South Coast Repertory director preps for final curtain call after 44 years behind the scenes
If art is the beating heart of a successful theater company, then business is its lifeblood. The two working together in harmony is crucial to the survival of any endeavor, and perhaps no one knows this better than Paula Tomei.
Since 1979, the Laguna Beach resident has tended to the management and well-being of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory, learning the organization from nearly every seat in the office, from subscriptions assistant to general manager to managing director.
And now, after 44 years working behind the scenes — including 30 years in her current role — she is ready for a curtain call. The company’s Board of Trustees announced this week Tomei will be stepping down from the position when the season concludes on Aug. 31, 2024.
“South Coast Repertory, Orange County and the American theater community have benefited immeasurably from Paula’s dedicated service and exemplary leadership over the decades,” Board President Talya Nevo-Hacochen said in a statement Tuesday.
“She will leave us with a legacy of commitment to the art and artists, sound fiscal management and the betterment of our entire community.”
Although news of her departure is recent, Tomei, 66, said Wednesday she’d been thinking about it and discussing a transition with the board in recent months.
“For me, it needed to be the right time for SCR,” she said. “This is my home in so many ways, it’s important for me that the organization is healthy and stable and ready — and I think it is.
A self-professed “drama geek” with a head for business, Tomei learned from Estancia High School theater teacher and legend Barbara Van Holt a career in theater didn’t have to take place in the spotlight. As she later attended UC Irvine, she studied lighting design and stage management while pursuing an economics degree.
By the time she graduated in 1979, Tomei had already set her sights on a job at South Coast Repertory, which had just moved into its current location in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. She repeatedly called about openings until, five weeks in, she got a bite.
“The business manager called me about a subscriptions assistant job — that was the beginning,” she recalled. “I learned everything here from the ground up, from people who gave me opportunities along the way.”
As Tomei moved up the ranks, becoming general manager in 1986 and managing director in 1994, she oversaw countless developments at the theater company.
She helped launch the Pacific Playwrights Festival in 1998 and supported the Theatre for Young Audiences and Families and a Theatre Access program, which offered free programming to thousands of school groups as well as high school and college students.
Tomei also oversaw a capital campaign that funded the addition of the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage and, in 2013, helped establish a Founders Endowment honoring SCR founding artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson.
Today, the company employs 60 full-time employees as well as hundreds of part-time and seasonal workers, operating a $12.6-million budget and maintaining $74.7 million in assets.
“[Paula’s] proven record of stewardship and her tremendous respect for South Coast Repertory has anchored the theater with the vision and resources it requires to stay relevant into the future,” SCR Artistic Director David Ivers said in Tuesday’s release. “She will be missed dearly, but her inspiring legacy will no doubt remain a part of our future trajectory.”
Although she is looking forward to traveling, volunteering and seeing where her next chapter takes her, Tomei said she’s eager for what’s next for the company.
“I just think it’s the best job in the American theater. Whatever the work is is so compelling and keeps renewing you — you don’t want to go anywhere else,” she said. “I’ve been incredibly lucky.”
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