those were directed by Tomkins.
In his programming, Tomkins has always tried to keep an eye on both innovation and tradition. At times, artists’ ambitions to burst convention can disregard the sometimes more traditional desires of audiences, he said.
“You always want to push the envelope just a bit,” he said. “[But] one of the things that being in this situation I think I was able to grasp is, ‘[Issaquah] is who I’m doing this for. I’m not doing it for downtown [Seattle].’”
Still, any notion that Village was just a neighborhood theater was upended when “Next to Normal” traversed from a Village reading in 2002 to an eventual Broadway opening in 2009.
“All of a sudden, the 3,000-mile distance didn’t seem to matter so much anymore,” Tomkins said. “[I thought,] ‘Oh my god, we can be a pipeline.’ ”
For Yorkey, Village’s development of “Next to Normal” is only part of the story. Growing up in Issaquah, the theater was the spark that ignited his love for the art form.
“I owe Steve everything,” Yorkey said. “I know that sounds a little like hyperbole, but I wouldn’t have done the things that I have done or been able to have the life I’ve had if it weren’t for Village Theatre and Steve.”
Taking over for Tomkins will be Jerry Dixon, a New York director and actor who’s directed Village’s productions of “Show Boat,” “The Full Monty” and last season’s new musical, shipwreck comedy of manners “A Proper Place.” He has many Off-Broadway and Broadway credits (including starring in the original cast of Yorkey’s “If/Then” with Idina Menzel), and is married to comedian and actor Mario Cantone, who played wedding planner Anthony Marentino on “Sex and the City.”
Dixon, 56, whose career has largely focused on new work, plans an expansion of Village’s commitment to it.
“Village Theatre has the ability and the infrastructure to do [new work] well,” he said. “They have every step of the way of development. Now what they need is an ambassador to tell the world what they do so well.”
Dixon envisions an increase to the number of new shows per season, and he’s mulling the idea of adding a smaller musical, with a cast of around three to seven people, at a different venue. Because economic factors have forced many new writers to create more intimate works, Village has been missing an opportunity to represent these voices, he said.
Also changing: the play slot, which will move toward more current works, he said. He wants the new musicals to feel more current too.
“While I enjoy directing a piece like [‘A Proper Place’], it’s not going to gain Village Theatre any mileage in terms of becoming a new creator of work,” he said. “It is a new work, but it feels like a classic. That’s what we have to sort of steer away from. If it already feels like ‘Mary Poppins,’ then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.”
Though he wants to expand the idea of what Village can be, Dixon also notes its importance as it exists today within the community.
“People who go to Village really feel like it’s their theater,” he said. “There’s something really beautiful about that.”
For Tomkins, bringing in Dixon is a key step to keeping the work fresh and continuing to attract national exposure, he said.
“This is a job that requires 110 percent all the time,” Tomkins said. “Theater is nothing if it’s stagnant. It always has to keep moving and changing and growing. I just feel at this point in my life, it’s time to turn it over.”
Tomkins may not want to dwell on the past just yet, but walking out onto the landing overlooking the theater’s lobby, he pauses for a silent moment of reverie. The walls are covered in photos of productions he’s directed. Actors are starting to arrive for a “Newsies” rehearsal.
“Yeah, I am going to miss it,” he says, his eyes starting to well up. “I’m trying to be philosophical about all this.”