Expects to remain involved with community theater
The Merc Playhouse’s Executive Director Missi Smith will vacate her position in early July, exiting the stage for another player to step into the leading role at the nonprofit community theater in Twisp.
The three-act play structure is a common one, a framework that delivers three tidy phases — set-up, conflict and resolution. To some degree, Smith’s tenure at The Merc has paralleled that structure.
When Smith took her place at the helm of The Merc in 2014, it was on the heels of chairing the board through a successful capital campaign that enabled the organization to purchase the building from The Merc’s founders, Carolanne and Egon Steinebach. Act One was action-packed, including major renovations that improved the seating and concessions areas, relocated and upgraded the tech booth, deconstructed the old barn out back, and reimagined the ticket booth.
In addition to the usual responsibilities of a nonprofit executive director, Act One gave Smith some time in the limelight (with roles in “Venus in Fur,” 2016, and “Breaking Legs,” 2020), numerous stints in the director’s chair (“Peter Pan,” 2017, “Bike America” and “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” 2018, among others), an unbroken string of choreography responsibilities, and the reward of re-establishing a relationship with The Merc’s surviving founder, Carolanne Steinebach.
“The essence of the Steinebachs’ vision is what we’re working under now,” Smith said. “It was important to me to bring that relationship back to The Merc, to have her recognized as an integral part of the organization.”
But it Smith’s role in building strength in children’s theater programming that she said is her “proudest accomplishment.”
When Smith assumed the executive director role at The Merc, there was already great momentum in the children’s theater program. Since then, through the Tom Zbyszewski Children’s Theater program (established in honor and memory of one of the Methow Valley’s favorite young actors, who was killed while fighting the Twisp River Fire in 2015), The Merc produces at least one play each year that gives children a “great opportunity to learn theater in an authentic way and to master skills that they can take with them beyond childhood and beyond the valley,” Smith said.
Smith has also established robust partnerships between The Merc and the Methow Valley School District.
If Act One ended on a high, Act Two rendered the plot line a bit surreal. With widespread COVID shutdowns in mid-March 2020, Smith found herself canceling the run of the children’s play “Fantastic Mr. Fox” during tech rehearsal week. Lines were learned, costumes were tailored, sets were painted, tickets were sold. But the theater had to go dark.
For Smith, Act Two was stressful: the uncertainty, the isolation, the fatigue of the pandemic. There was no script for navigating a global shutdown, no stage directions guiding performing arts venues.
But thanks to COVID relief funding for arts nonprofits, a nimble organizational structure and a resourceful board, The Merc stayed afloat while Smith and the board focused on some longer-term strategic goals. They undertook an assessment of the building and property, upgraded many aspects of the theater, and dreamed big, setting the stage for Act Three.
“The board set some bold, beautiful goals for The Merc’s future,” Smith said.
But the stresses of the pandemic coupled with some of Smith’s personal plans made her realize that The Merc needs someone with “the energy and expertise to carry out the vision of the exciting future,” she said.
“There are so many wonderful opportunities ahead for The Merc — partnerships, the prospects of expanding the facility, ideas of improving how we function,” Smith said. “We need the right person to guide The Merc through the next phase of growth. I can’t start the process and then just leave.”
“When I took the job in 2014 I never imagined I’d still be the executive director eight years later,” Smith said. “Prior to the pandemic I had told the board that I’d be stepping down by the end of 2020, because my husband and I were preparing for a major change in our lives, maybe living in far away places.”
But Smith’s husband is a physician who quickly became immersed in COVID’s demand for medical staff, while Smith became immersed in ensuring that The Merc survived the pandemic.
“I’m not quite sure what is next for me,” Smith said. “I have to step away from this job to figure out what is next. As long as I’m here I’m not assessing other options.”
All the world’s a stage, and Smith hopes she and her husband will have time to explore it as the pandemic turns endemic. Meanwhile, The Merc will soon post the executive director job, with a start date some time in early summer.
What Smith’s Act Three looks like is not yet fully scripted, but she hopes to remain in a supporting role at The Merc.
“We have a really great board, really representative of the community,” she said. “I would like to remain on the programming committee and continue the work I do with children’s theater. I don’t want to hover, but I still want to remain involved. We have a ton of fun at the theater. I’ve loved every minute of my time here; it’s been a rewarding experience.”