In his calm hands

Times Staff Writer

Terrence Dwyer’s new job as president and chief operating officer of the Orange County Performing Arts Center comes with a huge portfolio and a small, nondescript office with no view.

The lack of flash in the windowless work space he’s occupied at the back of the center’s old wing since April may reflect his understated manner, his preference for getting out and around in the community -- or simply a glut of responsibilities that leave scant time for interior decorating.

Dwyer, 51, leads an institution in planned tumult -- a potentially creative upheaval that, if managed adroitly, could enhance an already productive patch of cultural turf in Costa Mesa.

An extended moment of opportunity begins Friday with the opening of the $200-million, 2,002-seat Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The new wing also includes the 500-seat Samueli Theater and fronts an outdoor plaza conceived as a performance venue and social hub unto itself. The project’s purpose is to upgrade acoustics and intimacy for classical music, and to expand programming possibilities after years of squeezed scheduling in the original, 2,994-seat Segerstrom Hall. Including South Coast Repertory next door, Costa Mesa’s performing arts district now has seven stages that seat 6,629 patrons -- compared with five venues that seat 8,448 at the L.A. Music Center.

Dwyer grew up in Moorestown, N.J., and got into the arts as a high school senior because he wanted to become better acquainted with the girl who was co-directing the school’s production of “You Can’t Take It With You.” His biggest jobs until now were serving as managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse and Houston’s Alley Theatre, much smaller and more narrowly focused institutions.


With the help of the paid staff of 114 he leads, and the volunteer board he answers to, he must launch OCPAC’s new venues in a way that creates excited first impressions and a lasting buzz. He must persuade big-ticket donors to fill the new wing’s potentially troublesome $49-million gap in construction funding -- a sum needed to ensure that the center can easily swing about $5 million in annual interest payments on bonds it issued to ensure the building’s completion. Meanwhile, he’s responsible for raising an additional $9 million a year or more to meet the increased operating expenses of an organization whose budget is expected to leap from $36 million to $50 million in the coming season. Beyond these fiscal challenges, he must oversee the booking and selling of scores of events each year.

“It’s what attracted me to the job,” says Dwyer, who has settled in Newport Beach with wife, Amy Carson-Dwyer, and their 8-year-old daughter, Claire. “This institution has great ambitions and is taking on a huge amount. People are motivated to work extremely hard and accomplish great things.”

Low-key manner

If OCPAC’s board thought this moment called for a Barnum of the arts -- an expansive, spotlight-grabbing type like Mark Taper Forum founder Gordon Davidson or the L.A. Philharmonic’s former general director, Ernest Fleischmann -- it probably would have looked elsewhere. Dwyer, who has a three-year contract at a salary the center won’t disclose, is an uncommonly self-contained man, his enthusiasm spiking most noticeably when he’s talking about favorite things he’s seen on stage.

He tends to take long pauses before he speaks, while sitting with knees crossed and hands folded as if in prayer. The posture and manner call to mind an earnest parish priest; “communication” and “collaboration” keep surfacing as his soft-voiced watchwords.

Early on, says Michael Gordon, the center’s chairman, some people around the organization were concerned that Dwyer’s reserve reflected a lack of take-charge vigor. But Gordon and others say there’s fire and drive under the mild exterior: “He’s not flashy, he’s deliberate, he doesn’t shoot from the hip and try to give answers when he hasn’t really thought them out,” Gordon says. “The first couple of months some people thought he wasn’t doing very much, but I was delighted to see he was taking time to understand and learn before taking action.”

“He’s a type A personality -- internally,” says Ted Cranston, a former La Jolla Playhouse board chairman. “He’s quiet and thoughtful and maybe circumspect in his language, but I think he’s as driven as a person can be.”

Dwyer succeeds Jerry E. Mandel, an outgoing, ever-upbeat fundraising pro who arrived in 1997 without an arts-management background. As he approached retirement age, Mandel decided to step down so the expanded center could debut with a new president in place. This time, says Roger Kirwan, co-chair of the fundraising campaign for the new wing, “we needed a fundraiser who was an artist, or an artist who was a fundraiser.” He thinks Dwyer fits the bill, bringing “a nice self-confidence without any arrogance.”

