Ironically, Norman Ussery landed his job as executive director of Theatre Arlington because he eschews drama.
“Sometimes when you put theater people in positions where they are running the show, there is a lot of drama because they are highly emotional people,” said Kara Lidell, a Theatre Arlington board member and chairwoman of the search committee that selected Ussery for the position last spring. “Norman is as cool as a cucumber. We like drama onstage. We don’t like drama offstage.”
Ussery has been at the helm of the downtown Arlington theater since last summer, after the previous director, Todd Hart, vacated the office to take care of pressing family matters in another city.
“When Todd left, it left a huge hole for us,” Lidell said. “We started looking for someone to replace him, and we really wanted somebody with a heavy business background. Theater is a business. We run it as a business. While the artistic part is very important, — we want the quality of main-stage productions to remain top-notch — it is important to have a person with a good financial background. And Norman is that person.”
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A veteran actor, director and administrator, Ussery was the unanimous choice of the Theatre Arlington board from a pool of 70 applicants, Lidell said.
Ussery developed his business chops at Duke University, where he majored in economics and minored in theater. But he learned how to deliver his lines long before he learned how to balance books.
“I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the third grade,” said Ussery, who was the executive director of the Twin City Stage in Winston-Salem, N.C., for seven years before coming to Arlington. “And I have been involved with the theater ever since.”
And that early performance had an interesting backdrop: the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Ussery grew up. Among his neighbors were actress Maureen O’Hara and a Danish gentleman named Borge Rosenbaum — whom we know better as the great comic pianist Victor Borge.
“He was just the guy next door who played the piano,” Ussery said.
In taking the reins from Hart, Ussery took over a theater that seemed to grow and improve steadily under the longtime leadership of B.J. Cleveland for more than two decades, and then Hart for four years.
“I didn’t think there were any problems that needed to be corrected,” Ussery said.
But Ussery does have a clear idea where he wants to head with Theatre Arlington, which is now in its 41st season.
“I feel my responsibility, and the responsibility of this theater, is to create and sustain an environment where the people in the community can come together and have a creative experience making shows and watching shows,” he said. “Both sides are equally important. We are trying to foster the enjoyment of the process, not just present a slick show.”
Ussery will get a chance to do that personally when he directs his first show, the chestnut Nunsense, begining May 9.
Ussery also wants to bring about changes in education and programs for aspiring school-aged actors.
“We’re going to increase the size of some of our classes,” he said. “And we’re looking at making one of our fall classes more performance-oriented.
“We want to be a place where families come together, and that happens even more so on our youth productions.”
He said he also hopes to expand the reach of the theater by branching out into a nearby venue.
“There is a small theater space at the Arlington Museum of Art. We are going to try to expand over there and try to do a couple of staged readings in that space to see if we can develop another downtown space for more experimental ventures,” he said.
The 2014-15 season will be the first one stocked with Ussery’s selections. It includes the musical mystery Whodunit, the holiday comedy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and the Broadway hit Urinetown; the season opens and closes with regional premieres.
“First of all, we were looking for things that we thought would appeal to the local community,” he said. “For us, the real challenge is finding things people have heard of but not seen too often.”