UCLA Live director David Sefton resigns

David Sefton has resigned after nearly 10 years as executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, the diverse performing arts series that brings leading dance, classical music, jazz, world and pop music and touring theater companies to the campus.

He said Thursday that he quit in response to “a major rethinking and restructuring” of the program that his bosses at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture are undertaking in response to “increasing fiscal pressures” brought on by the poor economy and the state’s fiscal woes.

He said he resigned in a meeting Monday with Christopher Waterman, dean of the arts and architecture school. “It was done amicably, and by agreement. It was not going to be the program I was originally brought in to run … UCLA Live as I envisioned it was not going to be the model for the future. It’s not appropriate for me, and my response was to resign.”

Waterman said Thursday that ticket sales had plummeted the last two seasons, and changes were needed to keep the series solvent. He blamed the decline on the poor economy.

Before the recession hit, Waterman said, UCLA Live was selling more than 100,000 tickets per season and earning about $5 million. But attendance dropped to 64,000, and then to 58,000 in the just-concluded 2009-10 season. Ticket income both years was about $2.7 million. The program typically needs to collect nearly as much in donations as it does at the box office, and gifts have fallen as well, Waterman said. According to the UCLA Live website, the university covers less than 15% of the program’s budget.

Consequently, the dean said, the search for a new director may try to find “someone with managerial and financial experience, as well as artistic.”

The 2010-11 season, which will be announced next month, has already been booked; Sefton said that the number and scale of shows at UCLA Live’s main venue, the 1,800-seat Royce Hall, will be “about the same,” and characterized it as “a very strong year.”

But the International Theatre Festival he originated in 2002 is the first casualty of what he calls “the new model.” “A smaller one had been booked, that we had to unbook. The university wasn’t going to proceed with the theater program and wanted to change the model, and that was of no interest to me,” Sefton said.

Although Sefton’s resignation was effective immediately, Waterman said he may stay on for a time as a performing arts advisor, making sure the new season is ushered in smoothly and having input on performance presentations by UCLA’s academic departments. “I prize his intelligence in these matters,” said the dean.

Waterman, who will be interim director of UCLA Live, said he couldn’t lay out any specifics about what changes might be afoot. “I want the program to remain, as it has been for years, full of unexpected, challenging, stimulating performances. We’re certainly not going to start putting Broadway musicals on our stages to sell tickets. We’re an arts program.”

In a written statement announcing Sefton’s departure, Waterman thanked him for “creating an innovative and visionary program, reinforcing UCLA’s longstanding reputation as a leading center for the arts and culture….David is leaving a performing arts program that is respected around the world, and we are committed to maintaining and extending that reputation.”

Sefton, 47, started out writing about music in his hometown of Liverpool, England, before branching into an impresario’s role at small theaters. He was in charge of contemporary culture programs at London’s South Bank Centre/Royal Festival Hall before being hired in 2000 as the fifth director of UCLA’s series, which originated in 1937. Sefton renamed the series when he arrived; previously it was known as UCLA Performing Arts.

He joked early on that his role as he tried to boost an already extensive, high-profile program would be “creative troublemaker.” His aim was a series that would be “locally popular … with global significance.”

In the first season he chose, Sefton signaled a fresh programming push toward contemporary figures associated with the world of rock music. He tapped Elvis Costello as artist in residence, citing the British rocker’s history of forays into classical, jazz and country music, and installed the influential and clangorous New York City rock band Sonic Youth as curators of a pop and rock festival called “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” after a song by the seminal American avant-garde rock band the Velvet Underground.

The International Theatre Festival witnessed such entries as Isabelle Huppert making her American stage debut in 2005. The show, performed in French, was “4:48 Psychosis,” a forbidding drama that Sarah Kane originally wrote in English shortly before committing suicide, a fate foreshadowed by the work.

In 2007, Ian McKellen and the Royal Shakespeare Company became perhaps the hottest theater ticket in L.A. stage history, selling out the entire run of “King Lear” at Royce Hall on the day tickets went on sale. By the end of the run, Sefton said, he saw on EBay that a pair of tickets to see the “Lord of the Rings” film star play Shakespeare’s mythic king had sold for $10,000.

Sefton’s tenure at UCLA Live also yielded the final L.A. appearance, in 2007, of German choreographer Pina Bausch and her company, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, Kurt Masur leading the London Philharmonic, a joint recital by Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey, residencies by the Kronos Quartet and music producer Hal Wilner, and a production of “Woyzeck,” with music by Tom Waits and direction by Robert Wilson — the experimental director’s first fully-staged work in L.A.

Sefton said he was already exploring other opportunities but has no immediate plans to leave Los Angeles because he, his wife and their 4-year-old son have been happy here.

“When I arrived I was an enfant terrible, and now I’m an eminence gris,” he joked. “It takes just 10 years.”