The new CEO and artistic director of The Playhouse San Antonio, George Green, wants to help bring the more than 100-year-old community-based theater into the 21st century and onto the national, professional stage.
“You are the seventh largest city in the nation. For a city this incredible to not have a professional theater is absurd,” Green said Wednesday.
One of Green’s first actions as CEO since his first day on July 5 was to lay off 12 staffers, including the entire technical staff in the middle of a production. This along with other ideas Green has suggested – like scaling back educational and outreach programming – has caused some in the local arts community to worry about the future of the company founded in 1912 as San Antonio Little Theater.
“Ultimately, the decisions that are being made about staff are devastating. That’s just the fact,” Green told the Rivard Report after a public meeting at the theater on Wednesday. He held two town hall-like meetings this week to introduce himself to the community.
The staff overhaul is part of a larger restructuring effort underway in response to a projected budget shortfall of more than $140,000, he said, adding that he aims to strengthen The Playhouse’s long-term finances.
“I hope in two years or three years people will go, ‘Oh, this is where we are today.’ Unfortunate decisions had to be made, but I’m certainly not driving from Spokane, Washington, to clean house,” he said. “It’s a very evaluated process.”
Green, a native San Antonian, was artistic director of the Godbold Cultural Center’s resident theater company in Lubbock, and development director at the Spokane (Washington) Civic Theatre.
The Playhouse looks to have a staff of seven in the future, pared down from 16 when the The Playhouse’s board of directors chose him from a finalist pool of three candidates.
The nonprofit theater has a yearly budget of slightly more than $900,000, $600,000 of it went to pay for staff, part-timers, and contracted artists.
“We are making strides,” Green said. “We are doing a lot very quickly.”
Before he was hired, Green was interviewed by The Playhouse board and visited with representatives from a few local nonprofits, including SA2020 President and CEO Molly Cox, who is active in the local theater arts community. She attended Wednesday’s event, describing Green as “super ambitious” and someone who “believes in his vision.”
Cox said Green will make tough decisions before conditions get easier at The Playhouse, but she believes the local arts community is headed for bigger and better things.
“In any space when a new person comes in, they’re trying to take a gauge of everything,” she added.
The Playhouse is in the middle of its production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Another show, Two Sisters and a Piano, kicks off July 29. Green did not comment on how the theater is handling the technical demands of its programming.
News of the layoffs made its way through social media, prompting some former Playhouse staffers and supporters to criticize Green’s decision.
Sarah McClain worked as a graphic designer at The Playhouse for four months before Green phoned her on Tuesday to tell her she was out of a job. She had had a baby less than one week ago. McClain was frustrated with Green’s approach – or lack thereof – of sharing his vision for The Playhouse with its employees.
“I kinda assumed he’d say, ‘Let’s restructure, let’s retrain staff, give them new responsibilities, tweak things,’” McClain said.
She realizes it was a business decision, but does not feel any better given her personal circumstances and how the layoffs affect a small, close-knit organization.
“My heart is broken. We all love the theater,” she added.
Eva Laporte had been The Playhouse’s community engagement director since March. She was fired Wednesday morning. Laporte suspects her termination stemmed from questions she asked about Green’s strategies during a similar gathering of staff and community members on Tuesday night.
Laporte has worked with equity theaters elsewhere in the country and was excited to return to San Antonio to help with development at The Playhouse. She was surprised when he dismissed her, she said. “He was complimentary of me the last few weeks. I was observant, giving him an open mind.”
Observers on social media responded in their own ways. Local actor/producer Chelsea Steele put together a petition asking Playhouse board members to fire Green and reinstate the fired staffers.
The petition also questions Green’s suggestion to scale back education and outreach – such as programs for child, teenage, and senior citizen actors – for the foreseeable future.
“We do not believe the methods to save our theater and attack monetary deficits include cutting the jobs of the beloved, passionate members of our community who have sacrificed so much,” the petition states.
At time of publication, 59 people had signed the petition.
“I have to focus on it being a theater before anything else,” Green told the crowd Wednesday in defense of prioritizing productions. The facilities need work, too, he added.
There will be some resistance to what happens at The Playhouse, he said, inviting all staff, artists, and patrons to be patient and do what they can to keep increasing the theater’s growth.
Former Playhouse President and CEO Asia Ciaravino left the theater in December to join the City’s Tricentennial Commission as chief operating officer. Mia Migliaccio Hernandez took over the interim position. Playhouse marketing and artistic manager Meredith Alvarez led the theater between Hernandez’s departure and Green’s arrival.
Green said he is excited about his return to San Antonio.
“I thought it’d be nice to be closer to Mom and Dad, come back to my hometown, and make an impact,” he added.
As executive artistic director of Spokane-based Modern Theater, he oversaw the company’s 2014 “merger/dissolution” – as he called it – of a North Idaho community theater that had several challenges, including little to no corporate sponsorship.
Green and his team turned the Idaho theater, its $80,000 budget and 90-person subscriber base into a semi-professional theater with a budget of nearly $800,000 and a subscriber base of more than 1,000, he said.
The changes he will implement over the coming years at The Playhouse, the country’s first city-owned, city-built theater, will take as many as six to 10 years to bear fruit, he said. Those fruits include wider regional and national reach, including occasionally bringing in acting talent from outside the city and state.
He plans to expand programming by hosting as many as 15 shows, possibly in the 2017-2018 season, and pursue more corporate sponsorships. Other changes, he added, would affect internal functions, such as box office operations and grant reporting.
This story was originally published on July 14, 2016.
Top image: George Green, new CEO and artistic director of The Playhouse San Antonio, introduces himself to donors, patrons, and volunteers at the theater on Wednesday, July 13, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.