No People Like Show People

As a political fixture in the 1970s, Vincent Insalaco can fill stories of Arkansas’ political history with living, breathing characters. Or he can help you understand the obvious, but not immediately apparent, connection between the video rental business, independent film and the straight-to-streamer options we enjoy today.

To date, his 70 years have been anchored by not just one, but several fulfilling careers, a lasting and influential love story and a deeply rooted community. It’s a compelling narrative, to the point that even Insalaco, at times, feels his life has been too perfectly scripted to be his own. So it seems fitting the thread he can always pick out between his many chapters is the importance of story, performance and the meaningful connections that form on both sides of the stage.

In some ways, his journey to co-founding the Argenta Contemporary Theatre (ACT), originally the Argenta Community Theater, and holding his current position as producing artistic director started with a lonely childhood in New York. As a kid in the 1950s, he developed a years-long case of rheumatic fever. He was often bed-bound, so instead of playing sports like his brothers, he turned to reading and music. He credits his arts-focused interests with setting his path to the theater. And it’s why to this day, while always quick to defend sports, Insalaco equates the significance of the stage to the discipline required on the field.

“Theater provides the same characteristics that a young person needs: discipline, education, how to put yourself in a community, professionally,” he says. “A football player will practice for months in order to have that field goal or that touchdown, and an actor will do 100 hours of rehearsing before they stage a show. It is very much in common. And I think most people don’t see that, but I do.”

His family relocated to Florida in his teenage years, but after an unhappy stint there, he ended up in Arkansas at 16.

“What can I say? I’m one of those people who prefers mountains to the beach,” he says.

There was enough rustic beauty and a burgeoning performing arts scene to keep Insalaco in The Natural State. He immediately started acting in dinner theater, then transitioned to directing through the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts), and all by his late teens.

It was through the arts community that he met Sally Riggs. In fact, it was Bill and Judy Trice, parents of Will Trice, the current executive director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, who introduced them when they all worked together at the arts center. It was a fateful introduction that would change both of their lives and, by extension, the performing arts landscape of central Arkansas.

Riggs, as Insalaco rightly describes her, is a North Little Rock icon. When she met Insalaco she had just returned home to Arkansas after performing in numerous traveling productions, in “Hello Dolly” on Broadway and as part of the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the West End in London.

“When she came home, she was considered one of the best dancers, certainly in the region if not in the country,” Insalaco says.

Riggs was supposed to be back home for a short time, but it turned out to be a new chapter instead. She decided to stay, and they made a life together. The two were married for 33 years and had two children. During that time, Riggs opened Studio One for the Performing Arts, sharing her love of dance with thousands of students in central Arkansas.

Insalaco also made a career pivot, but into politics. Putting up yard signs for David Pryor in 1972 led him to become president of the Young Democrats of Arkansas and eventually chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. He also worked for Governor Bill Clinton, and subsequently President Clinton, working in events. But the shift from the stage to politics wasn’t as stark as it seems on the surface.

“It has a great deal of similarities with producing. You’re telling stories in theater, and in politics you’re putting stories in place, whether it’s in a commercial, whether it’s at an event or at an arena. It’s still a production.”

Credit: Jason Masters

In the 1980s, Insalaco also owned a successful video rental business, supporting independent film by stocking plenty of straight-to-video options before selling in the early 2000s.

The 2000s also brought tragedy. At just 57, Riggs died from renal cell cancer. Insalaco’s community rallied around him and encouraged him to find something positive to focus on in the wake of Riggs’s death.

“I really wanted to honor her,” he says. “Most people who knew us knew I pretty much worshiped her.”

Judy Tenenbaum, his faithful friend and fellow theater lover, was there to support him when he decided to return to the stage.

“Judy had really started the whole movement in Argenta. Judy and some others like John Guidan helped make it possible for us to get the building we are in now.”

And with that, the Argenta Community Theater was well on its way to becoming an icon itself, complete with a mainstage theater named in honor of Riggs, nestled in the heart of the Argenta Arts District. Papers for the project were filed in 2008, but remodeling the space pushed their official founding dinner to February 2010. President Clinton, Mary Steenburgen and Governor Mike Beebe headlined the gala, hosting nearly 1,300 people in support of ACT.

“It was a remarkable group of people,” Insalaco remembers. “It was a magical evening.”

After an enchanting kickoff, Insalaco wanted to make sure ACT’s productions had a promising start as well. The first show was directed by Bob Hupp, then The Rep’s producing artistic director. While Hupp encouraged Insalaco to direct the first production, Insalaco remained firm in his vision.

