Tag Archives: Jeff Zinn

Artistic Choice or Financial Risk?

Art and commerce can make strange bedfellows in the world of nonprofit theater, especially in hard times. Can a theatre risk producing new work and still keep its doors open?  When should a theatre sell its soul to please audiences? Can a theatre focus too fearfully on the spreadsheet’s bottom line and violate the bottom line of its artistic mission and the leader who guides it?

The question can be asked right here in Los Angeles. Sheldon Epps has had to program the Pasadena Playhouse with commercial, crowd-pleasing fare to lift the company out of bankruptcy. But, at least, Sheldon remains at the helm. That’s not always the case.

Jeff Zinn has stepped down after 23 years as Artistic Director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Among others, one reason seemed clear: the Board decided that the cutting-edge new work that Zinn championed — and was at the core of WHAT’s artistic mission — could no longer financially support the organization and its gorgeous (and expensive) new state-of-the-art 220 seat theatre. You gotta fill seats.

Jim Petosa

Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa knows that for sure. He has led the Maryland landmark since 1994 and directed shows there well before that. On Petosa’s watch, the sprawling 14-acre campus north of Washington DC  has built a new mainstage, an intimate theater lab, and an outdoor amphitheater for summer Shakespeare.

As Olney’s artistic leader, Petosa has confronted both financial and artistic struggles. In 2010, the theater faced a $6 million debt and a 5 percent drop in subscriptions. Olney added more revivals of family-friendly shows instead of the more cutting edge theater Petosa favored. The overall tone of season 2011 at Olney has been demonstrably tried, true — and commercial. The strategy seems to be working, but for Petosa, the artistic challenges lie elsewhere.

It has just been announced that he will step down as artistic director at the end of this year.

“I think sometimes personal artistic ­ambitions and institutional ­artistic ambitions don’t necessarily meet,” he says.

The sad truth gets sadder: The family-friendly programming at Olney is not viewed by the theater’s board or its audiences as an “unconscionable compromise,” says Petosa. Indeed, they “seem to be responding to these programming ideas with enthusiasm and passion.”

This is what scares us.

Joy Zinoman, a longtime colleague and friend, says Petosa is “a beloved figure as a director — high energy, very warm, very positive; filled with ideas.”

But Zinoman, who stepped down herself in 2010 after 35 years as founding artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington, questions the road that Petosa and Olney have taken. “Jim is not a person who just wants to do commercial work. In his heart, I don’t think he’s that at all. I would myself not agree that the way to attract an audience is to do that kind of work.”

Even in a bad economy?

“Even so,” she says. “I believe that it is possible to lead an audience. You have to lead an audience and just doing ‘The Sound of Music’ again, or ‘The Christmas Carol’ again, I’m not sure that’s the way to build a theater. I mean, it might solve your problem in the moment, but it’s not going to get you anywhere.”

From The Cape: Tech Day and Stages of Marriage

Tuesday, August 9

Technical rehearsals are a slow, painstaking process. When all of the technical and design elements — light cues, sound cues, sets, props, costumes — are layered in and integrated with the timing of the actors. Whenever I work at other theatres around the country I’m always curious to witness how other companies run a tech. The procedure is the same but the experience is different. Some are slow, some fast, some meticulous and detail-oriented, some breezy and easy-going.

As a director myself who just opened this play in Los Angeles, watching director Jeff Zinn run the tech rehearsal is like letting someone else drive your car. You hand over the keys. Sit quiet in the passenger seat. And try to not to shout out “No! Turn here!  Go faster! Slow down! Look out!” No one likes a back-seat driver. Let Jeff drive. See how he handles the road.

Whether in a sparkling new 200-seat venue or the funky intimate Fountain, the basic questions and challenges of a tech rehearsal remain the same: how do we make this moment work? What story are we telling in this scene? What should the lights be doing as she crosses to the table? Let’s work out the timing of sound cues for the opening.  How do we create the best lighting effect for the end?

The set for "Bakersfield Mist" on the Julie Harris Stage.

