After 35 Seasons, Paul Pierce Passes the Torch at the Springer Opera House
Jan 26, 2023
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Jan 26, 2023
Contact; Allie Kent
Director of Audience Development
After 35 Seasons, Paul Pierce Passes the Torch at the Springer Opera House
Veteran theatre producer’s retirement ushers in a new era
Columbus, GA--On Tuesday night, the Springer’s longtime producing artistic director, Paul Pierce, gathered his staff onstage in Emily Woodruff Hall for an historic announcement.
After thirty-five seasons through which he has played the same part to great acclaim, he has chosen 2023 as the year that he will yield the stage to a new leadership team.
Pierce is one of the longest-serving theatrical producers in the country with a professional career that has spanned forty-six years and more than 500 productions.
“I’ve literally spent half of my time on Planet Earth at the Springer Opera House,” the 70 -year-old Pierce points out. “Leading the Springer has been the greatest honor and joy of my life but it’s time for younger, smarter people to propel this amazing theatre into the future.”
The Springer was a vastly different place when Pierce came to Columbus in 1988. In that year, two-thirds of the National Historic Landmark theatre was still in ruins, the bank accounts were nearly empty, there were only three full-time employees and annual attendance had sagged to fewer than 10,000 admissions. There was no annual giving program to support the theatre’s operations and the theatre was surrounded by boarded-up storefronts and condemned properties. Serious local theatre-lovers were driving to Atlanta or Montgomery to see plays.
By the end of Pierce’s first season, the Springer finished with a budget surplus. He began turning the theatre’s focus toward what he considered to be the essential elements of future success – artistic excellence and audience building. With the Springer’s new commitment to quality and professionalism, donations and ticket sales surged which gave Pierce the resources to restructure the organization, assemble a professional team and attract a cadre of prominent business people and philanthropists to the theatre’s board of directors.
The State Theatre of Georgia Designation
When Pierce interviewed for the job in 1988, he learned that the Springer was “the State Theatre of Georgia.” He was told that Governor Jimmy Carter made that designation in 1971 but he couldn’t find anything in the Springer archives other than a letter from the governor congratulating the theatre on its 100th anniversary. After a little more investigation, Pierce discovered that the State Theatre of Georgia designation was merely a gubernatorial proclamation that carried no legal weight.
He quickly scheduled a meeting with Rep. Tom Buck who was the dean of the local Georgia legislative delegation at the time and Buck informed Pierce that “governors giveth and governors taketh away.” The Springer’s status as an official state symbol would need to be put into law. Buck, Rep. Calvin Smyre, Sen. Pete Robinson and other legislative leaders in the General Assembly offered a bill to give the Springer the same status as other state symbols like the Brown Thrasher, the Cherokee Rose, the Azalea, the Great Seal and “Georgia On My Mind.” House Bill 1151 passed both houses and was signed into law by Governor Zell Miller in 1992.
When Pierce arrived, the talent base for Springer shows was small and insular. Oftentimes there were just enough actors at auditions to fill available parts. Pierce insisted that he needed three strong choices for every role in each season and that he was going to start casting a wide net – locally, regionally and nationally. That meant paying actors.
When he announced an “open call,” some local actors were offended. On the stormy night of the season audition, an angry crowd of local actors and their supporters gathered outside the Springer in the rain, chanting and shouting and daring anyone to cross their picket line. With a healthy police presence, order was maintained and hundreds of actors were able to audition. At the conclusion of the evening, Pierce went outside and invited the protesters to come inside to share Country’s Barbecue and music. This established the tone for his management style –kindness mixed with a firm commitment to excellence.
By 1995, annual attendance had tripled, professional actors were being hired for every mainstage show and audiences were traveling from Atlanta, Birmingham and Montgomery to see Springer productions.
However, Pierce recognized that the Springer audience was “graying” and understood that a younger, more diverse audience was essential if the Springer was to survive and thrive.
Enter Ron Anderson, Pierce’s University of Georgia classmate who was running the nation’s biggest theatre training program for children - First Stage Theatre Academy - in Milwaukee.
Pierce flew to Milwaukee to witness Anderson’s program and was stunned by its size, energy and its “Life Skills Through Stage Skills” philosophy. These were more than simple drama classes.
