When Casey Reitz was asked the obvious question — why would he leave the top position at a successful Broadway theater to run a regional performing arts center in Orange County? — he laughed.

“You’re not the first person to ask me that, or the second,” said the affable 44-year-old Georgia native, who left New York’s Second Stage Theater to become president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts late last year.

According to Reitz, the move had less to do with discontent or climate fatigue than a desire to tackle a new set of challenges.

“I’d been working in New York since 2000. Getting there and doing what I did was a big goal of mine. But I’d done much of what I set out to achieve.”

Reitz holds a master’s in fine arts in theater management from the Yale School of Drama and an undergraduate degree in theater from the University of Alabama. His career started in Georgia, but New York was always his preferred professional destination early in his career.

“My very first job was in this tiny little theater in Atlanta called Actors Express. But I decided to go to Yale because I knew that would lead to New York, and I wanted to feel qualified.”

Reitz interned then took a job in 2004 at Manhattan Theatre Club, one of New York’s most important stages for new plays. Then he served as director of development for four years at The Public Theater, which among other achievements is famous for its annual summer season of free Shakespeare plays in Central Park’s Delacourt Theater. “Working on Free Shakespeare in the Park was an amazing experience. And the Public has the kind of variety that you often find at a performance arts center such as (Segerstrom). In effect, they’re a performing arts center.”

Reitz left The Public for Second Stage in September 2010, where he worked as executive director for nine years. Before and during his tenure, his theater’s track record as an innovator has been impressive, with an emphasis on emerging creative talent and groundbreaking musicals. It staged the New York premiere production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which won six 2017 Tony Awards, and the world premiere of “Next to Normal,” which garnered three 2009 Tonys. Other Second Stage honors include a 2002 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Body of Work and 28 Obie Awards. In 2010, “Next to Normal” received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Unlike New York, Reitz wasn’t laser-focused on Southern California as a career destination. In fact, before he threw his hat in the ring for the job at Segerstrom, he admitted Orange County wasn’t on his radar.

“I didn’t know a ton about (Segerstrom Center). To be frank, I didn’t even really know a lot about Orange County.”

But Reitz slowly warmed to the idea moving to Southern California, mainly due to regular visits to his in-laws out here. He and his wife, Naomi, welcomed twins last year, a son and a daughter, which also played into the decision.

“My wife’s family lived in Manhattan Beach, and we would come out a couple of times a year. We’d be in our flip-flops walking our dog to the Coffee Bean and saying, ‘Why don’t we live here?’ We started thinking about California more and more.”

Reitz decided to apply for the Segerstrom Center job after a short period of careful research.

“I had lunch with a colleague who made me aware of the opportunity and put me in touch with a search firm that talked to me. And my friend (Kara Medoff Barnett) is executive director at ABT, whom I’d known (for years). She had plenty of things to say about the ABT partnership with the Segerstrom Center. As I started to learn more, the idea of the mission of this place really started to appeal to me.”

‘I liked them. They liked me.’

Reitz didn’t come from an artistic family, but from an early age he was drawn to the performing arts.

“When I was a kid growing up in Marietta, Georgia I didn’t have access to Broadway shows. There were things in Atlanta, but my parents didn’t have the wherewithal to take me to them. It was all just about whatever field trips my school did. And we went to see a lot of youth-oriented, family-friendly performances at the Cobb County Civic Center.  I can’t tell you what they were, but I can remember the excitement of going to them and of seeing live performances.”

The effect of the civic center on the community also left a lasting impression on Reitz, and it influenced his decision last year to come west.

“That organization took seriously the job of being a principal entry point for the arts in the community, just like here in Orange County. With (Segerstrom), I saw that I would have the opportunity to give back to the community in a way that I really couldn’t do in New York.  At Second Stage, we were really just focused on producing the shows. There were some educational and outreach opportunities, but nothing on this scale.”

From his first meetings, Reitz knew he was making the right decision. “I liked them. They liked me. I felt comfortable. Then the meeting with (Segerstrom Center executive vice president) Judy Morr and the board sealed it.  It’s about the people, and the vibe was right.”

Reitz sensed he could try some innovative things. “They were open to risk-taking, they were open to diversifying the audience, diversifying the work. And that interested me a great deal.”

Reitz also was swayed by the fact that the Segerstrom Center and other Orange County arts institutions had strong New York connections.

“I knew I’d be out here right next to SCR. We do Broadway work here. We work with ABT. So it wasn’t like I was severing ties with New York. In fact, we’re going to be relying on (New York) quite a bit.”

Reitz was understandably reticent to say much about the departure of his predecessor. Terrence W. Dwyer left the Segerstrom Center’s leadership position unexpectedly in February. The sudden change was announced without warning late on a Friday afternoon, catching the arts community and local media by surprise.

“I only can admire what Terry did,” Reitz said. “I have a lot of (respect) for anyone who carries off a major building project.” (Segerstrom Concert Hall was finished and paid for during Dwyer’s tenure.) “And he did it all with a pretty ambitious agenda, especially with the new plaza. He left the organization strong.”

Reitz didn’t know Dwyer, but he had his first conversation with him shortly after the Segerstrom Center announced his hiring. “It was announced on a Saturday afternoon in early November. Within two hours, Terry reached out to me via LinkedIn and said, ‘Congratulations. It’s a special place, the community is a special place, I can’t wait to meet you. I hope to be helpful in any way I can.’ It was as classy and nice as could be.”

Reitz and South Coast Repertory’s recently appointed artistic director, David Ivers, planned to meet for the first time shortly after our interview. The two share common interests: both have experience with musicals (Ivers directed SCR’s current production, the 1964 Broadway hit “She Loves Me”).  As a successful producer with an impressive track record on Broadway, would Reitz consider birthing a new musical at the Segerstrom Center, or perhaps collaborating with SCR or another theater on such a venture?

“I would love to. I think we have what it takes. The presenting work we do is fantastic. The Broadway series is fantastic. The partnership we do with ABT is fantastic. What Judy and the others do here is really diverse and exciting. I’ve talked to Judy about it — finding ways to collaborate with other organizations, whether they’re our resident companies or a neighbor or some other group, and producing new work.”

Like any good producer, Reitz added a note of caution. “The thing about musicals is they’re expensive and they take a long time to develop. So I think it would be a great thing, but finding the resources and the time will be challenging.

“But it will be worth it. Producing (our own musicals) is one of the things that will call attention to us from outside of O.C. This is why a lot of people in New York know the La Jolla Playhouse or the Old Globe or Berkeley Rep. If we could become that kind of place, I think that would be great.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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