Lyric’s Michael Baron
Lyric’s new director brings an air of East Coast authenticity and national credibility to Oklahoma City.
By Clif Warren
What happens when you possess a superior education, varied and substantial theatrical experiences at three of the important venues in our nation’s capital, connections to some of our finest artists, plus charisma to burn?
Well, you’re likely to turn up as Lyric Theatre’s vital new artistic director, brimful of exciting new ideas. Michael Baron arrived in Oklahoma City less than a year ago from Washington, D.C. There he was associate director of the well-respected Signature Theatre, which was awarded a regional Tony in 2009; and he also directed at the Savoyard, famous for its Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and helmed the popular and highly praised 2010 production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Ford Theatre.
Now on the crest of 40 years old, but appearing ten years younger, Baron’s high energy fits the multitasking tempo of busy theatre people. Well situated in his new office right next to the Lyric complex marquee on 16th Street, you’re apt to discover him at his desk answering a phone with one hand, typing a notation on his computer with another and motioning with a nod to his public relations assistant and chief aide Cristen Shepherd, as he is doing this morning. She leads me to the eye-catching cardboard mock-up of the stage set for Lyric’s next production.
Next to the well-placed and useful round table where I admire the fine details of the model is a colorful wall of Baron memorabilia: brightly colored programs, set design sketches, photographs of actors and celebs, as well as worker bee images of many of the people who helped speed Michael Baron along the impressive journey that led him here.
Baron hangs up the phone, stands, shakes my hand, and offers me the seat opposite his desk. “Sorry, I had to take that one. Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
Warren: “Not at all. And noting how busy you, with early afternoon auditions set for the summer season just an hour or so away, I have just a few questions needing answers for the readers of iOnOK. We’d all like to know about your fascinating background. For instance, was there any one production that encouraged your interest in theatre?”
Baron: “That’s an easy one,” he said. “It was the Broadway production of ‘A Chorus Line’ when I was ten. The show was edgy and quite adult for a boy my age. And the mystique of a show about putting on a show with so many types of characters really engaged me.
“The very next night our family saw ‘Annie,’ another kind of magical treat. At that time, around 1979, mom and dad and I lived in Orlando. (My two younger brothers joined the family later). Summertime meant a trip up north to visit other relatives, and my parents were regular theatergoers. For two generations the family had been Southern ‘snowbirds.’
“You see, my maternal Jewish grandfather inherited an apartment building in Miami Beach, Fla. from his family. At the time he managed the apartment during the winter season. Then he, my grandmother, and dad would head north during the summer to visit other family members during the off-season.
“My mom, a Lutheran, and her family lived in Miami, too, during the winter. Mom and Dad met in high school and ended up the ideal storybook pair. He was on the football team at Miami Beach High and she was a cheerleader.
“When my dad finished his law degree in Alabama, my immediate family settled in Orlando. Several years after my own birth my two younger brothers came along well spaced apart. The 35-year-old is a writer on the staff of ‘Stars and Stripes,’ the military paper, and the youngest is 28 years-old and owns a restaurant.”
Warren: “You appear to have grown up living an idyllic existence in Florida. Did your ambition still center on theatre after the New York experience at ten?”
Baron: “No, not exactly. My interest switched more toward political science. I was on the student council at Boone High School in Orlando, elected class president, and spent a lot of time swimming and in sports. Though I did perform the Tony Curtis part in ‘Sugar’ while I was in high school.
“But I guess show business was closing in on me in small ways. My father’s mom — Grandma Helen — was quite out-going and theatrical. She owned a chain of popular, high-end women’s clothing stores, each one called ‘The Baroness.’ At one time I believe there were five shops in all. She was sort of an ‘Auntie Mame’ type, greatly loved.
“And a cousin of mine studied playwriting at Yale and became a playwright. I guess there are not many families that have a playwright.