At 12 noon, actors Ken Cheeseman and Paula Langton arrive on stage and walk on the set for the first time. After weeks in a barren rehearsal room, they finally  step into the colorfully eccentric universe of Maude’s trailer. Their eyes light up. Grins spread over faces.  They explore the set, picking up props and playing with all the weird-looking tchotchkes like giggly kids on Christmas morning. Continue reading

From The Cape: Toto, We’re Not in Los Angeles Anymore

Fountain Co-Artistic Director and Writer/Director Stephen Sachs is in Cape Cod for the opening of his new play, Bakersfield Mist, at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre.

by Stephen Sachs

Monday, August 8

Wellfleet Harbor sits nestled on the edge of Cape Cod just a few hamlets over from Provincetown. A tiny beachfront resort village famous for its oysters and art galleries. A galaxy away from the smog, traffic and congestion of Los Angeles.

I’m here for the opening this week of my play, Bakersfield Mist, at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Arriving for the final week of rehearsals, tech week and opening on August 11th. This is the second production of the play to be produced, the first since our opening at the Fountain (which is still running). It will be the first time I get to see the play directed by someone else, performed by a different cast of actors. I expect to learn a lot. As playwright, I’m here to continue tweaking the script, lend support, offer guidance, and try to stay out of the way.


My apartment is up the stairs to the second-floor balcony.

For my one-week stay, WHAT has provided me with “artist housing”. My apartment sits nestled on the edge of beachfront, overlooking the harbor. It’s  funky and bohemian and absolutely divine. From the second-floor balcony I stand and peer out over the harbor and bay. Mac’s Seafood Market is an arm’s reach next door. The crisp aroma of steamed oysters, clams and lobster mixes with the salt air and drifts up to my balcony. Delicious.

“Downtown” Wellfleet is a postcard of charming, picturesque shops, cafes and galleries. Tree-lined, quaint. Townfolk and tourists stroll leisurely in t-shirts, shorts and sandals. The pace is slow. Languid. Why hurry to go anywhere else?

This morning I meet Jeff Zinn for breakfast at a homey little cafe off the main road. Jeff is the Artistic Director of WHAT and directing their production of my play. He’s smart, warm, easy to chat with.  We talk shop: discuss new plays, new writers, share ideas, complain, bitch and gossip.

I do a quick phone interview with the Boston Globe, then Jeff and I jump into his car for a short drive over to the theatre.

The Julie Harris Stage

Jeff gives me a tour of his gorgeous new venue: the handsome Julie Harris Stage. Named for the Tony-winning actress, of course, who did Beauty Queen of Leenane at Wellfleet in 2000. The new $6.8 million year-round theater seats 200 people and complements the 90-seat Harbor Stage where the company has been performing since 1985. “The Julie” is exquisite, glittering fresh like a new Cadillac. The stage is huge, tall and wide. The building also holds a labyrinth of office space, a costume shop, dressing rooms, green room, rehearsal room and a two-level lobby. Although I wouldn’t trade the quality of our work at the Fountain with anyone, I can’t help but gape at the glory of a fully-rigged two-story new theatre building with 200 seats and drool with envy. I mutter Yoda’s mantra (“Size matters not”) and keep moving.

The Bakersfield set is being assembled on stage. Carpenters, technicians and designers scurry about  clutching power tools and design plans. Because the Harris stage is so much bigger (and taller) than the Fountain, Maude’s trailer sits entirely on stage like a mobile home parked on blocks in a trailer park.

Jeff ushers me into the rehearsal room for a quick introduction to the Bakersfield actors, Ken Cheeseman and Paula Langton. We’re delighted to meet each other and equally excited about doing the play at Wellfleet. I’m then quickly guided out of the room so the actors can run lines with the stage manager.

Back at my apartment at sunset, I stand on my rickety wood balcony and peer out at the ocean, the orange sun painting the harbor water a shimmering coral rose, marveling at how lucky I am to be visiting such a beautiful place.  And how blessed I am to be doing what I love.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) will be a long, full 10-hour tech day.