It’s less than 250 miles from Harrison to Arrow Rock, Missouri, home of the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre where Harrison-born Quin Gresham is the producing artistic director.
But the journey has taken Gresham on a longer road to the center of that state and he credits family and even his home town for success.
In early February, Gresham will be honored with the Missouri Arts Council’s Leadership in the Arts award.
He was born in Harrison in 1977 and graduated from Harrison High School in 1995. He then went to the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in St. Louis, graduating there in 1999.
“My first summer gig after graduating was coming out here as an actor,” Gresham said in a telephone interview from Arrow Rock.
That was a May-August contract and he moved to New York after that season. He returned to the Lyceum as an actor for the 2000 and 2001 seasons, a show in 2003 and then the full season in 2004.
By the end of the 2004 season, there was a leadership change at the theater. And his friend, Philip Coffield, was the artistic director. While Gresham was still living in New York, Coffield called him and asked if he wanted to be the associate artistic director.
“I said, ‘Sure. What’s that?’” Gresham said.
Coffield explained the job and Gresham agreed on terms that he could be in New York part of the time. They struck the deal for six months in Missouri and six months in New York.
In 2004, he was home in Harrison for Christmas when Coffield called him again. Coffield, who was a long-time AIDS survivor, had developed a virus that basically caused him to lose his vision. He asked Gresham to go back to Arrow Rock to drive him around and read material for him.
“I jumped at that, no problem,” Gresham said.
Over that winter, Gresham and Coffield worked to put together the 2005 season. In May, Coffield informed Gresham and the Lyceum board that his illness had advanced to the point that he couldn’t continue as artistic director.
“God knows why he thought that this was a smart move,” Gresham said with a laugh, “but he told the board that he believed in me as the leader of the organization and the board — largely because I don’t know that they had any other ideas and everything was about to start in five minutes — said why don’t you just go ahead and get us through the season. And I agreed to do that, not knowing anything at all.”
He said he learned a lot that season, baptized by fire. Luckily, he was able to rely on Coffield for advice in almost daily phone conversations
“Philip basically showed me the ropes, largely remotely and often from the hospital,” he recalls. “And I often think about that. He was dying, and I assume he had some awareness of that, yet he did take time out of his last remaining time to make sure that I was OK, probably the greatest gift I’ll ever receive.”
They made it through the 2005 season, but Coffield died in January 2006. The Lyceum board asked Gresham if he wanted to stay and he agreed.
“Long story short, here I am,” Gresham said. “I’m about to start my 16th season as producing artistic director.
“That’s the very long story of the job that I never applied for, the flight back to New York that I never took, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding period in my life. It will always be tinged by the sadness of losing my friend.”
But one of the greatest rewards has been to watch the Lyceum thrive. He believes Coffield would be as happy with that success as is he.
Although he is honored with the award for helping to build the Lyceum into the cultural Mecca is has come to be known, he says he has done nothing on his own. There have been many people who will share in the recognition for their efforts.
Arrow Rock’s population is about 50, yet the theater is the driving economic force for the community, even though it’s in the most least practical of locations. The 60 years of success is the product of generations of artists, thinkers, board members, audience members and donors.
“So,” he said, “if anything I will very proudly and humbly accept this award in all of those people’s honor.”
Still, he can’t forget his roots. His parents, Jim and Gwen Gresham, created a home life that revered the arts. He did shows at school and with the local Theatre Company. That long journey to Arrow Rock began in Harrison.
“And it can happen for any other weird kid out there,” he said.