Theatre artistic directors are “The Tonight Show” hosts of the stage: They come and go only once in a blue moon.
Lynne Meadow has helmed Manhattan Theater Workshop since 1972. Robert Falls has steered Chicago’s Goodman Theatre since 1986. Carey Perloff has occupied the head office at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco since 1992. And those are just three examples.
So, recent announcements that several major American theatre companies would receive new leadership within the span of several months amounted to major news indeed.
In July 2015, Joseph Haj succeeded Joe Dowling as the artistic director of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. Later this month, Christopher Mannelli will join the Geva Theatre of Rochester, NY, as its new executive director, after five years at Victory Gardens in Chicago. Robert Hupp, for 17 years the artistic director of Arkansas Repertory Theatre, will assume that same post at Syracuse Stage this July. Finally, in perhaps the biggest announcement of all, Paige Evans, currently the artistic director of the LCT3 program at Lincoln Center Theater, was named the new leader of New York’s massive Signature Theatre Company. She will oversee all the work at the nonprofit’s huge theatre complex in midtown Manhattan.
Why so many personnel shifts all of a sudden? Evans, Hupp and Mannelli all chalked it up mainly to “coincidence.” However, Mannelli added that he thought the change was long in coming.
“For years, many in the industry have been predicting this time of change,” he says. “I think it's a very natural occurrence as some members of our field decide to retire after years of phenomenal service. It may be a bit of coincidence that so many changes will take place 2016. The great opportunity we have as an industry is to be able to learn from these wonderful leaders, many of whom were pioneers of the regional theatre movement.”
Hupp speculates that the shifts might be a sign that the theatre industry is finally recovering from the downturn of 2008. “We all hunkered down to weather the storm,” Hupp says. “Now, as economic recovery lifts our theatres out of survival mode, we’re perhaps more willing—and able—to try new things, to undertake new challenges and adventures.”
Audiences may have to wait and see what those new adventures will be. When asked about their plans for the theatres of which they were newly in charge, Mannelli and Hupp play it very close to the vest. “I’ve still got a lot to learn about Syracuse Stage and Central New York,” says Hupp. “I am very fortunate to follow the strong and visionary leadership of outgoing artistic director Tim Bond. My goal is to build on Tim’s success and to produce work that encourages broad engagement with all facets of the community.”
Mannelli gives himself similarly cautious counsel. “It is incredibly important,” he says, “that before I fully express a vision for my work at Geva, I am able to spend time with the staff, board of directors, donors, patrons and the community of Rochester. It's not that I have a lack of ideas to bring to the theatre right away, but without significant investment in listening to all these points of view, it would be impossible to know which these are the right ones to explore. Step one is always to listen.”
Evan is the most forthcoming, even if her vision is predictably in keeping with the one already established by Signature’s long-serving founder, James Houghton. “I want to build on Signature's distinctive mission, offering a dynamic artistic home to an eclectic range of writers and diverse audiences,” says Evans, “and using Signature's The Pershing Square Signature Center spaces to their fullest capacity.”
An incoming artistic director always faces a challenge when taking the reins of a new organization. But Evans’ task is more daunting in that she will be only the second artistic director the Signature has known. For its first quarter century, the company has been led by Houghton. “Succeeding a founder has its own distinct challenges,” Evans says. “I’ll see what those are.”
Evans adds she had been a fan of the outfit since the beginning and has been attending Signature shows for 20 years. “I love Signature,” she says. “I really believe in their mission. I like the idea of working with a playwright over a series of productions. That was the main thing.”
Robert Hupp knows what Evans is experiencing. He’s been through it twice: first, when he took over Off-Broadway’s Jean Cocteau Rep from its founding artistic director, Eve Adamson; and, second, when he succeeded Arkansas Rep founder Cliff Baker. “I think that’s one of the hardest jobs in theatre,” he says. “It is very difficult. The personality of the founder is usually so indelibly stamped on the theatre. What made it possible in both cases was the incredible support I received from the founder.”
Hupp will have a bigger budget at Syracuse than he did at Arkansas Rep. And there are other advantages as well. “Here’s the difference,” he explains. “Arkansas Rep is the only LORT [League of Resident Theatres] theatre for 300 miles in any direction. If it’s going to get done in Arkansas, we’re going to create it. The difference at Syracuse is there are so many LORT theatres in a 300-mile radius. That creates more opportunities. There’s more opportunity for artistic exchange.”
More so than Hupp, Joseph Haj’s responsibilities increased several-fold when he moved from Playmakers Theatre in North Carolina to the Guthrie, which is ten times larger than the former company. “On a fundamental level, that didn’t scare me,” he says. “But there is the matter of scale. That’s been the big adjustment. For example, marketing will come and say, ‘What do you think about a subscriber event, a Q&A?’ At Playmakers, I do one of those and I see everyone there is to see. Here I’ve done seven so far. The multiples in terms of scale—there’s where the real adjustments have been.”
For Mannelli, taking the job at Geva was like coming home again. He attended college just south of Rochester and, during his early career as a performer, acted in a few Geva plays. “That certainly gave me a great story to tell,” during the interview process, he admits. “It gave me a great place to speak to my knowledge of the community and the history of the organization.”
Mannelli thinks he is coming to Geva at an exciting time. A capital campaign is just coming to an end, allowing the company to do an expansion to the building. “There have been some really terrific changes,” he says. “The theatre has really grown.” As an added plus, he’s not totally among strangers. Some of the staff members are the same as during his days as a Geva actor.
“To see them again was really wonderful,” he says. “It really speaks to the quality of the organization that they’ve stayed.”