“I was afraid the community at large might think we were trying to open a competitor, and we never wanted to do that,” Insalaco says. “We were trying to help the repertory theater.”

According to Insalaco, ACT’s original “C for Community” mantra was never meant to describe production quality, but instead the theater’s connection to local artists and the public.

“What I really wanted was to start a small community theater,” he says, “not at a professional level, but one that could train people who could go on to do professional work.”

“I think that’s the most exciting thing Argenta can offer central Arkansas.”

In other words, ACT was designed to strengthen Arkansas’ contribution to the art community as a whole.

One contribution that stands out to Insalaco is producing the world premiere of “Mrs. Miniver.” The story, originally written for the stage, was first told in William Wyler’s 1943 classic film of the same name. Using connections forged during his stint in the video industry and the help of Courtney Pledger, now director of Arkansas PBS, ACT was able to get the rights to “Mrs. Miniver” and present it to the world in 2015.

“It’s a remarkable story about the strength of women when men were at war,” Insalaco says. “I was glad to be able to put that on stage. It was a highlight of my theatrical career, or certainly one of them.”

Yet beyond bringing fresh stories to the stage, Insalaco is most proud of ACT’s growing education program. Christen Pitts, a protégé of Riggs, introduced a dance and education program at ACT. The initial program started with ACTing Up, a two-week summer camp for about 30-40 students. From that promising start, ACT’s education program has continued to expand, especially when demand for in-person experiences grew after the pandemic.

Alyson Courtney, who joined the ACT team in June 2022 as the director of development, guided the staff as they added ACT II and the Sharon Heflin Performing Arts Education Center in October of that year. ACT now supports a full-time teaching staff of 12, several contract employees, hundreds of volunteers and impacts 2,500 students annually through year-round programs for all ages.

And it was Courtney who first pushed for ACT to trade Community for Contemporary.

“At first I was against it,” Insalaco recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, no no no, we can’t do that.’ And then it became apparent that maybe I’m the past and I need to think about the future.”

So Insalaco dusted off his campaign manager hat and polled focus groups to help guide the ACT leadership team as they contemplated a rebrand. The focus groups confirmed Courtney’s hunch: It was time for a change.

With Insalaco enthusiastically on board, ACT rebranded in March 2024.

“As ACT grew and began to include an expansive education program, we realized that what Tenenbaum and Insalaco created had become so much more than just a community theater,” Courtney says of the shift. “We have professional actors, designers and technicians that grace our stage; we have teaching artists that travel in from New York, LA and Chicago to work with our students; and we now reach patrons from all over central Arkansas.”

The next chapter looks bright for ACT. As producing artistic director, Insalaco is intentionally setting the foundation for the future, one he hopes will long outlast his tenure. For the 2024-2025 season, Insalaco is focusing on expanding the directorial bench to include nation-wide talent.

The biggest update, however, involves ACT’s education program. Through the years, ACT has expanded into three buildings: the main stage, the ACT II educational center and a facility the team calls “the shop” that stores all its sets and supplies. Looking forward, ACT is hoping to expand into a fourth location to support even more education programs.

“We want to have multiple classes going on at one time, all the time, not just in the summer. Those classes will be acting, music and dance for all ages from third grade to adult,” Insalaco says. “ACT will really become an academy. That’s the only word I can think of. An institution in its own right. I think that’s the most exciting thing Argenta can offer central Arkansas.”

With support from the city of North Little Rock, Pulaski County and generous sponsors, these expanded offerings will be available to any student who wants to perform.

“No child is ever turned away because of the inability to pay tuition to our classes or camps. We are committed to making our programming accessible to everyone,” Courtney says, adding they recently began outreach in schools for students without transportation.

Yet even as ACT expands and redefines its place in central Arkansas, Insalaco is quick to emphasize the collaborative, deeply-rooted sense of community at the heart of ACT productions and programs.

“I don’t like to talk about my history,” he says. “I’d rather talk about other people’s history, because that’s what this was about. It wasn’t ever about me.”

One person’s story who Insalaco feels encapsulates the spirit of ACT is technical director Sara Cooke, a former teacher at North Pulaski High School who has spent the last 15 years recruiting fellow retired teachers to paint the sets for ACT shows.

“You can’t put that into dollars, you just can’t,” Insalaco says. “These are 30 professional people, who have mentored thousands of students over their 30-year careers, who now are coming together, eating pizza and designing and creating sets for the shows.

“It’s a community of professionals. That’s the only way I know how to explain it. I hope that never, ever goes away.”

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