Anderson had created a community of students and teaching artists devoted to developing character and leadership skills in children. Pierce offered Anderson and his musically-talented wife, Debbie, and their then two-year-old son, Max, the chance to return to their home state and weave Ron’s “Life Skills Through Stage Skills” magic at the Springer. By the summer of 1996, the Andersons were in Columbus and over the next few years, the energy, youth and vitality of the Springer Theatre Academy transformed the Springer’s culture.
More children, more families, younger board members, audiences and donors became the trend and continues to this day.
After building a Springer Theatre Academy student body of a thousand registrations a year, Anderson passed away in 2016 following a two-year battle with cancer. Since his passing, the Springer Theatre Academy and its related programs – ArtServe educational outreach, PAIR (arts integration for teachers), Theatre for the Very Young, First Act children’s tour, Springer Children’s Theatre and SOHip improv – have grown and continue to thrive.
For seventeen years, Anderson and Pierce appeared together in the two-man holiday comedy show, A Tuna Christmas, set in the mythical town of Tuna, Texas. Together, they played twenty-one characters. With new casts, A Tuna Christmas continues to attract robust audiences each December. The show just celebrated its twenty-first year having attracted 44,000 over that period and generating over a million dollars for the Springer.
With his experience producing national tours for Repertory Theatre of America, Pierce founded Springer Theatricals in 1989, a national touring company that launched traveling shows out of Columbus and performed in venues coast to coast. The goal was to generate fresh revenue for the Springer while introducing Columbus, Georgia and the Springer name to the nation. Most shows were small cast musicals like A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, Pump Boys and Dinettes, the Official Blues Brothers Revue, Route 66, California Dreamin’ and The Marvelous Wonderettes. The last Springer Theatricals tour was in 2017 when America’s touring market contracted. Many small-town arts presenters shrank their seasons that year or went out of business altogether. Over 28 years, Springer Theatricals performed in over 900 cities in 38 states and generated $6.4 million for the State Theatre of Georgia.
Arts for All
Upon his arrival in 1988, Pierce was surprised to learn that the community had no arts council or municipal arts funding. He soon found a like-minded partner in Betsy Covington, the executive director of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley who was then director of development at the Columbus Museum. Together, the two lobbied city councilors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, local arts patrons and area arts institutions. With the advocacy of then-Mayor Frank Martin and Chamber of Commerce chair Steven Butler, the Columbus Cultural Arts Alliance was founded. A young councilman named Bobby Peters (later Mayor Bobby Peters) became convinced of the economic development potential of the arts and took the lead in establishing Columbus’ first city-sponsored grant program. That first allocation was $50,000. Over the years it has grown into a $200,000 annual grant funded by the Hotel/Motel Tax creating economic development partnerships that attract visitors to the city. Both the grant and the Columbus Cultural Arts Alliance are now programs of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. Pierce has served as chairman of both the Arts Alliance and the CVB.
Historic Preservation and Expansion
In 1998, the Springer participated in the Columbus Challenge Campaign for the Arts and raised $12 million to complete a foundation-to-roof renovation and historic preservation of the National Historic Landmark Theatre. This project also allowed the Springer to acquire seven adjacent derelict properties which were then renovated and absorbed into expanded Springer operations and programs.
In 2014, the Springer completed another $12 million capital campaign to expand its education facilities and construct the 300-seat, flexible McClure Theatre – affectionately called “The Dot” in honor of local children’s theatre advocate and philanthropist, Dorothy McClure.
The Springer Rejuvenated
The Springer was not Pierce’s first go-round running theatres. Before being recruited to come home to Georgia, the Rome native was associate artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of America, the respected national touring company with three traveling units covering a massive itinerary across the US and Canada. He then became producing artistic director of the Harbor Playhouse in Corpus Christi, Texas, a beautiful bayfront theatre complex overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Just before coming to the Springer, Pierce was the managing director of the Wayside Theatre, an Actors Equity Association stock company in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
As an actor, he worked for a dozen US theatre companies and performed on five national tours.
Once in Columbus, Pierce made sure to establish a home at the Springer for new works, producing world premieres of new plays. He started by founding the Deep South New Play Contest in 1991 which awarded cash prizes and full productions for the winners. Later, the Springer began commissioning works by rising Georgia playwrights such as Topher Payne and Natalia Temesgen.
