Asolo Brings Back Millman

With the hiring of Howard Millman as producing artistic director, the Asolo Theater Company is looking to its past to build its future.

Millman, 63, who currently holds a similar post at Rochester, New York’s GeVa Theater, was Asolo’s managing director from 1968 to 1980. Though he doesn’t officially begin until July 1, Millman plans to spend scattered days or weeks until then planning next season’s schedule and hiring staff.

Millman replaces artistic director Margaret Booker, who was fired by the board last year, and former executive director Lee Warner, who quit. The financially strapped theater reorganized the two jobs into one, a not uncommon move in the resident theater these days.

At a Feb. 7 news conference announcing the appointment, Millman vowed to bring back the rotating repertory setup that was long a hallmark of the Asolo, as well as a resident company and a classics-based repertoire, features that first attracted audiences to the theater.

Rotating rep was replaced by straight runs when the company moved into a new $15 million performing arts center, which also houses graduate conservatories for actor training and film, television and radio production operated by Florida State University. The increased costs of running the building, along with play choices that led to a sharp drop in attendance and contributions, led to an emergency fund drive last spring to keep the company alive. More than $750,000 was raised, but nearly $1 million more is needed this year.

Millman said the Asolo’s financial problems were not an obstacle to his return.

“I never lost my emotional attachment to this place,” he said. “This was my spiritual home.” He will take a pay cut of approximately $20,000 for the $80,000-a-year post, which will make him an employee of Florida State, which is paying the salaries of several top Asolo staff members in an effort to cut the theater’s expenses. Millman also will teach at the acting conservatory.

Rotating repertory and a resident company are expensive, he said, and the scheduling of plays and shifting of sets can be taxing on the crew. “But we still have enough staff here who know how to do this and do it very well,” he said, noting that many Asolo employees remain from his earlier time in Sarasota.

“We really chose the best candidate,” said Stuart Barger, president of the theater’s board of trustees. “It was after we arrived at that decision that we began to really appreciate the ramifications of Howard’s experience here.”

Yet Millman’s record at GeVa is mixed. On the upside, during his 12 years in Rochester, he built the subscription audience from about 4,000 to a high of 13,000; it has dropped to about 11,000 this year. He also led the company’s move into a renovated building. But GeVa’s accumulated debt has grown to about $1 million and the company owes about $2 million from the move to the new theater. The financial problems led last year to the cancellation of GeVa’s well-regarded new play festival after an intense battle with associate artistic director Anthony Zerbe, who ran the festival and left when it was discontinued.

Also in Florida, the American Stage in St. Petersburg announced that the husband-and-wife team who have run the theater for 15 years are resigning in August. Artistic director Victoria Holloway has accepted the post of artistic director of the theater department of Arizona State University in Tempe. She and her husband, producing director John Berglund, will remain as consultants to American Stage for the 1995-96.

The theater, which recently completed a $600,000 renovation project that expanded the company’s downtown facilities, has appointed actress Lisa Powers as interim artistic director and Thomas Altman, the company’s production coordinator, will serve as interim managing director. American Stage presents a mainstage season, a children’s theater program and school tour and a popular outdoor Shakespeare production each spring on the St. Petersburg bayfront.