A month and a half in as Center Theatre Group’s new managing director, Edward Rada could not be happier. “For me this goes back to being eight years old and going to the Pasadena Playhouse. They would do youth performances in the afternoon, and the actors would come into the fountain courtyard afterward. As a kid it was just electric to me.”
That undercurrent carried Rada through Pasadena’s Blair High School and then Occidental College in Eagle Rock. Before he graduated as an economics major in 1978, Rada spent time in the college’s theater club, acting and running tech. “Then after college, I ran light boards at the Matrix Theatre, the Zephyr and the LA Actors’ Theatre before they moved to LA Theatre Center. I just tried to stay engaged in theater as much as I could.”
And then life went on, he says, and his forays into theaters diminished. He worked in entertainment business management in Century City for a while until an opportunity opened up in San Diego. “I was asked to go down to the Old Globe Theatre to be director of finance and I thought, okay, now all of these things are starting to come together. I was there three years, and then the opportunity came 15 years ago to join Center Theatre Group as chief financial officer.”
Rada remembers fondly the 12 years he was the CFO, overseeing the Ahmanson, Taper and Kirk Douglas Theatre. “Those years allowed me to get really immersed in the organization and to know it inside and out. There was a natural arc for me in having that position ““ and at the end of that time I knew I needed to immerse myself in something else for a while. I had no idea what [then-managing director] Charles Dillingham’s plans were, and I knew someday he would retire and that when he did, I didn’t know if I would even be considered for this position.”
Then came another three-year stint, this one not far away. He left Center Theatre Group in 2008 to oversee the endowment at the Music Center Foundation.
When Dillingham decided after 20 years to resign ““ not retire, as he told LAStage Times ““ the board of trustees embarked on a search for his replacement. Longtime board member Phyllis Hennigan chaired the search committee, which turned once again to Gregory Kandel of Management Consultants for the Arts, the national recruiter who helped to bring Michael Ritchie on board as artistic director seven years ago.
Hennigan said, by phone, “Ed is the perfect choice because he has a special balance between his financial expertise and his theatrical artistic experience. It was fortunate for us, I think, that he had had CTG experience, but it wasn’t that qualification that put him over the top. It was more that he had a balance we felt we needed with Charles’ replacement.”
“I do not have a sense coming into this job that the building is on fire,” Rada says. “I was not brought in by Michael or the board of directors to turn things inside out or to make jolting changes because something is obviously broken. That was not my charge at all.”
Rather, Rada will try to calm the financial ripples. The organization is rebounding from a series of layoffs incurred after the economic troubles in 2008 and 2009. “We have had deficits the last couple of years. We had surpluses the years before that. I think, from Michael’s point of view, his charge to me is to continue to run the organization in the footsteps of Charles in a thoughtful and compassionate way with staff and be responsive to our patrons and continue to keep CTG on the forefront of theaters across the country.”
There are no layoffs anticipated, he says, in this year’s budget. Work on the 2012/13 fiscal budget begins in January.
“I am very aware of the tension that goes into building budgets here. We try to break even. When I look back over time, without intending it, most of the years we had a budget that was slightly under break-even. And I mean a few hundred thousand dollars ““ and we’re running a $45-50 million-a-year organization. So you look at this and you think a $300,000 deficit is pretty much break-even.”
Not quite, argues board member Hennigan. “No matter the size of the company, it’s always best to avoid a deficit. We’d like to not have one.”
As we sit at a round table in Rada’s second floor office at the Music Center Annex, he moves to another point. “I think CTG has a unique responsibility to the citizens of Los Angeles, not only to produce the highest quality, first-class theater possible, but also to be an important resource for the theater community in LA — actors, directors, producer and theatergoers across town.”
He admits CTG is only sometimes engaged in that mission. “It’s been sometimes more, sometimes less, throughout the years. It is certainly something I’m sensitive to and am going to be paying attention to.”
Among the criticisms aimed at Center Theatre Group is a perception that it does not collaborate enough with smaller theater companies. Rada nods his head. “I have been talking a lot about this internally at CTG because I am very sensitive to what I think many people in LA theater feel is a chasm between smaller LA theater and the large entities, CTG being the largest. It’s going to be a dialogue with Michael and his artistic staff to explore ways that we can engage that community. I care deeply about that, being an Angeleno and having worked in small theaters.”
Rada believes the 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre could play a bigger role in the theater community. “I think we have a responsibility to help be the bridge for actors and directors and playwrights in Los Angeles,” he says.
Few local companies
have co-produced or co-presented with Center Theatre Group. CTG has collaborated with Deaf West of North Hollywood four times, including 2009’s Pippin and 2002’s Big River, which followed with a revival run on Broadway. The shows included hearing and deaf actors. Culture Clash projects have appeared on CTG stages throughout the company’s 25 years in Los Angeles, including the world premieres of Water & Power in 2006 and Chavez Ravine in 2003. More recently Palestine, New Mexico went up in 2009 and American Night, which premiered at last year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is in the upcoming season.
