Tradition of excellence

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

The Bristol Riverside Theatre was deserted except for a single spotlight casting a shadow across the stage. It was several hours before excited theatergoers would be clambering through the doors clutching their Jesus Christ Superstar tickets, anxiously awaiting a night of live entertainment. Not even noon yet, the excitement behind Keith Baker’s eyes was already bursting.

For the past 25 years, Baker has guided The Bristol Riverside Theatre’s vision as its artistic director. At its 30th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, June 3, he will be honored by the place that has received so much of his heart and talent over the years.

Decades of dedication: For the past 25 years, Baker has guided The Bristol Riverside Theatre’s vision as its artistic director. He will be honored at BRT’s 30th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, June 3. TIMES PHOTO: SAMANTHA BAMBINO

Baker’s entire life has been guided by a love of performing. He attended drama school at 17 years old, and soon after, began a New York career as Pirchik in the original company of Fiddler on the Roof. The young actor traveled across the country, performing with various companies in regional theaters until a new opportunity arose — an artistic directorship with the Kentucky Shakespeare festival, which he took for five years. Fast forward to the ’80s, Baker transitioned his directorship role to Palm Beach, Fla., where he enhanced his skills for the entire decade.

Baker came to BRT toward the end of 1991 as an actor, hired by founder Susan Atkinson. Originally setting out to pick up his New York career, he found a home at BRT, and was eventually offered the role of artistic director, never looking back.

“I actually did not recognize the fact that I had been here for 25 years,” Baker says. “And I must say, it couldn’t be better. I have a theater. I have a place to perform all of the things that I do, to use all of the skills that I happen to have.”

High on the list of Baker’s many talents is his ability to visualize and program an entire season for the BRT, meticulously searching for shows they can perfectly produce onstage. The theater puts on five mainstage shows each year, and choosing which productions to include is a balancing act. If they do a three-person show such as Driving Miss Daisy, it must be countered with a large production such as Jesus Christ Superstar, otherwise the shows won’t appeal to a wide mass of people.

In addition to various types of shows, each season has a theme, and it’s up to Baker to decide what he wants to talk to his audience about that year. At first glance, a live stage show seems like pure entertainment, but there is intense thought behind the scenes as he and Atkinson constantly wrestle with what they want the audience to think about during the show and on the car ride home.

“There is a mission to what we do, a mission to try to get people to feel more deeply, to think more clearly, to laugh harder, to create joy, to create challenge,” Baker says.

Although he started his career in the Big Apple, he doesn’t regret staying in the local theater scene one bit and actually prefers it to the chaotic and constantly changing world of Broadway. Non-for-profit theaters such as BRT are deeply connected to their communities and work to enliven their spirit, whereas Broadway is “all about money,” according to Baker. His latest project, the soldout Jesus Christ Superstar, is the highest rated and selling production in the history of the theater.

Production of Jesus Christ Superstar started a year ago when Baker began the most critical part of a show — choosing his cast. Over a period of months, he went through 34 people to get his ensemble of 16, and didn’t see his final group together until the first day of rehearsals.

“Somehow you keep your fingers crossed and use all of your wisdom and good nature and everything else to get them to become a company of people, all of whom are working with the same energies, the same level of intensity,” Baker says.

He made it a point to get to know his cast to make them more comfortable in the environment. The Jesus Christ Superstar company fortunately came together quickly and with an infectious chemistry that is evident onstage.

So what does the future hold for the next 25 years of local theater? Baker has full confidence it will remain unchallenged in its unique experience. While it is difficult to excite all age groups with every show, some productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar end up being unprecedented hits with both young and old. The audience is seeing raw talent, something that hasn’t been manipulated by an editor, which can be a transformative experience for some.

“I see people leave this theater on certain occasions. I look at them and I know they’re not the same person who walked in. Something has shifted for them. Something has caused them to think differently,” Baker says.

As artistic director, Baker’s main preoccupation will continue to be coming up with new and creative ways to make the audience feel as if they’re in the plot of the show, compelling them to listen through beginning, intermission and ending so at the end of the journey, they’ve almost forgotten that real life awaits outside the theater doors. ••