Wayne Bryan is swifly approaching a major milestone.
Bryan, producing artistic director of Music Theatre Wichita for the past 30 seasons, will turn 70 this month.
He admits “this would be a logical time to retire.”
Not so for Bryan.
This weekend’s production of “Newsies” will conclude Music Theatre Wichita’s 46th season. Bryan said he hopes to be with organization at least until its 50th, “then definitely cut back.”
“I feel like I’m in good health and have good energy – all those things,” he said. “I don’t know if this is what 70 is supposed to feel like. It really doesn’t feel any different than I’ve felt the last 20 years or so.”
The road to Wichita
Bryan, who was born Wayne Brien Smith to a middle-class Downey, Calif., family in 1947, began acting while he was an officer in the Navy.
From 1968 to 1972, Bryan’s naval career took him to Vietnam and the Philippines – and also on a lengthy stay in San Diego.
He was an officer by day and a performer by night, finding work at various local theaters until he got his Actor’s Equity card at the Old Globe Theatre there. Because the union already had a Wayne Smith, he had to become “Wayne Bryan.”
After that, he spent time acting on television series such as “Joe Forrester” and “M*A*S*H,” which eventually led to gigs on Broadway shows such as “Good News!” and “Rodgers and Hart.”
Then in 1986, he found himself in Kansas, acting in a production of “Where’s Charley?” in the blue-domed saucer of Century II. He also directed a production of “Oklahoma!” here that year.
“I thought Wichita was quaint,” Bryan was quoted as saying in a 2002 Eagle article. “You couldn’t get a drink with dinner, and I’d never encountered that before. I liked the facility, and I really liked the people, but I thought that four weeks would be as much as I’d ever spend here. At that point, I looked at life as a mosaic, and I thought I’d gathered all the Wichita tiles I would need.”
Growth in 30 years
But then, somehow, four weeks was revised to 30 years.
In 1988, then-director John Holly left his job at MTW and recommended Bryan to succeed him.
Bryan started working at MTW on April 1, 1988, and stumbled through his first season, emerging “somewhat bloodied,” he said. He’d never produced professionally before, and was still learning the ropes, he said.
“When I first came, the big complaints were that the sound system was not very clear and that the dancing was not very good,” Bryan said. “We had good actors and singers, but not good dancers.”
Those problems were quickly remedied – by 1989, the Cessna Company paid to upgrade MTW’s sound system, and Bryan began recruiting higher-quality dancers for shows like “A Chorus Line” and “42nd Street.”
Over the years, high-caliber talent has come through Wichita and gone on to major Broadway careers – in 1991, Kristin Chenoweth acted at MTW, and actress Kelli O’Hara was here in 1997 and 1998.
The expansion of MTW’s training opportunities for young aspiring Broadway actors, Bryan said, is one of his proudest achievements.
“We’ve been able to start all these youth programs – the Teen Choir, the Jester Awards, the intern program has been greatly expanded,” Bryan said. “All those things make you feel like you’re having a positive influence on the next generation of young artists.
“It has simply felt like a place where what you do makes a difference and is appreciated, and that’s a pretty good way to spend 30 years or more.”
He’s the kind of boss who inspires fierce loyalty from his actors – take for example Melissa Steadman Hart, who will play Katherine Plumber in MTW’s upcoming “Newsies.”
Bryan officiated her wedding ceremony in 2013 – she and her husband met in MTW’s 2009 company.
To those closest to Bryan, that is emblematic of the kind of relationship Bryan has with those who know him.
“He’s just so great at seeing the potential in people,” Broadway veteran (and Wichita native) Shina Ann Morris told The Eagle in March. “He sees that spark and picks groups of people that work really hard and work really well together.”
Wayne Bryan’s 70th birthday party
When: 6-8 p.m. Aug. 14
Where: Century II, 225 W. Douglas
What: A celebration in honor of MTW producing artistic director Wayne Bryan’s 70th birthday. There will be treats from Cheri’s Bakery and The Spice Merchant. The party will feature performances as well as backstage tours for those interested. Reservations requested.