I’m sorry to report that our historic hometown theater, the Pasadena Playhouse, is in dire financial straits, although the situation is not hopeless. New executive director Stephen Eich, who recently discovered that the Playhouse’s debt was more daunting that he’d realized, has pulled theaters through tough times before; he hopes to use the same strategies he used to give strength to Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, which he ran for six years.
Under the artistic direction of Sheldon Epps, the Playhouse has had a remarkable creative resurgence in the last several years. But it’s been on shaky financial footing since its rebirth in 1997, and the recession has deepened the pain, forcing the recent layoff of fifteen people, the closing of a show early, and the moving of the staff to donated office space in east Pasadena.
I talked to my old friend Patti Eisenberg, the manager of major gifts at the Playhouse, about the challenges ahead. “Most people don’t realize that we’ve only been a nonprofit for 12 years,” she said. “And we started as a nonprofit with a debt of $1.5 million that we inherited from the developer who owned it before. On top of that, we have no benefactor — no Dorothy Chandler, no Mark Taper, no David Geffen.”
Contrary to some impressions, the Pasadena Playhouse is not a community theater. It is one of the most important venues for theater in Southern Caifornia, as significant as the Geffen, the Mark Taper and the Kirk Douglas; it stages a serious, ambitious repertoire of accomplished dramas, comedies and musicals starring some of the finest actors in the business, and it boasts a remarkable program of outreach, especially to low-income students from the San Gabriel Valley and throughout Los Angeles.
Eisenberg said that since the news hit a few days ago about the Playhouse’s crisis, friends of the theater have been generous, making donations to help them pull through in the short term. In the long term, it’s going to take some serious foundation money, and most likely a benefactor (the Oprah Winfrey Pasadena Playhouse, perhaps?).