Keith Dixon recalls magic made at Theatre BR before taking new post

This isn’t a time for sadness but recollection, for thinking about the stories that have played out on the stage.

And pondering the mystery of how it all comes together.

It’s the question young William Shakespeare asks in the 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love,” and Keith Dixon is thinking about it now.

In his 10 years as Theatre Baton Rouge’s artistic managing director, he still doesn’t have a solid answer for the magic that happens on a stage.

“It’s a mystery,” he says. “That’s Shakespeare’s answer in the movie, and it’s true. It’s a mystery.”

Dixon sits in the Theatre Baton Rouge lobby one morning, about six weeks before he leaves to become artistic director of the Spokane Civic Theatre in Spokane, Washington.

He thinks about the people he’s leaving behind, the fun he had working with them. Most of them were not paid. They were people who work in theater simply because they love it.

“I really enjoy working with volunteers,” Dixon says. “There’s a certain enjoyment that goes with working with professional actors, but volunteers are different. It doesn’t matter whether this will be their first time on stage or their fiftieth, they’re here because they love it. I love to watch them discover things about themselves and create on stage. When it comes to the point where the actors know more about their characters than you do, you know the show is going to be a success.”

And Dixon has directed a string of successful shows since taking the job in 2004. He’s hoping his final show will follow the same path.

He’s directing the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy “You Can’t Take it With You.” The play opened last Friday, but it’s still in rehearsal at this moment, and the situation is bittersweet for cast members.

They’re honored to be able to be a part of Dixon’s final show, but they’re sad to see him go.

“I want this show to be extra special,” says Natalie Sibille, who plays Alice in the comedy.

“Natalie and I have done many shows with Keith,” adds Michele Taylor, who plays Essie. “We want to enjoy this show with him. We want to make it extra special.”

Sibille and Taylor are representative of the many actors and artistic staff who have worked with Dixon.

He’s staged a decade of shows, beginning with the adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” His first Theatre Baton Rouge musical was “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” in 2006.

Then, it was known as Baton Rouge Little Theater. In 2013, it became Theatre Baton Rouge.

Dixon is proud of the name change, which signified the theater’s growth. It’s still a community theater, one of the nation’s oldest, founded more than 60 years ago. But it’s not little anymore.

“Keith is a tireless and creative leader, always asking, ‘What’s next?’ and then coming up with a plan,” says Jennifer Johnson, a member of the theater’s board of directors. “During his tenure, we’ve expanded and diversified our programming, swelled our audience and volunteer bases, modernized our house and lobby and developed an outstanding youth theater program.”

The shows these days are bigger; some are even edgy. Dixon cites a list of shows from the past decade of which he’s especially proud.

“I track my progress as a director starting with ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” he says. “It was my first summer musical, and it was a beast. But I surprised myself, because I had a blast doing it. It was so much fun, and from that show I developed a core group of volunteers.”

Other successes followed.

“‘The Elephant Man’ was one of those shows in which I had a vision,” Dixon says. “I feel that I cast it very well, and that vision came to life.”

The smaller production, “Almost Maine,” was another he enjoyed, along with “A Christmas Carol,” which was first staged three years ago and has become a yearly tradition.

“Having done this show with this intent and having it continue on beyond me is something I consider a great accomplishment,” Dixon says. “I’m proud of that.”

Dixon was working in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s shop when he applied for the theater’s managing artistic director position. He’s a Tennessee native and Middle Tennessee State University theater graduate who married a Cajun girl. He and his former wife, Kelly, first moved to New Orleans, then Baton Rouge.

“I feel like when I got here, the theater had lost some relevance in the community,” he says. “I feel like it’s relevant again. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a group effort. I like to create a vision, then push, nudge and prod it to get it going.”

Johnson says Dixon is leaving the theater in good shape.

“Keith has assembled a talented and dedicated staff to provide the best possible support for our volunteers, and forged enduring relationships with other community organizations,” she says. “The simple fact is people like working with Keith. He makes the hard work of creating a professional product fun and rewarding. He has balanced respect for our venerable past with a vision for our future — recognizing that we aren’t little anymore — and positioned Theatre Baton Rouge for the next 68 years as Baton Rouge’s theater home. We will miss Keith greatly, but we thank him for leaving us stronger than ever.”

Dixon starts his new job on June 9, but he will be back for visits with his 4-year-old son and, of course, the theater he leaves behind.

“At the end of the day, people care about this theater,” he says. “They pour their heart and soul in it. My role is as a steward. It’s not my theater — it’s the community’s. And I’ve loved working here.”