Center Stage names director

In Calif. job, Chinn viewed as creative and cash-savvy

May 23, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When Debbie Chinn started placing blankets on the seats at the California Shakespeare Theater, which performs outdoors - along with a hand-written note - some observers dismissed the gesture as hokey.

But theatergoers in the Bay Area loved it. Now, other outdoor festivals in California are doing the same thing.

And it's one of the explanations most frequently noted for the 44 percent increase in earned revenue and the 14 percent increase in subscription renewals that Cal Shakes experienced in the seven years since Chinn took over as the troupe's managing director.

Arts administrators say they hope Chinn brings similar creativity to her new job. Center Stage's board of directors voted last night to appoint her as the theater's managing director, succeeding Michael Ross.

Chinn plans to move to Baltimore over the summer - she is already house-hunting - and will assume her new duties before the season kicks off Sept. 17.

"Debbie has a vigorous intellectual mind, a warm personality, and she's a straight-shooter," says Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, who noted that she and Chinn share an inclination to mount shows that push the envelope.

"She strives for a high level of theatrical excellence. I think we're very, very lucky to be getting her."

Chinn will not only be responsible for balancing the budget and facilities management, but she will also become the public face of Baltimore's largest regional stage company.

In recent years, there has been an impetus nationally to get artistic directors more involved in public relations and fundraising. For instance, Marin Alsop is the face of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - and not Paul Meecham, the music group's president and CEO.

Many artistic leaders, Lewis included, shrink from these tasks, reasoning that their talents are better suited to creating productions.

But artistic directors are under so much pressure to court potential donors that there have been some high-level resignations, including that of musical superstar Daniel Barenboim from the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Luckily, the Center Stage board has seen it Lewis' way and has installed previous managing directors who have relished taking on a more visible role, from the widely respected Peter Culman, who was Center Stage's managing director for 34 years, to the ebullient Ross. Chinn will be expected to do the same.

In addition, she will be running a company roughly double the size of her current organization.

The California Shakespeare Theater has a budget of $3.8 million (a sum that has increased by half from the $2.5 million at the beginning of Chinn's tenure in 2001), and stages shows only from May to October.

In contrast, Center Stage has a budget of $7.6 million and operates two theaters year-round.

But Chinn's supporters are confident that she's up to the challenge. Under her tenure, contributions to the California Shakespeare Theater more than doubled. Subscription renewals increased from 70 percent to 84 percent and the troupe was named the Bay Area's best classical theater in 2007 by San Francisco magazine.

"Debbie is a very dynamic, energetic woman who has taken Cal Shakes a long way in her seven years here," says David Goldsmith, the president of that troupe's board of directors. "We will obviously miss her, but I think she'll do wonders for you guys."

Chinn says she is proof of how the arts can help children flourish.

She grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where her parents were in the restaurant business. They were the only family of color in their neighborhood.

"I wasn't a very good student, and I was picked on because I was Chinese," Chinn says.

"I was floundering until I started teaching myself the piano at age 13. Then, I joined the choir. I found I was able to express myself through music in a way that I hadn't before. My grades improved, and I started making friends.

"The arts aren't fluff. We are just as vital to society as doctors and accountants and lawyers. We do have a calling. The arts do save lives."

After her graduation from the University of Southern California in 1979, Chinn worked for several arts organizations, including the American Conservatory Theatre, the San Francisco Symphony and the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, where she was managing director.

At Cal Shakes, Chinn instituted a successful concierge program for established patrons and simultaneously began reaching out to younger customers through podcasts and blogs.

"I'd like to try to institute some of these programs at Center Stage," she says.

"The same tried-and-true methods of communication that worked for people our age, this generation just doesn't get. We have to find new ways to reach them.

"We're in the business of relationships. What brings people in the door, and what keeps them coming back year after year, is if we can make them feel welcome."

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