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October 4 , 2004
BY michael terrazas
On appearances alone, Pat Miller might not “look” like a theater person. In a field of art whose practitioners often nudge the envelope of fashion—or, occasionally, consciously eschew it—Miller can stand out for her perfectly put-together ensembles, her simple yet elegant coiffure, her genteel demeanor. Hers is an elegant style.
But make no mistake: After 18 seasons as its managing director, Pat Miller is one of the main reasons Theater Emory (TE) is one of Atlanta’s most respected companies, not only for the quality of its offerings but for the seamless way it has synthesized the dual missions of, on the one hand, a professional theater company, and a top-tier research university on the other.
“Theater Emory considers itself fully a part of a research university,” says Miller, who this year will step down from the managing director’s post she’s held since arriving in 1986 to become a full-time faculty member. “We view our productions as research material.”
Evidence of this lies in TE’s practice of devoting entire seasons or sometimes a few years to explorations of individual playwrights, as it has done recently with Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Professors teach courses in theater studies on the dramatist in question; directors hold workshops to dig into the meat of plays and characters; and TE caps it all off with full productions of classics like The Master Builder and The Lady From the Sea (Ibsen) or Three Sisters (Chekhov).
But perhaps even more central to TE’s guiding ethos is an aggressive, even voracious approach to developing new work. Since the arrival of Miller and especially Artistic Producing Director Vinnie Murphy, TE has launched several projects all geared toward the creation of new theater—and thoughtful, collaborative introspection at each step of the way.
At no time has this calling been more clear than in 2004–05, when TE is devoting its entire season to Brave New Works (see story at right). Usually a biennial festival, Brave New Works takes a slate of scripts under development and hires professional directors to stage fully casted readings, often with the opportunity afterward for audience discussion with the cast, director and playwright.
Seeking out and bringing new scripts to fruition was not TE’s focus when Miller arrived—the company then was more interested in the classics, with a bent toward political commentary, she says—but within a few years it quickly became one of the company’s trademarks.
“I’ve always been interested in new works, new opportunities—it’s a great way to learn about theater,” says Miller, who before coming to Emory served as co-founder and co-artistic producing director of the Chocolate Bayou Theater Company in Houston. “Vinnie came about three years after me. He’s led the effort artistically [to develop new work], and I’ve helped by founding the TE advisory board and getting some national figures involved.”
“Pat and I have always thought of ourselves as the sort of ‘Mom and Pop’ of TE,” Murphy says. “She’s really the backbone of the theater. Projects like the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory would not have happened without her administrative talent. It’s been extraordinary to have a managing director who really understands the artistic questions you want to pose and can see the flexibility in terms of giving students and professionals the best shot at doing their best work.”
That combination—students and professionals—is another of TE’s trademarks. The company prides itself on casting Emory students alongside some of Atlanta’s best known and most talented actors, directors and technicians. That fact speaks to the other duality in things theatrical on campus: the symbiotic relationship between TE and the Department of Theater Studies.
TE is a fully functioning professional theater company; it hires professionals through contracts with Actors Equity Association, the prevalent industry labor union. But TE is inextricably tied to theater studies, a department within Emory College with all the requisite academic characteristics. For both to operate at the height of their potential, a dialogue must occur between the two sides, and sometimes negotiation and even compromise are necessary.
But far from allowing these related yet distinct missions to strain the relationship, Miller and her colleagues have embraced them as opportunities.
“At their best, the missions are parallel, but there are times when what TE needs to do, for example, might not involve a great number of students,” said Leslie Taylor, associate professor and chair of theater studies. “But TE can be very ingenious in figuring out ways to get students involved, so there’s a balancing that goes on over the period of a year or a couple years.”
“The dialogue [between TE and theater studies] has reached a level where it’s very keen and productive; there’s a back and forth that helps ideas to grow,” Miller says, adding that the two sides have become more closely intermeshed during her tenure. “What this situation gives is a wonderful kind of creative tension that you might not get in a traditional theater department.”
Miller said engaging with students—she also has a faculty appointment as senior lecturer in theater studies—always has been one of her favorite aspects of the job. And she can turn to the classroom full time knowing TE is in capable hands; Rosalind Staib now owns the newly created title of general manager, handling much of the marketing duties Miller relished, while other administrative tasks are dispersed more broadly among Murphy and others.
“There’s always been a tremendous working relationship between the two of us; Pat always gave me a great deal of autonomy,” says Staib, who over her five years at TE has gradually assumed more responsibility in areas that before had been solely Miller’s domain. “We have a lot of the same ideas in terms of marketing and our approach to things.”
Miller said she will miss the creative side of marketing TE productions to Atlanta theater audiences. Indeed, it is this very need to be creative in marketing that has helped Miller resist any temptations to get back on stage herself (she acted professionally for about a decade in the 1970s before shifting into theater administration). And she will retain her role as coordinator of the Friends of Theater Emory, a group of supportive patrons she helped organize.
But the prospect of devoting herself more to teaching is one that Miller looks forward to. She will continue to teach the introduction to theater and theater management courses she’s always taught, but now, when a student needs an hour to talk personally, Miller can give that time unreservedly.
“It’s not that I’ll have more time; it’s just a different pace,” she says. “When you have an administrative position, it tends to put pressure on your teaching. My greatest joy at Emory—and I’ve had some wonderful highs—has been seeing my students become my colleagues.”
Those students have gone on to important positions in arts management not only in Atlanta—at the Atlanta Ballet, the Fox Theatre, the Alliance Theatre—but in New York and beyond. Emory theater alums also have founded their own companies in town; Synchronicity and Out of Hand Theater are two examples.
“That’s the fun part, seeing those people turn around and grow up,” Miller says. “I just feel very blessed. Theater Emory has given me the opportunity to explore everything I’ve wanted to pursue.”