Among longtime residents of Bristol Borough, it’s common knowledge that the town’s rejuvenation was set in motion thanks, in large part, to the vision of one woman — Susan D. Atkinson.
In the late ‘80s, she led the charge in transforming an old adult movie theater into the Bristol Riverside Theatre, which today boasts nearly 3,000 subscribers and has produced five world-class productions a year since its opening.
With her always-cheery disposition and knack for creativity, the founding director has become a staple figure at the regional theater, located at 120 Radcliffe St. But after the 2019-2020 mainstage season, audiences will no longer have the pleasure of experiencing Atkinson’s pre-show warm welcoming.
She, along with artistic director Keith Baker, who has lent his talents to the theater for 28 years, are stepping down from their day-to-day roles in the spring. The BRT board of directors recently launched an extensive search for new leadership.
“Susan Atkinson and Keith Baker have been vital to the longevity and success of Bristol Riverside Theatre and the Borough of Bristol,” said William Salerno, chairman of the board. “Together, they have given our theater and community a combined 61 years of service. We are so thankful to have them generously share their vision, leadership, creativity and dedication for all these years. Bristol Riverside Theatre is thriving with an amazing lineup as we enter our 33rd season. We wouldn’t be here today without all of their efforts.”
The efforts of Atkinson began in 1984 when the Grundy Foundation acquired the adult movie theater. The foundation had every intention of simply shutting it down, but Atkinson approached them with what she believed to be a better idea – turn it into a professional regional theater.
Though she was advised that such a venue wouldn’t be successful in the area, Atkinson wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Thankfully, Len Snyder, the executive director of the foundation at the time, believed she was on to something. After some fundraising and renovations, the doors to BRT opened on Oct. 15, 1987.
“From the beginning, Susan Atkinson was a visionary who saw possibility when no one else saw it,” said current Grundy Foundation executive director Eugene Williams. “It is that kind of foresight that has allowed Bristol Riverside Theatre to not only thrive artistically but also operate as a good civic organization that gives back to the community. In fact, the theater has generated millions of dollars for the economy. Her efforts have laid the groundwork for fostering the next generation of artists and patrons of the art.”
A prime example of this is Atkinson’s establishment of ArtRageous – a free summer theater camp for local at-risk youth. The program gets children and teens off the streets, provides two free meals a day, and offers mentorship and daily classes in acting, dance, poetry and more.
Throughout her career, Atkinson has directed more than 150 plays and musicals, including BRT’s Little Shop of Horrors, Witness for the Prosecution and Time Stands Still.
“Theater has been a tremendous influence all throughout my life, and I hope I’ve been able to share that joy,” Atkinson said. “People have said to me, ‘Walking into Bristol Riverside Theatre feels like walking into your home, Susan!’ I’ve always taken that as a compliment because more than anything else, I’ve wanted the theater to be a place where audiences are comfortable and welcomed.”
For the majority of her BRT tenure, Atkinson was joined by Baker, who steered its artistic vision while directing, singing and acting in more than 120 plays and musicals.
Baker was first hired by BRT as an actor in 1991, and eventually its artistic director in 1995. As a Bristol resident, Baker was determined to make the theater a must-see destination, and diligently worked to push creative boundaries. For example, in 2001, he invited Armenian director Armen Khandikian to direct a play at BRT about Armenian genocide.
“The ways BRT has nurtured me are simply unquantifiable,” Baker said. “The theater has made me search in myself for the best I can do in each capacity. My hope with each production has always been that the stage would reflect authenticity, that the audience would sense strongly that there was a mind, so to speak, behind the work. None of this would’ve been possible without the support of Susan Atkinson, BRT’s founding director, who allowed me to bring to the stage my most honest and creative ideas. I’ve worked with the most fantastic artists and staff anyone could ask for, and I’m grateful for it.”
More than 90 BRT plays and musicals have been directed by Baker, including Jesus Christ Superstar, The Producers and The Sunshine Boys. He is also the creator of the theater’s Summer Music Fest series and An American Christmas Songbook.
“Keith is dedicated to the theater’s audience and they adore him for it,” said Salerno. “He works hard to find out who they are and what they’re looking for. It is a testament to his commitment that even through this transition period, he reminds us of the importance of this relationship.”
BRT’s 33rd season recently kicked off with An Act of God, and will continue with two musicals, a drama, and the world-premiere of the comedy A Leg Up. Later in the season, a special event will honor Atkinson and Baker.
“It was important to share our bittersweet news at the start of the season,” said Salerno. “We invite audiences to enjoy their many talents one final time. We are thrilled by the terrific lineup they have in store for us. It is definitely one of our most anticipated and memorable seasons. They are leaving us with a season for the record books, and one to remember.” ••
Visit brtstage.org for more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org