Performing Arts

Rose Pearson, Circle Theatre founder and arts visionary, dies

Rose Pearson, executive director for Circle Theatre, and and Bill Newberry, managing director, in 2007.
Rose Pearson, executive director for Circle Theatre, and and Bill Newberry, managing director, in 2007. STAR-TELEGRAM

Rose Pearson, co-founder and executive director of Circle Theatre, died Friday morning of cancer. She was 69.

Ms. Pearson’s wide smile greeted patrons on opening nights at the Fort Worth theater she founded with her husband, Bill Newberry, in 1981. And because the theater always had a small staff, she worked at almost every performance, every weekend.

Ms. Pearson gave the curtain speech at many performances, urging patrons to purchase early-bird subscriptions and to turn off their cellphones. Cancer treatments in recent years, however, forced her away from the stage she loved, and to regular patrons, her presence was sorely missed.

Associate producer Tim Long said Ms. Pearson was still working as much as she could, from home. Circle’s July production, Don’t Talk to the Actors, was reportedly the first production she missed in more than three decades of involvement with the theater.

Circle is in its 35th season; Lauren Gunderson’s play The Taming, described as an “all female power-play,” opens this weekend. Ms. Pearson and Circle Theater championed playwrights like Gunderson and advocated for the production of rarely performed plays.

She was committed to new plays and playwrights and intimate experiences between actors and audiences.

Harry Parker, TCU theater department chairman

“She was committed to new plays and playwrights and intimate experiences between actors and audiences,” said Harry Parker, chair of the theater department at Texas Christian University, who has directed many shows at Circle.

Ms. Pearson, a native of Canyon, majored in Portuguese at the University of Texas — her dream had been to live in Brazil — before moving to Fort Worth. She met Newberry while performing in A Streetcar Named Desire at the late Bill Garber’s Fort Worth Community Theatre (later called Fort Worth Theatre, now defunct). She was Blanche, he was Mitch. They decided to strike out on their own with a new theater.

For many years, FWCT and Casa Mañana were the biggest theater games in town, until the late 1970s and early ’80s, when four theaters sprang up: Hip Pocket Theatre, Stage West, Jubilee Theatre and Circle Theatre. (All are still going strong.)

Ms. Pearson and Newberry began their theater in the back room at a former Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda, on Bluebonnet Circle — the “Circle” in Circle Theatre. In a story about its opening published Sept. 11, 1981, former Star-Telegram arts and entertainment writer Larry Swindell wrote, “Rose Pearson’s Circle [Theatre] should become an important station in Fort Worth’s growing network of legitimate theaters. The inaugural attraction, The Great American Backstage Musical, signals the promise, not the fulfillment.”

Circle moved to a slightly bigger space on Magnolia Avenue a few years later. The goal was to focus on under-produced and new plays, and on lesser-known works by established playwrights. David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre and Israel Horowitz’s The Primary English Class were among the works produced.

“We always wanted to support the work of today’s playwright,” Ms. Pearson told the Star-Telegram in a 2006 story about the theater’s 25th anniversary.

She loved her theater and the people who worked there, and mostly the people who were her patrons, with a red hot passion.

Harry Parker, TCU theater department chairman

In 1994, Circle moved into its current home in a basement space in Sundance Square, where it operates with about a half-million-dollar annual budget and mounts five productions a year as an Actors’ Equity Association Small Professional Theatre. The 125-seat theater underwent a $300,000 renovation in 2009.

Ms. Pearson became an advocate for the arts in Fort Worth, active in the Live Theatre League of Tarrant County and supportive of other theaters. Circle has also championed the work of female directors.

“She has invested so much in the community,” Parker said. “She believed that one theater’s success was everyone’s success.

“She was a visionary, she was indefatigable. I don’t know anybody that was more passionate about great theater.

“She loved her theater and the people who worked there, and mostly the people who were her patrons, with a red hot passion.”

She made everyone around her better because she was always on the top of her game.

Circle Theatre Associate Producer Tim Long

Associate producer Long worked at Circle through much of the 2000s, then moved to New York and returned to Texas a few years ago. He said Pearson is the person who most challenged him.

“She never stopped working and was a go-getter,” Long said. “She made me a better person. She made everyone around her better because she was always on the top of her game.”

Long said the theater will continue, and a new staff structure will be put in place.

Funeral arrangments for Ms. Pearson are pending. A celebration of her life will take place in coming months, Long said, at Circle Theatre.

This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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