After 20 years with the Laguna Playhouse, Donna Inglima is retiring and returning home to her native New York.
She uses the word “retirement” loosely, though.
“Next steps for me, I ... will continue to work and that would include directing, teaching, writing. I don’t have any immediate project on the horizon,” Inglima said with a laugh during a recent interview. “I have a lot of personal divesting to involve myself with.”
Inglima said she decided to leave her position to spend more time with her immediate family on the East Coast.
She joined Laguna Playhouse in 1999 after then-executive director Richard Stein hired her to bolster the playhouse’s youth theater program. She took the helm of that program after its former director, Joe Lauderdale, retired in 2005.
Over the years, she also served as Laguna Playhouse’s director of education and outreach.
“Directing more than 40 plays for youth over her tenure of 20 years, Donna presented thought-provoking plays that are relevant to today’s youth,” said Playhouse Executive Director Ellen Richard.
Inglima formally left her position in July, but stuck around for the next few months to direct her last two Laguna Beach productions — “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” — which wrapped up their runs late last month.
Stein, now the president and chief executive of Arts Orange County, said he became familiar with Inglima through her work with college and youth actors at Animal Crackers — a small theater company she founded in Oswego, New York. At the time, Stein was the executive director of the Oswego County Council on the Arts.
“Donna was greatly beloved among the students, parents, staff and board of the playhouse,” Stein said. “Her upbeat, positive, can-do spirit was infectious and took our program to new heights. She will be a tough act to follow.”
Prior to joining Laguna Playhouse, Inglima taught theater at Syracuse University, where she also obtained her master’s degree. She worked as an actress in New York for several years, but later shifted her focus to directing and producing because she felt acting “wasn’t really where [her] heart was.”
“Of course, I wanted to get on the stage and act, but you had to do all this other stuff to make that happen,” she said. “Although I had an agent and everything, it wasn’t clicking for me.”
Inglima said she has wanted to pursue theater since she was young, inspired by the small plays she and her family would put on in their home.
“I’ve always loved storytelling and I grew up on old movies,” she said. “We were fortunate in that we had a television and I always was fascinated with the characters, the relationships, storytelling, the music that they used, and so I just began to see life through that prism.”
She credited Animal Crackers for providing her first foray into directing, and said she began to adapt stories from books and fairy tales at the suggestion of parents whose children were part of the theater company.
“I put together this troupe of young actors and none of them were really necessarily actors, but we were all learning,” she said.
Inglima said she always wanted “to do something that’s going to use every bit of me. My intellect, my emotion, my physicality, my brain — all of this.”
Under her direction, Stein said Laguna Playhouse’s youth theater program expanded its schedule to include a series of productions for teenage actors called “Theatre for a New Generation” — which featured works on serious topics such as bullying or, in the case of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” the Holocaust.
The playhouse’s TheaterReach program — which brings professional touring performances to schools — also was expanded to include as many as 50 shows a year.
“Through the TheaterReach: Bringing Books to Life program that reenacts curriculum-based books, Donna brought artistic and cultural enrichment to students in Orange County while helping to increase their understanding of the literature,” Richard said.
In recognition of her work, Inglima received a lifetime achievement honor at the 2017 Art Star Awards that were organized by the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance.
Sitting under the dimmed lights at the Laguna Playhouse, Inglima couldn’t help but smile as she reflected on her career.
“The bones of the theater are standing,” she said, and her replacement, Dylan Russell, “has a magnificent journey ahead for herself and for the youth theater as she gets her sea legs and begins to exercise her own vision.”
Looking down on the stage that played host to years of her shows, Inglima added, “I think that the youth theater will continue to thrive under new leadership.”