“I still held on to the idea of a political science major at Wake Forest, where I was a member of the Young Democrats, until a favorite female debate coach suggested I try out for plays. I was cast in ‘The Beaux Stratagem’ when I was 19 and a sophomore. I then fell under the influence of an extraordinary professor, James Dodding, who is still my favorite director and a continual inspiration. My path was set.
“I got to do a semester abroad in London and was awakened to a much wider sense of theatre. It was a great time.”
Warren: “It appears to me, Michael, that the clutch of significant plays you’ve mentioned in passing during that early period of your life was a heady and varied mix to absorb — from ‘Bus Stop,’ to ‘The Front Page,’ ‘A Doll’s House,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ and ‘Man of La Mancha,’ and so on. It looks as if those choices served up a quick education in styles, periods, types, pieces of the full theatrical range. They must have launched you on the way to directing the wonderful, wide-ranging 65 or so projects you’ve completed so far. Judging from your wall of souvenir programs, you’ve always been ready to take on new challenges. All you’ve needed, it seems, were the right connections.
Baron: “Being admitted into the M.F.A. program in directing at the Trinity Repertory Conservatory provided me with connections to major East Coast theatre centers, along with the opportunity to meet and work with so many important people. I had the opportunity to direct ‘School for Scandal’ and also became more aware of all the diversity happening in American theatre. One of my mentors was Oskar Eustis, who is now the artistic director of the famed Public Theatre in New York City, and a colleague at Trinity, Kevin Moriarity, is with the Dallas Theatre Center.”
Warren: “Right now, after all the directing awards, the grants, the successful staging of several of your own original scripts, as well as well directing at the Signature Theatre and at the Savoyard, along with the monumental 2010 ‘Christmas Carol’ at the Ford Theatre, will Lyric be enough of a challenge for you?”
Baron: “Everyone on the East Coast is well aware of the reputation Lyric has built. It’s an honor for me, and, Jim, my partner of 17 years, to be living and working here. The general public could not be more welcoming. The board and the staff as well could not be better. They know where they’re going and could not be kinder.
“The recent contribution of $200,000 from Devon Energy to put on a grand, interactive production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ next winter, and repeatedly in successive years, is such a fine gesture of support, and the Oklahoma City Community Foundation grant of $4,000 to restore and rebuild our Web site indicates the great faith and trust our donors have in Lyric. A special added plus is the lack of competitiveness within the metro arts community. We all pitch in and work together.”
Warren: “Speaking solely as a theatre critic, I’ve been a little disappointed in Lyric’s summer season of shows—‘Oliver,’ ‘Hairspray,’ ‘Ragtime,’ and ‘A Chorus Line.’ Many theatergoers have seen these shows time and again in the metro area. It seems a tame grouping.”
Baron: “My reply to that is, these will be as close to the highest professional standards possible and presented in a grand theatre. We’ll offer a different view of some of these hits. The ‘Oliver’ will be very gritty and Dickensian. I will never present anything mundane or cheesy.
“I’ll concentrate on the architectural quality of the staging and choose well among the amazing and disproportionately fine talent pool in this city. I’m also aware that Lyric reaches several diverse audiences and that we need to reflect the whole community as it exists today. That means new costumes and scenery and strong storytelling, higher artistic levels and production values — not museum pieces. I think you’ll find that the summer lineup will be one that brings pleasant and exciting surprises.”
Warren: “You sound like a guy who means business. We at iOnOK will be following your career each presentation along the way.”
Dr. Clifton Warren received his Ph. D. in comparative literature and letters at Indiana University. He is former Chairman of the English Department at Oklahoma City University and taught on the graduate faculty of Oklahoma State University. At the University of Central Oklahoma he and the late novelist Marilyn Harris initiated the M. A. degree in creative studies. At UCO he served as Dean of Liberal Arts for 15 years. He is also a recipient of a Governor’s Arts Award.Share story on Facebook Share story on Twitter Email a Friend.