The pandemic has given Americans of every stripe an extended time-out, a chance to re-evaluate their lives – and that has prompted considerable numbers to make major changes to their work lives or even to make major career changes.

However much that might have factored into her decision, Ann E. Wareham, Laguna Playhouse’s artistic director since 2010, has announced that she’s moving on.

A Nov. 19 press release issued by the theater company said Wareham will stay through the end of the calendar year “to assist with the transition.” The release contains brief statements from Wareham and Glenn Gray, president of the theater’s board of directors.

In the release, Wareham says her tenure “has been a tremendous honor to be able to guide the Laguna Playhouse over this past decade and to serve the extraordinary arts community of Laguna Beach. It is such a vibrant and truly special place and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”

Gray’s statement says Wareham “has been instrumental in the artistic growth and vision of the Playhouse. The staff, crew, Playhouse donors and board of directors join me in wishing Ann nothing but the best as she embarks on her next journey.”

Wareham was a logical choice to succeed Andrew Barnicle, having worked as an associate producer, side-by-side with legendary artistic director Gordon Davidson, for nearly three decades at Center Theatre Group. She was brought in to plan the 2011-2012 season for the 420-seat Moulton Theater.

For its first 40 years, the theater company expanded and contracted, a well respected community theater cemented into its city’s identity as a haven for the arts and artists. It was shepherded primarily by Howard Graham and Barbara Berry. From the 1960s on, the task of guiding it rested with three artistic directors: Doug Rowe, an actor-director-producer with the theater in the 1960s appointed artistic director in 1976; Barnicle, who replaced Rowe in 1991 and steered the Playhouse into a new phase as a professional LORT B theater company; and Wareham.

Speaking about the period encompassing the tenures of all three, Wareham said, “It could have been a different set of people in that seat (artistic director) the last 45 years. The beauty of it is we all brought something different to the gig.”

How the Pandemic Affected Wareham – and the Theater’s Future

With regard to its artistic leadership, Laguna Playhouse has been a model of stability. As with theaters across the nation, the pandemic had the same earth-shattering effect.

In a conversation with Voice of OC, Wareham indicated that she had been “thinking about leaving for a while, but what was important to me was to make sure I was still here when the theater got reopened, to see that the theater is going to be fine, to survive and to thrive. I don’t worry about that. It’s a perspective that allows me to sleep at night.”

Wareham referenced a recent conversation she had with Michael Ritchie, who this past summer announced his retirement as artistic director of Center Theatre Group. “Nobody knows what it’s like to sit in that artistic director seat until you do it. Until you’ve got that responsibility, it’s hard to judge how someone does that job unless you’ve had that opportunity to sit in that seat.

“I knew what it felt like because I’d lived it every day with Gordon (Davidson), to artistically guide a theater. You don’t know that job until you get in there and do it. You have to be mindful of having an artistic sensibility, but when you’re in that seat, you program for your constituents, for the community, the patrons, the donors. You have to look at things through a different lens.”

Where Does the Playhouse Go from Here?

A staffer who wished not to be identified said the transition from Wareham to her successor “was very sudden.”

Ellen Richard, the Playhouse’s executive director, addressed the issues of scheduling the next season (fall of 2022 through summer 2023) and finding a successor to Wareham. “We are fully programmed through the end of August 2022 and look forward to announcing a new season” in March 2022, noting that, “I have always been leading the decisions about what shows we program since I arrived, so that isn’t really much of a change.”

Ann E. Wareham, right, with Ellen Richard, the Laguna Playhouse executive director. Credit: Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Richard said the Playhouse board “has not decided how to move forward, and Ann is with us until the end of this year. I imagine there will be a normal process with a search eventually.”

Board president Glenn Gray said that process will commence in January. “The board will be meeting after the holidays to discuss the strategic vision for the Playhouse and how that may influence our search for a new artistic director.” Thus, the skill set of the person in that position and the theater company’s goals must be in sync.

Gray echoed Richard in expressing the interconnection between the role of the artistic director and the process of selecting and lining up shows for each season: “Fortunately, the current season was already determined so we are not pressed to hire a new artistic director immediately.”

That person, Gray notes, will have big shoes to fill. “Finding someone with the breadth of skills Annie brought to the Playhouse will be challenging. Her network amongst actors, playwrights, directors and producers, along with her ability to coordinate all the elements of a successful production, are rare.”

Whoever winds up as Laguna’s next artistic director, it’s clear they’ll bring, in Wareham’s words, “something different to the gig.”

What Wareham Brought to a Venerated Theatrical Institution

As a more personal statement, Richard calls Wareham “a beloved member of the Laguna Beach community. She has many friends and will be missed immensely.” Another key member of the Playhouse’s staff is Dee Dee Irwin, who has served both as associate producer and director of marketing. Irwin has a long-standing connection with Wareham, having worked with her at Pasadena Playhouse as her assistant producer.

Irwin calls Wareham “a true supporter of those she mentors. She really supports her staff and tries to make everyone around her successful. She has a really amazing ability to bring out the best in her team and the artists she works with.”

Board of trustees member Heidi Miller says Wareham “has been our rock star artistic director, always bringing a keen eye and an experienced perspective to her artistic choices. Her years of dedication assure the continued success of our 100-year-old historic theater. Annie is a cherished part of this iconic treasure.”

In speaking to Voice of OC, Wareham cited one factor as the key to her successes past and present: forging relationships.

“Relationships are most important to me. It’s all about the relationships that I’ve had and continue to have. There are so many more people in my life that I’ve benefited from than I ever could have imagined. That extends to the community. I’ve made wonderful friends and great working relations and community relations from private citizens to artists to government officials to our donor base. They’ve all been so supportive of the Playhouse and of me, and I’ve loved nurturing those relationships.”

Wareham’s tenure has been bracketed by periods of turmoil. She was installed following the economic fallout of 2008 and is leaving as theater companies everywhere are reopening following nearly two years of having essentially been dormant.

Despite the seeming surplus of downtime in running a theater company during COVID, Wareham said the past 20 months “was not a vacation. It was stressful for everyone, and personally and professionally a scary time.” Unpredictability fueled the stress: “Each time you think you’ve got it mastered, a new variant.”

Wareham said that looking at reopening, she and Richard agreed “it seemed important to give people pleasure and joy in coming back to the theater. That’s what this season is about. It’s filled with music, comedy and laughter. We thought that was important at a time like this.”

Looking back upon what the advent of the pandemic afforded her and others, Wareham said “it provided us all with a time of reflection, how we have to move forward. For me at this time in my life, I feel like I do have a third chapter. I turned 65 this past October and see a third chapter in my life, and I’m excited about it.”

“I’ve had a lot of ideas percolating (and) a lot of people are coming at me with ideas – some expected and some coming out of left field. I’m gonna stay open to whatever possibilities are out there and embrace all of it.”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter25@gmail.com.


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