Over a latte at Mylo Coffee Co., John Miller-Stephany asks eagerly about local restaurants and coffee shops, the best place to eat pizza, and the difference between neighborhoods like the Heights and Hillcrest. As the new producing artistic director at The Arkansas Repertory Theatre (Rep), Miller-Stephany hit the ground running in the weeks following his move to Little Rock, and it took a national holiday — Thanksgiving — to get him to take a day off and finally unpack the boxes piled in his living room. In the short moments between work and sleep, he’s getting to know his new city and so far, he’s liking her quite a bit.

“Bean counters love to talk about the economic impact of the arts on a community,” Miller-Stephany says. “Civic study after civic study shows that one of the main things that turns a neighborhood around is an arts organization.” Miller-Stephany has seen this firsthand — a state-of-the-art theater is built and within a span of just a few years, surrounding warehouses and surface parking lots are bought up and transformed into high-dollar condominiums. “Time and time again, you’ll see that arts are a great economic engine.”

No stranger to cities that benefit from the arts, Miller-Stephany grew up in Rochester, New York, before attending college at New York University. As a theater student at NYU, Miller-Stephany took an internship at The Acting Company, a small touring theater created by John Houseman and Margot Harley with members of the first graduating class of Juilliard’s Drama Division, which at the time included young unknowns like Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone. “I started doing glamourous things like photocopies and running errands, and I got to know how a nonprofit theater works while pursing life as an actor,” Miller-Stephany says.

But pursuing that acting career after college didn’t go as smoothly as planned. “At auditions, I’d be in a row of young actors, all of us basically the same age and the same type, and I’d look down the row and think ‘Oh, he’d be perfect for the part.’ When you think that you’re dead in the water,” he laughs. “And when I would get cast, I’d be interested in the decisions artists make. Why is the director asking us to do that? Why am I wearing this costume? I’m sure I was a total pain in the ass.” Miller-Stephany quickly came to the realization that the acting life wasn’t for him. “I didn’t have the inner fire or the inner focus to be an actor, but I really loved the theater and was interested in the bigger picture. I wanted to direct and produce.”

At the time, Miller-Stephany was still working off and on with The Acting Company, so an associate producer position was created for him. He turned down a graduate school scholarship to stay with the company and spent seven years honing his skills before he was offered a producer position at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis — one of the largest nonprofit theaters in the country. “It was an incredibly exciting time. At The Acting Company, I had my fingers in everything administratively, but the Guthrie didn’t need me for any of that. I was totally focused on the art, the work.” Under the leadership of the Guthrie’s artistic director Joe Dowling, Miller-Stephany had his first taste of directing full-scale productions. “I went out there thinking I was going to be there for three or four years then come back to New York,” he says. “I stayed for almost nineteen years.”

During that time, Miller-Stephany watched as downtown Minneapolis was transformed by the addition of a $125-million theater designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel. When Miller-Stephany began working at the Guthrie, the theater was making $10 million a year. By the time he left, they were at $27 million a year. It was a time of tremendous growth, and one that Miller-Stephany is proud to have been a part of, until the time came for Joe Dowling to step down. With new leadership came a new administration, and suddenly, Miller-Stephany found himself wondering what was next.

When he stumbled upon the Artistic Director position at the Rep, Milller-Stephany was intrigued. The Rep was the only professional theater in a 300-mile radius and in its 40-year history, had seen only two artistic directors before him. In a single season, they might perform Macbeth and The Little Mermaid back-to-back. Miller-Stephany wasn’t sure what to expect when he submitted his resume, but every time he was called back to Little Rock to meet with the search committee, he became more and more excited about the opportunity. “The job itself was interesting, but I was blown away by the people I met,” he says. “The search committee was made up of board members and community members and civic leaders, and they were all really warm and open-minded and clearly dedicated to this theater.”

With a background in musicals and experience directing classics at the Guthrie, Miller-Stephany loved the eclectic programming of the Rep, and he has no plans to change that in his new position. Diversity in the plays the theater produces encourages diversity in the audience. “I love to have people from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds in the same room, breathing the same air as an artist who is telling a story, and have the experience of sharing that story live,” he says.

To say the Rep’s current season is diverse would be an understatement. Following this fall’s productions of Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Crucible, 2017 will see musicals Sister Act and Godspell, as well as Jar the Floor, a comedy about four generations of African-American women.

“When a play is compelling, whether it’s a really funny comedy or a gripping suspense or a heartbreaking tragedy, if you tell the story well, you can create a sense of community in that room,” Miller-Stephany says. “And I think that is highly valuable, especially now, because so many forms of entertainment pull people apart. Theater is very dangerous. It’s unlike television or film, which are very processed. In the theater, anything could happen. There’s always this sense of ‘what if?’ It’s immediate and visceral and absolutely magical.”

Miller-Stephany is not only passionate about building relationships between the theater and the community, but making sure those relationships start early and grow over time. “If you can get people to be arts consumers at a young age, they’ll come back to you as adults,” he says.“At some point they fall away — they go to college, get married and have children. There are years when they don’t have the time or money to embrace the arts, but they always come back.” The Rep’s outreach to young people includes “Pay What You Can” and “Pay Your Age” nights, but it’s the recent philosophy shift of their education program, under the new leadership of director Anna Kimmell, that especially excites Miller-Stephany.

Once a highly competitive summer program, the Rep’s educational programming is now all-inclusive and year-round. “If 150 kids want to participate, 150 kids should get to participate,” he says. “The program is about theater techniques and practices, but it’s really much more about people skills, life skills. It’s about learning how to work together, how to collaborate, how to take direction, opening up your imagination, problem solving, building self-confidence — it’s all things that will serve these young people well in the future, no matter what they end up doing.” With extra space thanks to the addition of The Annex, the Rep now offers classes for children and adults, as well as scholarship opportunities for those who can’t afford classes on their own.

Children who grow up going to classes at the Rep, and the parents who enroll them, begin to feel a pride of ownership for the theater, and that ownership is a seminal part of a theater’s success. “I love the idea of having audiences buy into the institution—a subscription every year so that you start to understand the breadth of the stories that are being told, the varied styles. I love when a community starts to feel ownership of an artist’s work.”

And like an audience member will begin to feel at home at the Rep, Miller-Stephany is beginning to feel at home here. “My house is still awash with boxes,” he laughs. “But I had a chance to hear the Symphony play in the new Robinson Performance Hall, and it was thrilling. I’m starting to get a sense of the community and what the capabilities of the Rep are, and I feel like this is a good place for me. I think my instincts were right.”

SAINTS & SINNERS
January 28, 6 p.m.
Little Rock Marriott Grand Ballroom
Info: ahodge@therep.org