New management approach will keep Bartell Theatre’s drama on center stage, not backstage

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Bartell Theatre. — PHOTO: Jay Rath

The Bartell Community Theatre is not only changing management, it’s changing its entire approach to management.

“In the last year, things are so different,” says Bartell president Steve Noll. “Everyone likes each other. There’s no drama.” 

“Liking each other” may not seem like a bold management strategy, but at the Bartell it is. The theater has an unusual organization structure that puts governance in the hands of its “participating theater companies” (PTCs), currently the Madison Ballet, Madison Theatre Guild, Mercury Players Theatre, StageQ and Strollers Theatre. Traditionally, those five companies have kept the overarching theater weak, arguing it exists for them, not the other way around, and viewing each other as direct competitors.

That will change, as the result of the Bartell’s board of directors authorizing a committee to both search for an executive director and define new responsibilities for the theater. “We’re going to brand more as the Bartell first and a PTC show second,” says Noll, whose background is as a professor of marketing at Madison College. “It is 180 degrees from what it was. All the PTCs are now very cooperative. They share things. They don’t compete; they collaborate.”

Noll says the agreement came in part due to an acknowledgement that audience members are increasingly coming to the theater not to see a work by any particular PTC, but rather because they know a show is happening “at the Bartell.” Yet the company has never been able to market itself as a facility, or even fundraise.

The shift was catalyzed by the departure of Sarah Hoover, the venue’s longtime managing director, who left last autumn to attend a graduate theater program in Ireland. With her departure, Noll says, a unified box office has been set up by Bartell employee Steve Vig, removing the prior system that divided ticket sales among the five companies.

Vig likely will stay on through the transition, while an all-new executive director position will be created in the near future. “We really need someone who’s focused on fundraising,” says Noll. “At the same time, it has to be somebody who’s familiar with the logistics of keeping a theater up and running.”

But as important as the reorganization is, Noll says the board of directors is going to take its time defining the new management role. 

“If we could get someone on board even Jan 1, I think that would be kind of pushing it,” Noll says. “It will probably be sometime after that.”

On the web

For more information about the Bartell Theatre or its members, visit bartelltheatre.org.