Center Stage has its new director

Theater: Seattle theater administrator Thomas Pechar will replace Peter Culman, who raised the regional theater to prominence.

March 16, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Center Stage administrators today will announce that Thomas Pechar, a sometime sailor and erstwhile philosopher known for his fund-raising skills, will be the theater's next managing director.

The selection of Pechar, now managing director of the Seattle Children's Theatre, ends a yearlong search that began when Peter Culman, who built Center Stage into one of the nation's most respected and financially stable regional theaters, announced his retirement. Pechar, 48, steps into his new job July 1.

"Tom brings to the job exactly what we were looking for: He has an enormous commitment to art and to accessibility to the art," says Nancy K. Roche, who led the 15-member search committee with board president James T. Brady, former secretary of the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. "He understands the art of theater and has a sense of commitment to our audience."

"I've always, always admired Center Stage," Pechar says. "It has been known in the field as one of most well-run and certainly highly respected resident professional theaters in the country. So I'm really looking forward to coming."

Culman's 34-year tenure spanned three theater buildings, five artistic directors, a fire and more than 230 productions. During those years, Center Stage blossomed from a 300-seat theater that occasionally teetered on the edge of financial disaster to a two-stage venue with nearly 900 seats and a $20 million endowment. Its annual operating budget grew from $275,000 to $6.2 million, and yearly attendance rose from 35,000 to 125,000. Now led by Culman and artistic director Irene Lewis, the theater has a solid national reputation for its commitment to classic drama and works by emerging playwrights.

"I took Tom through my philosophy and all of what I try to do," says Culman, who met with Pechar in his Center Stage office over homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "At the the end of our visit I said, `I feel as if you get it. You fully grasp what we are trying to do here.' And he responded in a very considerate way by saying: `I think I do and it makes great sense to me.' "

Though Culman represented the business side of theater, he won the hearts of actors with his attentiveness, sitting in on the first reading of every production and haunting the backstage during performances. The managing director also exhibits a quirkiness that plays well in drama circles: punctuating his remarks with confoundingly complex metaphors; interrupting budget meetings to ruminate on spirituality; writing poetry; and ceremoniously serving tea to visitors.

"It's an emotional time right now at Center Stage, especially for those of us who have been working with Peter over the years. It's really the end of an era," says Lewis.

"Since I've only met Tom twice it's a bit of a blind date. But, if you ignore the fact that he seems to be an almost frighteningly well-adjusted man, I think we may be in for a wonderful ride."

Pechar has been managing director of the Seattle Children's Theatre for 12 years. There, he is known as an astute fund-raiser who backs the artists with whom he works. "He has great vision and has been very supportive of me," says Linda Harzell, artistic director.

"Every decision at the theater made over the years has been driven by art."

Under Pechar's leadership, the Seattle theater's annual budget grew fivefold to $5 million, and its annual attendance increased from 6,000 to 22,000. He also led a capital campaign that raised $18 million to build a performing arts center. "Tom understands how you work with the artistic side of the house without overpowering it," says Deanna Oppenheimer, immediate past president of the board.

Making things happen

Born in New York City, Pechar attended State University of New York at Buffalo where he studied philosophy and directed the speakers bureau, a student-run organization that stages campus events. "It got me interested in the whole idea of helping to make something happen that I clearly didn't have the talent to do myself. But the connection between theater and audience -- that was what interested me."

Pechar left college before earning his degree, working as assistant to the producer at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre and as director of sales and special events at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, among other venues. From 1983 to 1988 he was managing director of the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. And in 1983, he produced a television documentary for PBS about the closing of a South Carolina mill and titled "Thread/Work."

Artistic director Harzell and Pechar developed a drama school, a summer program for children and a deaf youth program, which provides opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to participate in theater. Among other things, Pechar, who is president of the Washington State Arts Alliance Council, effectively communicates to potential donors the role of theater in a community and the benefits it affords that community, Seattle board members say.

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