Track record

Dwyer earned a degree in theater management from the Yale School of Drama in 1988, having decided he’d rather run theaters than direct plays -- his intention while previously earning a master’s degree from the University of Missouri. In La Jolla, from 1992 to 2004, he helped erase a deficit of nearly $2 million over several seasons, then guided the playhouse through a striking period of growth that included an expansion and initiatives to commission and develop new plays. Among its exports to Broadway were four that won best-show Tony awards in their categories: “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “I Am My Own Wife,” Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” and “Jersey Boys.”

He concedes there was a rough patch during the single-season tenure of artistic director Anne Hamburger. “There was a difference in styles, and it caused us to have different points of view,” Dwyer says. Hamburger, who left La Jolla in 2000 to take charge of producing live entertainment at Disney’s theme parks, declined to comment.

Cranston and Geri-Ann Warnke, longtime La Jolla Playhouse board leaders who co-chaired its expansion campaign, praise Dwyer as a well-prepared, extremely hard-working fundraiser who gathered detailed information on prospective donors and had a knack for developing “asks” tailored to each target.

“He’s very thoughtful, well-organized and efficient, and knows the numbers cold,” says Warnke -- but she adds that some staffers who worked under Dwyer complained they were being “micro-managed,” and some left feeling that “he didn’t give them opportunities to shine. Often it was thought Terry was too strict, too fiscally tough.”

Leaders at the Alley learned while scouting Dwyer that he wasn’t universally liked, says Gregory Boyd, the theater’s artistic director, but hired him anyway in 2004 and found his style to be strongly collegial. “The staff liked and responded to him,” Boyd says, and the Alley was sorry to see him leave.

Early results

John Forsyte, president of the new concert hall’s main tenant, the Pacific Symphony, credits Dwyer with helping to secure an additional $200,000 -- half in center funds, half from the symphony’s donors -- to boost the number of pre-opening rehearsals from 12 to 20. Relations between cultural landlords and tenants can be testy, and Dwyer wins high marks so far for gestures such as enabling the orchestra to have plaques in the lobby honoring its donors -- something missing from the older hall.

“He listens to what you say. He’s not loaded with an agenda,” says Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, another key tenant as the center’s leading presenter of touring orchestras. Corey hopes Dwyer and the center board won’t be satisfied with just “keeping it busy” in their expanded digs, but will “bring the public along” with some adventurous offerings. “Many times you have to take some risk and give audiences something they aren’t used to seeing.”

First, Dwyer must attend to the new venues’ opening: The opening nights feature Placido Domingo and violinist Midori performing with the Pacific Symphony, and the Kirov opera, ballet and orchestra arrive Oct. 6 for a 17-day festival. After that initial wave, which also features the Samueli Theater’s Oct. 14 opening, an invitation-only concert for donors by rocker Sheryl Crow, one of Dwyer’s chief concerns will be planning future programming, with an emphasis on attracting new audiences. The Samueli is penciled in for familiar jazz and cabaret series in its opening season, but Dwyer also hopes to build a youth-oriented vibe there.

He sees the Samueli and the outdoor plaza as venues for drawing the Latino crowds that all large Southern California arts organizations covet as they face the demographic reality of having to diversify or stagnate. Dwyer, who will rely heavily on the center’s veteran chief programmer, Judith O’Dea Morr, says he’ll recuse himself from decisions concerning clients of his wife, who has dealt with the center for years as the agent handling West Coast bookings for the classical music firm Colbert Artists Management.

Gordon, the center’s chairman, is inclined to take a careful, gradualist approach to programming expansion and innovation: “The first year we’re feeling our way a little bit. We’ve got to make the transition financially before we start planning to do other activities that cost a lot of money.”

Forsyte, the symphony president, hopes that center programming under Dwyer “makes a statement about who the community is. He has a great opportunity here, but it takes time, and we may not see results for three or four years down the road.”