Panida announces new leadership, to embark on strategic planning for the future

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Sandpoint’s oldest arts institution is under new management, as the Panida Theater announced in late-February a slate of new board members as well as the departure of Executive Director Patricia Walker, ending a tenure of almost seven years in the job.

The Panida Theater’s iconic marquee. Courtesy photo.

According to a Feb. 25 news release from the theater, the board selected Keely Gray to serve as interim chairperson, fulfilling the two-year term left vacant by Lenny Hess, who stepped down from the position earlier in the month. Prior to that, board members Kevin Smith and Carol Thomas left the organization in January and December, respectively. 

Meanwhile, Associate Director Becky Revak has also left the Panida. 

Gray said the board will be stepping in to handle office duties for the time being, and does not plan to replace the executive director position until after a strategic planning process is completed — likely in September or October, in time for the theater’s annual membership meeting. It would be the first such planning effort in more than six years, Gray said, noting that, “It forces us to look at all the things the theater does, organize it in a way that makes sense and figure out what we need.”

“We’re in the perfect position to do this, because it’s sort of quiet,” she said, adding that “COVID gave us the ability to hit the pause button.”

In a statement to Reader on March 3, Walker wrote that, “It is with the deepest gratitude that we say thank you for all your support over the nearly seven years since I arrived in Sandpoint. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this community at your beloved Panida Theater.”

She highlighted a number of accomplishments during her time as executive director, including keeping the theater afloat during several seasons during which downtown street construction hampered access to the building, followed by the general disruption wrought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Amid all that, Walker also cited challenges posed by the film industry, which in recent years has transitioned to a streaming model that simultaneously threw up hurdles to small theaters and altered the viewing habits of audiences.

“It was always with an eye on the past blending with that with an understanding of current trends and changes to the industry as a part of the challenge. We added more foreign and arthouse films than had ever been shown, we also added more popular and requested films to help revenue. The addition of live events of more concerts and comedy was a huge hit,” she said. “Our primary goal was to expand programming to offer something for everyone. We purposely looked for areas that were underserved to expand.”

Gray said one of the chief goals of the planning process, which kicks off March 20, is to understand “the dynamic of what it takes to manage a historic venue and what it takes to book that venue.”

“One of the things that we really, really are striving for is to really let the community feel like the theater is our home,” she added. “The biggest thing that we want to achieve is to make sure the community feels welcome.” 

Beyond the operational challenges facing the theater, there are also a number of ongoing maintenance and renovation projects that Gray said will be tackled in the near future — chief among them, repairs to the roof of the Little Theater and Panida marquee, as well as restructuring the upstairs administrative offices.

“We have a lot on our plates and renovations are top of the agenda,” she said. “We’re going to refocus and evaluate the entire structure of just how our management is run going forward. …

“The idea of having one person solely responsible for renovations and maintenance of a historic theater while trying to fill it, that kind of makes your brain explode,” Gray added.

Among Walker’s proudest achievements, she said, was encouraging more live theater on the Panida main stage — pointing specifically to local productions such as Love Letters, Drinking Habits and Clue. 

“Collaborations with Unknown Locals for an annual production, the summer play of Panida Playhouse Juniors and the new Festival of the Bards come to mind. Inviting and celebrating playwrights, actors and directors to come join,” she said.

According to Gray, Walker’s departure resulted from a difference in vision: “I think we were just going in different directions in terms of how the theater should move into the future. Not that Patricia’s passion wasn’t there and that it wasn’t good — were not trying to say anything bad about her or her work, we’re just saying our vision of the future of the theater and hers were different.”

Looking back on her time as executive director — only the second person to hold the position since the retirement of Karen Bowers, who served in the role for 26 years, dating to the rescue of the theater from the wrecking ball in the late-1980s — Walker said audiences’ “laughter, their applause and even a few tears will be what remain in my heart.”

“A line in a movie we showed inspired me to say: ‘The Panida is the heart of the community and it’s up to all of us to keep it beating,’” she said. “I am so very grateful to the people, the businesses and the industry for making that possible. Work is love and it truly was a privilege and an honor to have worked at the Panida for nearly seven years.”

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