Pierce is a playwright himself and six of his plays have been produced at the Springer over the years, including an adaptation of Karen Spears Zacharias’ Weatherford Award-winning Appalachian novel, Mother of Rain and Kudzu, The Musical based on local Chattahoochee Valley legends and tall tales with original music by Allen Levi.
As part of the Springer’s commitment to new works, a quirky, late night program called No Shame Theater was created in 2009 to showcase original theatre, music, poetry, rap, standup, improvisation and sketch comedy. Every Friday night, each performer gets five minutes to try out their material with a supportive audience. No Shame Theater now attracts 8,000 non-traditional theatre-goers and 500 performers each year.
“I love directing, acting and writing,” admits Pierce, “But my greatest passion is audience-building. I love seeing first-time theatre-goers gradually emerge as season ticket-holders, then donors and then lifelong supporters. When that happens, you understand that theatre has become an integral part of this person’s life. Everyone who comes to a play has one thing in common. They are human – and they each have a hole in their lives that they are yearning to fill. When the curtain goes up, the audience scans the stage for meaning because meaning fills those holes. Unless audiences get bigger over time, I’m not sure you can call my career a success.“
Audiences have gotten bigger. Since coming to the Springer in 1988, the Springer audience has grown 1100%. With 112,200 admissions a year, the Springer Opera House now serves the second-largest theatre audience in the state of Georgia, behind only Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. In 2013, Governor Nathan Deal awarded Pierce the Governor’s Award for the Arts in recognition of his long service to the cultural life of Georgia.
Columbus Film Industry
Pierce was instrumental in bringing the film industry to Columbus in 2015 when then-Governor Nathan Deal asked him to help establish a branch of his new Georgia Film Academy here. Deal was determined that Georgia’s burgeoning film industry would not just be a passing fad. To attract more - and bigger - film projects, the legislature established a 30% film tax credit for filmmakers shooting in the state.
Pierce had known the governor since he was in Congress because his daughter, actress Katie Deal, was a frequent performer at the Springer who had become a friend. “When the governor of the State of Georgia asks for your help, there is only one answer,” Pierce remarked at the time.
Pierce assembled a working group from CSU, the Springer, Chamber and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. CSU moved quickly to create a registration platform for the Georgia Film Academy and the Springer donated two studios to GFA for two years while the university ramped up its film program. Today, the Georgia Film Academy operates out of the sprawling 80 acre television and film complex at Flat Rock Studio and trains local crews to work in Georgia’s $4.5 billion film industry. Pierce serves on the Columbus Film Fund Board which offers privately-funded economic development grants to incentivize filmmakers to shoot their films in Columbus.
Stable Finances and A Deep Bench
As Pierce steps away from his role as producer and artistic director, the theatre is stronger than ever. The Springer is financially stable, has a strong balance sheet, no debt and the Springer Endowment Fund has quadrupled during his tenure. The Springer staff has grown from four to twenty-five employees in the past 35 seasons and the staff is among the most talented, innovative and collaborative in the American theatre. The Springer is deeply committed to developing the next generation of theatre-makers and offers a host of internships and residencies for young emerging leaders.
“As I look around the Springer today, I get emotional when I see the amazingly talented, kind and creative professionals that I get to make art with,” Pierce said. “This is truly a noble enterprise and our bench is very deep. There are numerous people here who could run an American theatre and I am confident that that is their fate.”
“The secret sauce of the Springer is our people – the loving, passionate, creative people who live and work together in this amazing theatre factory. This staff, this board, this audience – they are the great blessings of my life.”
Pierce is not leaving the Springer stage completely. The Springer board has named him Senior Advisor and charged him with expanding the theatre’s artistic and financial capacity.
“I’ll sort of be the living Springer Ghost. I might even direct or perform in a show from time to time,” Pierce said. “I still have a lot of theatre in me and my love of the Springer is a lifelong commitment.”
The Springer board has tapped two familiar faces to lead the Springer to the next level - Danielle Varner and Keith McCoy. They will begin their respective roles on October 1, 2023.
Danielle Patterson Varner, whom Pierce has often called, “America’s best managing director,” will step into the CEO portion of Pierce’s duties in the role of executive producer. Varner has
served the Springer for twenty-one years, first in sales, then development and finally as managing director. For the past six years, she has been overseeing day-to-day operations, budget tracking,
board relations and historic preservation.
