A Change in Direction and Leadership at Laguna Playhouse is Reaping Rewards

Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Ellen Richard, executive director at Laguna Playhouse.

Since taking the helm of the Laguna Playhouse in 2016, executive director Ellen Richard has grown the budget from $5.5 to $7 million and increased the subscription base by 2,000 patrons. She’s also initiated some exterior renovations on the building and added another play to the season.

But three years into her “new” job at the now 99-year-old theater, Richard says she’s just getting started.

“When I got here, I looked at the history of the theater and think the previous operating stance started with the recession. There was this mindset of cutting your way to the top,” said Richard. “I kind of have the opposite point of view. I believe you have to invest for success.”

Richard joined Laguna Playhouse after serving as the executive director of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco and Second Stage Theatre in New York City. She also spent time as the managing director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, a non-profit Broadway theater producer, where she transformed the organization from one of near bankruptcy to one with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars.

Her arrival at the playhouse has seen the re-emergence of larger cast plays and more plays produced by the theater. The past few seasons under Richard have been financially successful, and more importantly, said Richard, well attended.

“I think the audience speaks with their feet. People are coming. We have full theaters,” said Richard.

When Richard thinks about her role as executive director, she knows that first and foremost she needs to put together a season of entertainment that satisfies the artistic community. But the next part of that is doing so in a financially responsible way.

“We have to find a balance between presenting plays that we love while also taking a look at numbers and what we can afford to do,” said Richard.

Luckily, the upcoming “The Lion in Winter” checks both of those of boxes.

“The Lion In Winter”

WHEN: Nov. 10 to 24, 2019

WHERE: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach

TICKETS: starting at $50

INFO: lagunaplayhouse.com or (949) 497-ARTS (2787)

“‘Lion in Winter’ is a play that I’ve just always loved. It’s been on the list,” said Richard.

She and artistic director Ann E. Wareham shared their opinion of the selection: “To tell this extraordinary story with such a superb cast led by Frances Fisher and Gregory Harrison, and staged by the brilliant Sheldon Epps is a theatre maker’s dream come true. Our subscribers and audiences are going to be dazzled by the machinations of the Plantagenet family.”

Rife with adultery, dungeons, and other medieval staples, this comedic drama tells the story of a royal family locked in a no-holds-barred conspiracy of wits to inherit the kingdom of King Henry II.

This 1966 play by James Goldman, famously made into a 1968 film with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, will open at the Laguna Playhouse on Sunday, November 10 at 5:30 p.m. and run through Sunday, November 24.

Photos courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

From left, Sheldon Epps, Frances Fisher and Gregory Harrison. Epps directs the upcoming production of “A Lion in Winter” at the Laguna Playhouse. Fisher and Harrison play the lead roles.

Director Sheldon Epps is glad to return to the Laguna Playhouse having directed “Blues in the Night” and the annual Lythgoe Family Panto “Beauty and the Beast: A Christmas Rose” last season.

“This is a classic play that is layered, beautifully written, and despite its medieval setting, has current themes of family, love, and betrayal,” said Epps. “Human feelings have not changed, so though the setting may be remote, the behavioral and emotional conflicts are alive.”

To bring his present-day vision for the play to life, Epps told the cast explicitly that there was “no royal acting allowed.”

He said, “I want them to be real, flesh-and-blood humans.”

“The Lion in Winter,” between it’s cast of acclaimed film, TV and theatre veterans and it’s own notoriety as a play, seems to exemplifies the turnaround in programming at the Playhouse after years of doing, almost exclusively, smaller-scaled shows.

Richard credits board member Lisa Hale for her generous offer to underwrite this season and support a playbill that would bring back the audience.

People are taking notice and Richard, with her experience mainly in nonprofit resident theaters, is well-poised to lead the Laguna Playhouse into the future.

“I think this play is a signal of the ambition of the current leadership,” said Epps. “It’s world-class theater in a first-class way.”

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.