Spotlight on Carole Ries

interview

{All photos taken by Angie Fiedler Sutton.}

Note: my day job has gotten extremely busy, which means I have less time for working on KC Stage and related items. As a result, my posts here will be increasing in the amount of older articles I’ve written for KC Stage but not posted here.¬†

This article was previously published in the January 2010 issue of KC Stage Magazine.

Carole Ries was a shy child growing up, which she admits may sound odd for someone who’s been involved in theatre since she was 16. “I don’t know how I had the nerve to go and audition, and I’m not sure I would’ve had the nerve to try a second time if I had not been cast the first time,” Ries says. “But it was to me like I had found something that was just perfect for me. I don’t understand why someone that shy would like getting up in front of an audience, yet I know that fourth wall protects you, and I know that doing theatre is all about feeling safe for me. All of the people that are supporting a play, the director, the back stage crew, everybody else, they all want you to succeed. And so, to me, it was a safe place.”

Ries has been at Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy as the president and CEO for about ten years, but she’s not a native of Kansas. She grew up in South Dakota, where she received her bachelor’s degree, and she got to Topeka via Memphis, Tenn. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (among other places).

“My husband’s job transferred us to Memphis,” Ries says. “I had been living in Alabama and was kind of lost without theatre. So when we moved to Memphis, I thought, ‘I’m finding the theatre there.'” Ries laughs at the idea, and talks about joining what was then called the Memphis Little Theatre (and became Theatre Memphis). “I got cast in a little walk-on role, and the business manager said, ”We’re wanting to hire someone to start a box office. Would you be interested?’ So, he hired me. I didn’t know anything about selling tickets or box offices,” Ries says with a laugh. “At that time, they had a staff of one, and so my job changed just about every week. I never got bored there.”

KC Stage’s January 2010 cover.

A few years later, Theatre Memphis decided to restructure their staff, and Ries as a result started looking around for another job. I went to the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and interviewed with a woman who was also from South Dakota. I think she thought that anybody from South Dakota had to be a good person,” Ries says with another laugh. And so she hired me. And I was there for ten years.”

While in Fort Lauderdale, she co-founded a semi-professional company called the New River Repertory Company with three equity actors. “We did a lot of equity showcase. And we were sort of a repertory company, but we weren’t closed to using other actors. We just did the theatre that interested us and it was a wonderful experience that led to some memories that I will never ever forget. It was just, just pure fun. That’s what turns me on, is doing theatre … just for the fun of it.”

So, how did she get from Florida to Topeka? “Everyone said, ‘What are you thinking of? Why are you going to Topeka?’ And everyone here said, ‘Why did you leave Fort Lauderdale?'”, Ries says with a laugh. “But to me, it was almost like coming home. The people in Topeka are very much like the people I grew up. I like Midwestern values and people, and I just was enthralled with the people here at this theatre when I came and interviewed.”

Ries had heard about the job through being a member of the American Association of Community Theatres. She’s been involved in AACT on and off again since 1979, when at Theatre Memphis hosted FACT ’79: the Festival of American Community Theatres. She was the chair for workshops for about two years, and for the last few years she’s been the vice president of public relations, helping AACT with a rebranding. When she moved to Topeka, she knew she wanted to be involved with the state association, but the Association of Kansas Theatres wasn’t very active.

“When I came here, I was surprised,” Ries says. “AKT was still alive, but then it kind of just died. And I was just surprised that there wasn’t a strong state association, because there are so many benefits to theatres. I know we’re all busy and it’s hard to find time to support an association like this, but it’s so helpful to have connections to other theatres in your immediate area, to help you find one thing or another or learn how to do something. Just sharing a network is so important.

“I knew by being involved on the national level with AACT that Salina participated in the festival process, and sometimes even had to go to other states in order to be able to participate. I had mixed emotions about really tackling it, because I’m always saying, ‘Yeah, I really would like to do this, but I don’t want to do it alone.'” Allan Hazlett, a lawyer and actor, agreed to help Ries, and as a result, about three years ago she started trying to revive the association.

“We actually had a festival last March, which was the first one since I think 2001. Everybody that came was so excited about the fact that we actually had all that energy brought together. So Topeka is looking to see whether we can host an off-year festival in March of 2010 to keep that energy and spirit going, so it’s not just for festivals: it’s gotta be more than that if it’s going to survive. And I’m not sure that it will unless more people kind of step up.”

Carole on the floor at the Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy.

Ries’ passion for the arts is especially relevant in today’s world. “The biggest challenge {facing the performing arts} is being able to support yourself without the risk of going under,” Ries says. “Businesses are struggling, and it’s so hard for them – even those who have supported us for over twenty years – to be able to help underwrite productions.” Ries’ answer is to show the importance of arts.

“It’s very easy to say the arts are frills, but they’re not. They’re essential parts of our community. Theatre provides something so far beyond the moment sitting in a darkened theatre and being inspired and educated and entertained. You find how it affects an individual person, and you make that case rather than writing in words that are, what I call arms-length, you know? You can write beautiful words, but they don’t make people connect with a human. And people give to people.

Ries is directing Nobody’s Perfect by Simon Williams at Topeka Civic Theatre Jan 15 – Feb 6. For more information on the show, call 785/357-5211 or visit www.topekacivictheatre.com.