“Danielle is a rare asset,” Pierce said. “She has insight into every aspect of the Springer, its history and its essential role in the community. She has been an effective fundraiser, historic
preservationist, cheerleader, mentor and servant leader. She makes friends wherever she goes and is a genuinely kind, generous and collaborative leader. Danielle was born for this
moment and I am confident that she and Keith will create a dynamic partnership to make Springer Opera House a prominent national brand.” Varner is a member of the Rotary Club of Columbus,
the chair of the Columbus Cultural Arts Alliance and was named one of “Georgia’s Most Influential Leaders” in 2022 by Georgia Trend Magazine.
"My time with the Springer has seen me in numerous roles that have spanned more than two decades,” Varner said. “I hope in all of those incredible years, I have been able to enrich it as much as it has enriched me. It has truly been a privilege serving this wonderful theatre, our loyal patrons and this community as I am eagerly looking forward to continuing to do so for many years to come. I am deeply honored to follow in the footprints of my mentor, friend and predecessor, Paul Pierce, but to also lead the Springer, alongside Keith McCoy, into an even more exciting and transformative future."
Keith Patrick McCoy will become the Springer’s new artistic director. McCoy is well known among local audiences, actors, designers, technicians and Springer Theatre Academy parents. He is also one of the American stage’s most admired and sought-after artists. Over the past thirteen years, this Portsmouth, Virginia native has served the Springer as a guest director, actor, choreographer and teacher and has become a dynamic driver of the theatre’s artistic success. A year ago, Pierce brought McCoy onto his team fulltime as a resident artist and then promoted him to associate artistic director in November of 2022.
Besides directing, acting and teaching, McCoy has been working to expand the Springer’s outreach efforts, seeking ways to attract new audiences and serve underserved populations. He will lead the process of choosing the theatre’s plays while cultivating fresh artistic talent both locally and nationally.
“Since he first came to work at the Springer in 2009, I have gotten to know Keith very well,” said Pierce. “I’ve directed him in many Springer shows and grown to admire his talent, intelligence, energy, discipline and kindness. Keith is that rare artist whose notion of “community” is very broad. He genuinely works to make the world a better place every single day. I am thrilled that he will now be the Springer’s artistic leader. Keith will add spice, excitement and a spirit of transformation to our theatre community.”
A graduate of Norfolk State University in theatre performance, McCoy has performed for countless regional theatres, summer stock companies, arts festivals and on national tours over the past twenty years. Springer audiences will remember him in lead roles such as Javert in Les Miserables, Jim in Big River, Crooks in Of Mice and Men, Jud in Oklahoma! and Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun. He has directed or choreographed Springer productions of The Color Purple, Little Shop of Horrors, Cinderella, Evita, Dreamgirls, Amazing Grace and Fences. McCoy has also been a popular lead teacher for the Springer Theatre Academy.
"I am honored and humbled by this wonderful opportunity to lead the Springer Opera House into its next chapter,” McCoy said. “I look forward to serving this incredible organization by building on the theatre’s legacy of success with passion, dedication and integrity.”
Dr. David Levine is the chairman of the Springer Board of Directors: “While recognizing the foundational contributions of Paul R. Pierce to the Springer Opera House over the past 35 years and his readiness to pass the baton, the Springer Board has made carefully laid plans for his transition into retirement. While we considered searching the wide world of theatredom, we found the two best qualified candidates right here among our Springer family. Danielle Varner, new Executive Producer, and Keith McCoy, new Artistic Director, bring a wealth of skill and experience to their positions, as well as a love for and connection with Columbus and the Springer. They are well poised to continue the Springer on its course to becoming the number one regional theatre in the nation.”
The Springer’s Board of Trustees looks after the theatre’s investments and real estate. Trustee chair, Frank Schley, has been involved with the theatre since he was a child and has been an integral part of the Springer’s evolution.
“Paul was one of the early leaders of Columbus’ cultural renaissance,” said Schley. “His efforts produced better theatre, better audiences and a better Columbus. As Paul steps back and gives new leadership their turn, I am grateful for all he has accomplished and comforted by his ongoing council and mentoring. If you are one who thinks Columbus is so much more than it was 40 years ago, raise a glass to Paul Pierce. The Springer he built is the cornerstone of the Arts District and it has become a regional powerhouse known across the country. I am excited to see what the team Paul has prepared will do with his legacy.”