By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Barbara Rowley eschews the spotlight but taking center stage—whether literally stepping in to sub during a youth theater rehearsal or to spearhead a community initiative—seems to come naturally to the founding producer of Big Sky Broadway.
Rowley says if pressed to name her art form, it would probably be community development. In her 27 years in Big Sky, Rowley has been integral in getting the playground built in Big Sky Community Park, establishing the first preschool program and creating the path that runs along Highway 191 in front of Ophir School.
She also founded Camp Big Sky, a summer-long day camp now in its 11th year and run by the Big Sky Community Organization. In 2009 she and longtime friend John Zirkle added a musical theater component to Camp Big Sky called Big Sky Broadway.
“I’m a person who responds to need and creates things,” Rowley said.
But Rowley was a writer first.
She has worked as a staff writer for Outside magazine, and as a busy freelancer for the Sierra Club and Powder magazine. It was during that era, in 1990, while also working as a director for Sanborn Western Camps in Colorado, that she got a call to do a story on a ski area called Big Sky from Snow Country magazine, then an affiliate of The New York Times.
On a January research trip she met Taylor Middleton, who was Big Sky Resort’s marketing director at the time, and is now its general manager.
“That’s just a whirlwind romance for you—everybody wants to hear that story,” said Rowley, who moved to Big Sky in May of the same year after maybe “12 days in each other’s presence.” They married the following year and have since raised two children here—Anna, 21; and Katie, 17—while having an impact on the lives of many others.
Rowley’s combined passions for parenting, children and journalism are expressed in pieces she has written for Parenting and FamilyFun magazines; and two published books that include “Baby Days,” an activity idea book for parents with toddlers published by Hyperion in 2000. She also advises and teaches college preparatory classes at Big Sky Discovery Academy, and of course, is deeply entrenched in kids’ community theater.
“I want to write my books,” said Rowley, who is still tinkering with a young adult novel she started nearly a decade ago. “But I really dig being with kids and working hard. It’s always been a push-pull between my own work and creative desires, and really being an active person engaged with other people.”
With a flair for the dramatic and a keen ability to identify resources, Rowley is the perfect person to act as producer for the student theatrical performances presented by Big Sky Broadway.
As producer, Rowley handles the financial aspects of the production, hires the staff, selects and licenses the show, coordinates costuming and makeup, designs the set, does all the publicity and marketing, plans the cast party and the clean-up schedule, and even brings the snacks.
Big Sky Broadway has come a long way since she and Zirkle launched the program with a Broadway review staged in the resort’s ballroom in 2009.
With Zirkle as director, vocal instruction by Sarah Mitchell, choreography by Jennifer Waters and music direction by pianist Klaudia Kosiak, Big Sky Broadway now puts on four productions at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and hosts a two-week summer camp each year.
The summer of WMPAC’s grand opening in 2013, local youth performed “Peter Pan,” for which Big Sky Broadway hired professional flying company Flying by Floy.
“Since then it’s just become a huge thing for the kids,” Rowley said. “It was tragedy when they hit eighth grade and couldn’t go any further.” Increasing class sizes have allowed Big Sky Broadway to expand into high school productions with a bit more mature content.
What Rowley is most proud of is the effect she believes exposure to theater has had on kids in the community. She mentions alumni Rachid Schultz, who is studying theater design at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle; and Ben Michel at Boston’s Berklee College of Music; as well as current students approaching graduation.
“I think we’ve changed our kids’ trajectory,” Rowley said. “Particularly, I think there’s value for both genders—a lot of girls find themselves in theater and it becomes their thing. Some of them will say it’s their sport. Some of our young men discover something beyond getting good grades and doing sports. They try something—and I think trying something new is worthwhile.”
Although Rowley admits she still thinks about her own creative endeavors, clearly she is fulfilled by the direction she has chosen to funnel her efforts.
“I like building community, and theater is the only activity in this school in which kids of all ages and genders work together on a project and all feel really vested in it,” she said. “And we hear all the time that this is more fun than basketball.”