Life Arts: John Gibson tends his garden

His letter sounded dire. In April, Live Arts artistic director John Gibson sent out a plea for money because the theater company was so strapped, it was on the verge of laying off employees.

The precarious financial situation was brought home when Live Arts had to charge for the champagne that opening night audiences had traditionally swilled for free. Quelle horreur.

And with Live Arts' new home– the $3.6-million City Center for Contemporary Arts– under construction on Water Street, local theater watchers wondered if the ambitious company had bitten off too much financially.

Gibson pooh-poohs that notion. "We've raised $3 million and change," he says, adding that he's not worried about coming up with the rest. Live Arts is still on schedule to move into its new facility in September, with its debut set for Halloween weekend.

Like nonprofits around the country in general and arts organizations in particular, Live Arts has suffered from dwindling donations. "It's been a tough year, no doubt," Gibson admits. "There were difficult months of few contributions and lower numbers at the box office. It was a tough winter economically."

And in Live Arts' 13 years, "we've never sent out an appeal like that."

The good news is that the contributions came flooding in by the hundreds, most around $25 adding up to almost $20,000. "The response was profoundly gratifying," Gibson says.

When he moved here in December 1991 to an apartment at 500 Court Square, Gibson had no idea that Live Arts existed only a block away and that his life would become so entwined with it. "We had no prospects, no connections," he recalls.

Gibson's first acting job was in the Boone, North Carolina, summer classic Horn in the West at the age of eight. "My mother wanted to get me out of the house," he says. From there, he acted in everything he could, from commercials to dinner theater.

At Catawba College, drama students were responsible for all the production chores, and the young thespian discovered the joys of being behind the scenes. "I have extreme stage fright even after 30 years," he confesses.

It was while working as stage manager for Theatre West Virginia ("homegrown and proud of it") that Gibson met his long-time partner, Joe Barker. And it was after driving a Ryder truck in the snow to load and unload for a production in a school cafeteria that Gibson realized the road life wasn't for him. "It helped me understand I was happiest in a community," he says.

Gibson tried to break away from Charlottesville in 1995 and headed to San Francisco. "I still felt too young to commit to a city," he says. But it was the small-city charms that drew him back.

As artistic director of a new theater, and a new homeowner– with a garden of his own– Gibson has definitely put down roots.

And as for those dreary money matters, he's optimistic. "Charlottesville is a pie that keeps growing," he says. And he promises that at Halloween when Live Arts debuts in its new theater, Charlottesville will see "an old friend in a new setting."

Age: 37

What brought you here? My partner and I had the financial freedom (just once in our lives) to move anywhere we wanted, and after studying and visiting, we chose Charlottesville. I have never regretted that decision.

What's worst about living here? August. I wilt.

Favorite hangout? My garden.

Most overrated virtue? Moderation. Excess has been very good to me.

What would people be surprised to know about you? Long list of (mostly benign) obsessive compulsive behaviors... painfully shy... facility for rapid simple math. I'm like Rain Man with coping skills.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I would never have started smoking.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? 16 years with Joe Barker.

What do people find most annoying about you? Loud laugh? Quick temper? Short attention span? What was the question?

Whom do you admire? Local heroes make C'ville great: Peppy Linden (Discovery Museum), David Simpson (C&O), Fred Boyce (Prism), Gerry Newman (A.B.C.), Mike Friend (WNRN), Sandy McAdams (Daedalus), Judith Gary (Virginia Consort), Ann Porotti (Vinegar Hill).

Favorite book? Whatever is on my bedside. Right now: One Man's Garden by Henry Mitchell, The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky, and At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill.

What subject causes you to rant? Unkindness. The least we can do is treat others as we would wish to be treated. I am most angry with myself when I lose sight of this basic principle.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Aerolatte milk frother,, online weather radar loops, Nest magazine, Rhodia notepads, Rufus Wainwright.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The gap between haves and have-nots; Thomas Kinkade: America's Favorite Artist; color-coded terror alert levels; Altoid strips; Anna Nicole Smith.

What do you drive? Nothing if I can help it. Living and working downtown is the perfect lifestyle, except for the lack of a grocery store.

What's in your car CD player right now? Nina Simone I'm still in mourning.

What's your next journey? This August will be my sixth year in a row in (cool, misty, arts-infested) Edinburgh, Scotland. I work very hard while I'm there helping to manage the American High School Theatre Festival, but I also see the best (or most) of world art.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I'm not answering this one... I don't know enough about statutes of limitations.

What do you regret? English as my only language.

Favorite comfort food? Raisin bread toast and chamomile tea

What's always in your refrigerator? Silk soy creamer

Must-see TV? So Graham Norton, Mother Angelica Live, South Park

 Favorite cartoon? Any Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers

Describe a perfect day. Brunch in the garden, lots of friends, swimming in the afternoon, long nap, and at night, theater someone else made.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I'm living it. I get to make theater with smart, talented people in a community I am passionate about and then go home to my love, a good dog, and a garden with a potting shed.

Who'd play you in the movie? People often say John Malkovich, but I don't see it. My choice would be Shelley Winters, circa The Poseidon Adventure.

Most embarrassing moment? In college, woke from a nap, pulled on jeans, ran late to the dining hall, got tray, heard laughter, saw pointing, looked down to see the underwear that had been in pants leg wrapped around my shoe, dragging behind me.

Best advice you ever got? Shut up and listen. I strive to take that advice more often.

Favorite bumper sticker? Live Arts: Forging Theater and Community



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