CTG has mounted more shows by Neil Simon and August Wilson than any other playwrights. David Mamet, Jon Robin Baitz and Lanford Wilson are close seconds, according to the press office. Rada would like to see CTG work more closely with more entrenched LA-based artists.
But working with local actors, directors and playwrights is an artistic decision, under Ritchie’s purview. Rada says, “What I bring to this discussion is a sensitivity and an awareness of it. I have lots of friends who are involved in theater in LA.”
Rada served for years as the accountant for Joan Stein’s and Susan Dietz’s Canon Theater in Beverly Hills and sits on the board of IATSE Local 33, a union for theater technicians. He also has been on the board of the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena since its inception. “I am paying attention now to whether it is appropriate for me to remain on that board in this new position at CTG. I’m very sensitive to perceptions about that, but I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the window into the 99-seat theater world.”
Another of Rada’s charges is improving the audience experience. A flat-screen television is mounted a few feet away within the confines of a large bookcase. “That was the first project, getting that TV installed.”
On the screen is an image of CTG’s website. “I don’t think it’s a surprise to any of us that our lives are migrating toward the Web, and even though theater is a live event, we have a responsibility to start engaging our patrons from the moment they buy their ticket ““ or really the moment they’re actually looking to purchase. We want to engage them through the ticket purchase, engage them leading up to seeing the performance and engage them after the performance, and I think the interaction is going to happen on the web.”
It’s also an opportunity to educate patrons about a play, he adds, along with its back-story and playwright. “Then the play experience is that much richer when you get here. We just have to be mindful of Internet fatigue. We also have concierges at the Douglas meeting with patrons and following up to hear firsthand about their experiences. I think all of us out here are navigating what that relationship is going to be, learning what patrons want to hear about and what they don’t want to hear about.”
Rada calls the process “a total dance. In the Facebook world, where people are really networking and discovering friends of friends, we are also going to have to allow people to tell us what interests them. And to some degree, we are going to have to intuit what interests them because they might not approach us directly. But we still have a responsibility to pay attention to what they’re looking at on our website.”
As managing director, Rada’s primary focus remains on the books. Already he has run into cost overruns at a workshop. “We had to go back to the artistic staff and say, okay, if we’re going to have cost overruns here, we’re going to have to pay for it someplace else, so we’ve had to cancel other things that hadn’t been announced yet that were workshop/development kinds of projects.”
But the big picture, he says, must be a symbiotic relationship between the artistic director and managing director. “It does the artistic director no good to make decisions that the organization cannot financially support. To do so is a downward spiral and the artistic director knows that. So it’s absolutely a dance.”
He describes it as “the tension of what we do — artistic ambitions always exceed financial capacity. I don’t consider that a bad thing. I actually would be concerned if the artistic ambitions did not stretch the financial capacity. I would be concerned if they were playing it safe all the time.”
Rather, it has to be a mix of selections that play it safe and push the envelope. “There is a dance that goes on, and Doug Baker, our producing director, is right in there with us in making the determinations about our priorities, what’s realistic to program and making sure we get onstage those things that are most critical to you, Michael, as artistic director, to realize your vision.”
It’s possible to change a season lineup once it has been announced, as seen recently with the cancellation of Uncle Vanya and the initial postponement of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which was brought back last season. “Even when you launch a season, there are external factors that are outside our control that force our hand. When we make those changes, we make them knowing full well they affect our staff, our patrons and the artists. It has a tremendous ripple effect, so we do it as little as we can.”
The upside, Rada says, is the wherewithal to launch new shows and bring in works from New York ““ decisions that are Ritchie’s. “Michael is a smart guy who is fully engaged in programming these theaters. I know he is committed to bringing challenging theater of many dynamic dimensions to these stages. At the Ahmanson, we are able to often attract tremendous product out of New York, which works in our favor. And vice versa for projects that are being developed here at the Ahmanson that can go to New York.”
Rada sees a challenge for the organization to continually re-invent itself. “There’s a fixed number of seats and a fixed number of days so, to a degree, we are a zero-sum game. So our challenge internally is to continually re-envision who we are and re-envision our purpose and how to best use the stages and how to engage with our patrons. We’ve got a good idea of our best practices, but even after a while you’ve got to challenge yourselves and make sure you’re really moving forward in a continuous way, because you can’t stand still. New directors come on the scene who have new ways of looking at things and new ways of presenting ideas, and we have to be open to that. I think Michael is absolutely open to new ideas for these theaters.”
Rada says he has found his ultimate job –Â the culmination of those years he acted and worked backstage and dealt in theater finances. “I love being involved in it. I love the craft of it. It is such a holistic experience, and to be able to be engaged at this level, left-brained and right-brained, is the pinnacle.”
**All production photography by Craig Schwartz
All other photos of Edward Rada by Ryan Miller