Howard Millman sits comfortably in the lobby of Asolo Repertory Theatre. It’s where he spent two stints and more than 23 years at the helm of the theater as managing director and producing artistic director. But he’s retired from running a theater these days — “Thank god,” he says.
Now, he advises Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe from the board of directors, and guest directs shows around the region. August 7 marks the opening night of his most recent play direction, and his first for Banyan Theater Company, “Collected Stories.”
Millman directed “Collected Stories” for the first time in 2000. It was on the same Cook Theatre stage as it is now, but last time it was for Asolo Rep.
“It was 14 years ago,” he says with a chuckle. “I barely remember it.”
To be fair, it was just one of approximately 160 productions under his reign at Asolo Repertory Theatre.
He remembers it was, and still is, a well-written play. It’s about a relationship between a famous writer and her promising, young master student, and it describes the development and dangers of that dynamic. All with a tried-and-true takeaway: Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
Although Millman’s recollection of that play is a little foggy, he has collected many great memories that are a little more, well, memorable. Howard Millman loves to tell stories — that’s why he enjoys theater.
“Sometimes I take an hour in rehearsal just telling stories,” he says.
His career is full of them, as you could expect with a career saving theaters from going under.
The first time he saved Asolo Rep (he’s saved it twice) is when he started there in 1968 as the managing director. His mentor and the first executive director of the theater, Richard Fallon, took him under his arm and said, “I’m so glad you’re here. We’re $250,000 in debt and may not open our doors in the fall.”
Millman took the last $12,000 from the Asolo Theater Festival association, a support group, and stretched it as far as it could go to make it work. The theater managed to open its doors that season, and it was able to slowly turn the debt around. Millman left in 1980.
“I was an artist supporting another artist’s work,” he says of his decision. “I was never in charge of what the artistic side looked like — it wasn’t enough to feed my soul.”
But, in 1995, he had the opportunity to come back as the producing artistic director and wear both a financial and artistic hat. That brought about the second opportunity to save the theater.
Digging out of debt
In 1995, Asolo Repertory Theatre was $2 million in debt. People thought it was hopeless and Millman was crazy for stepping in. But he still had friends there; it was a personal connection and a theater company in which he believed.
You could say Burt Reynolds helped him solve the first million of debt. When Millman came back, he learned Asolo Repertory Theatre was suing Reynolds, who had pledged $1 million to support the theater, and had only paid $100,000.
This was all unbeknownst to Florida State University (the school that funded the building in which the company operates). Reynolds was a former FSU football player and famed graduate — an alumnus the school wanted to keep in good standing.
Well, $900,000 was exactly the debt Asolo Repertory Theatre owed in student tuition to FSU. So, Millman said if the school forgave the theater’s debt, he’d trade the school the actor’s debt to do with it what it would.
The other million came from Sarasota Ballet, which was looking for a home of its own. In a deal approved by Millman, the ballet put in the money to operate inside the other half of the building.
On the line
Millman got used to people thinking he was crazy. When Millman wanted to open Asolo Repertory Theatre’s 1996-97 season with “Nicholas Nickelby” — David Edgar’s adaption of the Charles Dicken’s novel — people thought he was nuts.
“Nicholas Nickelby,” he explains, is a production that has a huge magnitude scenically and for the number of characters it requires. It’s a complicated and difficult show for any theater — especially one that had just barely climbed out of a $2 million debt.
“(Arts writer) Charlie Husking thought it would take the theater under,” Millman says. “He thought I was risking everything on that play — and I guess I was.”
In response to an article Husking wrote, Asolo Rep regulars and local wags started referring to the production as “Howard’s End” (after the 1992 film based on E.M. Forester’s novel). Millman thought otherwise.
“I wanted to remind people of what Asolo Repertory Theatre was — we did plays of size, color and of incident,” he says.
The reminder turned out tremendously well. Even Husking gave it a favorable review. It wasn’t yet Howard’s, or Asolo Rep’s, end.
When he left in 2006 — because “I was 75-years-old and it was time,” he says — the theater had an $800,000 surplus.
“My whole career has either been saving theaters or building theaters,” he says. “I didn’t set out to do that, to set the world on fire, but I got a huge charge from being able to accomplish that.”
IF YOU GO
‘Collected Stories’ by Donald Margulies
When: Opens 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7. Runs through Aug. 24.
Where: FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: Tickets are $28.50
Info: Call 351-2808 or visit banyantheatercompany.com
This article has been updated to correct the year Howard Millman left the Asolo Repertory Theatre for the second time.