The playhouse is the thing

When the Pasadena Playhouse filed for bankruptcy in 2010, closing its doors and some $2.3 million in debt, a leading player in its recovery and reopening later that year was Stephen Eich, the respected former managing director of both Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Geffen Playhouse.

Eich took on the position of executive director at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2009 to help guide the venerable theater back to solvency. Now, less than three years later, he is leaving that position to pursue projects of his own, he said.

“I feel that I have accomplished what I needed to do here. The circumstances were pretty extraordinary — dire, if you will — when I arrived. I like to say that I’ve done a bunch of heavy lifting over the last 2½ years, and now we have the policies and procedures in place to make sure the playhouse is very healthy financially.”

Those “dire” circumstances were due in part to recent economic turbulence. The playhouse’s financial woes went back much further, however, to a heavy debt load that the theater absorbed when its then-operating company, Theatre Corp. of America, foundered into bankruptcy in 1995.

The playhouse’s not-for-profit organization reportedly assumed more than $1.5 million in bank loans and other debts at that time, enabling the theater to continue to operate in its historic venue, but setting the company up for a long-term financial struggle.

“Sometimes, it takes somebody new to the situation to come along and say, you don’t really have to live with this,” said Sheldon Epps, whose tenure at the playhouse as artistic director began in 1997. Eich’s arrival, he said, “brought fresh eyes to the situation.”

Addressing the company’s financial burden through bankruptcy and a major paring-down of the operation that included cutting most of its staff, “was brave and courageous and very difficult for everybody involved, but it was the right thing to do,” Epps said.

“It wasn’t just me,” Eich said. “It was a lot of people. Sheldon was great, and the board was extraordinary in being there morally and financially, and understanding that this was, once and for all, going to solve this problem. We just had a great team of people that were able to do it and get the playhouse back on its feet.”

The playhouse’s operating budget has been considerably reduced to a lean $4 million, Eich said. And, since emerging from bankruptcy in September 2010, with a significant boost from an anonymous $1-million donation that the playhouse subsequently matched, “the organization has no debt. That feels pretty good.”

Positive reviews and strong box-office returns for the playhouse’s most recent offerings — Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” currently playing through Feb. 19; and the upcoming “Hershey Felder Collection,” a trio of plays that includes the world premiere of “Lincoln, An American Story” — have also spurred optimism that the worst is over.

In addition to a $3-million endowment received in 2011 for the maintenance of the theater, Epps said, “we have a cash reserve from last season that is continuing to build because of our box-office success and because of donated revenue this season.” The venerable playhouse, designated the State Theater of California in 1937 and considered one of the country’s major nonprofit regional theaters, “is in a completely different place than it was,” he said.

Fundraising is “pretty stable now” as well, Eich said, although the company will continue working to regain the confidence and trust of the community.

“We want to do things that would require a big cash reserve; we want to be able to dream and put anything we want to do on the stage,” he said. “But there is now a mentality that we have to be very, very careful. Everybody wants to be very conservative in the kind of growth that’s going to happen now.

“So this feels like a good transition time for me, and I leave with great confidence and a real excitement for the future of this great theater. It’s the end of a journey that is really, really satisfying. We’re up on our feet and producing plays; we have a great relationship with theaters and producers around the country, and our subscribers came back. That bodes well for the future of the playhouse.”

“I’m saddened by Stephen’s departure,” Epps said. “We have worked very hard together to get past some significant problems. But in terms of timing, he’s leaving at a good time, because the theater is in a very healthy place right now.”

Eich will remain at the playhouse until the end of February, “and then I’m there for them as they need me,” he said. The theater veteran’s immediate plans for the future include some restorative downtime — “the first thing I’m going to do is take a rest” — and then Eich anticipates donning his independent producer hat for a play on Broadway “that I can’t talk about yet.”

The playhouse will soon launch a national search for a new executive director, Epps said.

Epps, whose own contract ends in December, has no plans to move on. “There’s certainly no question in my mind that I’m eager to continue my work with the playhouse. We’ve had two back-to-back home runs with very different productions in style, theatrical nature and story, and I think to deliver both of them as solidly as we have says a great deal about where the theater is artistically.”

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes regularly on theater and the arts for Marquee.

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