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Handing Over the Reins : * Theater: Alan Levey is stepping down as managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse. His interim successor has her work cut out for her.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The departure of Alan Levey, managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse, doesn’t become official until Dec. 31.

But his office, which he left Nov. 15 after a decade-long tenure on the UC San Diego campus, has been occupied by interim managing director Abigail Evans since Dec. 2. And it already looks completely different.

Gone is the fake head on a pike that was supposed to be used for a “Macbeth” production but never was. Gone is the construction hat Levey donned when the company’s two spaces, the Mandell Weiss Theatre and the Mandell Weiss Forum, were being built. And gone is the painting Levey’s father made for him of a man standing in the tracks of an oncoming train.

“It’s his visualization of my job,” Levey said during an interview in his office in mid-November. “He says I’m in front of the train, getting run over.”

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What remains in Evans’ comparatively bare office is Levey’s gift of a bottle of Pepto Bismol--tucked away in a drawer, Evans revealed with a laugh.

“I’ve loosened the cap a little--but I haven’t been here long enough to delve in.”

The Pepto Bismol is there, supposedly, to soothe the effects of the kind of stress Levey experienced as the man who helped jump-start the dream of the Playhouse into a living, breathing entity. Evans won’t be surprised if she needs a drink of that pink fluid as she succeeds Levey--at least for the foreseeable future--managing 26 year-round staffers. As one of the candidates for the permanent position, her future status will not be known at least until February, according to La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff.

Evans’ current mission is to tackle the company’s deficit--the extent of which no one in the administration, from Levey to Evans to McAnuff, will reveal. And she will help produce the 1992 season, scheduled to be announced in January.

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In large part, the job’s stresses are the same any managing director faces in attempting to keep a large nonprofit institution solvent during these perilously recessionary times.

Levey was hired in 1981 by the Playhouse’s trustees, and asked to rejuvenate the institution, which had ceased operation in 1964. At the time of his resignation, he called his decision to leave “personally, the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my life.”

Although he was effusive in his praise for McAnuff and the highly acclaimed work produced at the Playhouse, Levey has said he wants to go back to creating theaters--and he said Friday that he is mulling over a few job offers along those lines. He said his favorite part of the job here was facilitating the creation of the Playhouse and its two theaters, but the long-term job of keeping the Playhouse going took its toll.

“It’s a battle, it’s a fight, a fight for life,” he said.

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It’s also a fight going on in theaters throughout San Diego and all across America.

At a time when the nonprofit Playhouse has had to depend on a healthy mix of donations and ticket sales to meet 1991’s $4.5-million budget, government and corporate funding to arts organizations generally has been down and individuals appear to have less cash to spend on tickets.

The Playhouse has assets that would appeal to any fund-raiser--it is a daring and adventurous nationally renowned theater associated with some of the best artists in the country. It has two beautiful state-of-the-art stages, is connected with the respected UC San Diego graduate theater program and is located in a city that seems to value theater above all other art forms.

But the job also poses some sizable challenges. In 1986, the Playhouse began to accrue a deficit that, in 1989, reached proportions high enough to imperil the 1990 season. Enough money--more than $500,000--was raised to ensure the season, with $200,000 more for deficit reduction. But according to the most recent figures--released in 1990--the company did not meet its goal of raising the $1 million it reportedly needed to stabilize what was then a deficit of $703,000.

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Before he left, Levey said support for the Playhouse will have to come from more than just the wealthy few: “I think the Playhouse has a long way to go toward generating more support in the community. It has to be from the entire community and not just Del Mar, La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe. San Diego at large needs to support it.”

The Playhouse administration also has often pointed to the company’s short season as a partial cause to its fiscal woes--the production schedule is limited to six months because the Playhouse shares its stages with UCSD’s theater program. Evans, Levey and McAnuff all concur that the company’s plan is to establish economic stabilization while spearheading a campaign to build a third theater in which the Playhouse could produce 10 months a year.

Not an easy task these days.

Levey and Evans appear to be complete opposites. A New Yorker, born-and-bred, Levey, 43, wears rumpled clothes and has a slow, low-key way of talking. Connecticut-born Evans, 31, wore a smart businesswoman’s suit to a recent interview, and her manner was intense, sharp, sometimes even staccato.

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But the differences seem fitting.

Each was faced with different tasks when joining the Playhouse. Levey came to start a theater, Evans’ role is to keep it going and growing. Levey came to theater management with a degree in electronic engineering from City College in New York, which, happily, gave him valuable expertise in overseeing the construction of theaters--he oversaw the construction of five theaters nationwide before coming to La Jolla.

Evans received an MFA in theater administration from Yale University in 1987 (when McAnuff was there directing the world premiere of what would become one of the Playhouse’s great triumphs, “A Walk in the Woods”), and she is part of a new breed of academically educated administrators. She swiftly amassed experience in both the commercial and nonprofit sectors: as Associate General Manager for Emanuel Azenberg’s production of “Jerome Robbins Broadway” and as interim manager (her technical title was associate executive director) at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

When asked to compare Levey with Evans, McAnuff took a few moments between hurried conferences about the upcoming 1992 season to speak in measured, careful sentences.

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“There’s a big difference between starting up an organization and raising it to a certain level,” he said.

“These are difficult times in the arts, and we’re looking at a different funding landscape. But, in the long run, we’re talking about a period of opportunity and I’m impressed that people seem to see the Playhouse as a real place of opportunity.”

That is exactly how Evans sees it. A onetime college actress (married to actor Larry Cahn), she says she moved to administration as “a realistic assessment of my chances as an actress.” Evans combines a hard-headed perspective on reality while maintaining a love for the theater that she says she has had all her life.

“To be the managing director of a nationally exciting regional theater in a community where theater is a favored form of cultural activity is an opportunity to be grateful for,” Evans said last week.

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“The La Jolla Playhouse for me always had a very exciting and dynamic reputation artistically and in the way it produced theater. This is a big big job and a big big opportunity for somebody. None of the old formulas from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s apply. Funding isn’t the way it used to be. And there is no question that my first charge here is financial stabilization. There are big problems facing us, but not insurmountable.”

Evans and Levey may also prove to have something else in common: The symbol of the playhouse--the pelican--that was on the Playhouse posters on Levey’s wall and is on one of the Playhouse posters on Evans’ wall.

“We wanted to create a symbol,” Levey recalled. “We decided to do something related to the area. We thought about a whale--and said no, that would be too much like Sea World. We thought about a sea gull--but it had such an annoying bark. Then, one day I took Des out for a walk on the boardwalk and we saw pelicans trying to fly into the wind. They couldn’t make any headway and one pelican was screaming in frustration. But they kept flying.”

Levey identified with those pelicans. Now, over the coming months--and possibly much longer--Evans will see if she identifies with them, too.

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