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Stephen Eich resigns as Pasadena Playhouse executive director

February 2, 2012 |  8:00 pm

Sheldon Epps Michele Dedeaux Engemann Stephen Eich Mel Melcon photo
Stephen Eich, who played a leading role in helping the Pasadena Playhouse survive a financial near-death experience during more than 2 1/2 years as its executive director, has resigned, saying he feels “a great sense of satisfaction in what I’ve accomplished” as he moves on to other ventures, including independent theater production.

Playhouse officials announced his departure Thursday, saying the parting is amicable and that they appreciate Eich’s work as the Playhouse -- L.A.’s third-biggest nonprofit stage company after Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse -- went through a turbulent 2010 that saw it close for eight months and go through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Sheldon Epps, the Playhouse’s longtime artistic director, said he’s grateful to Eich (pictured above at right, with Epps and Playhouse board chair Michele Dedeaux Engemann) for staying when “he could have cut and run” after realizing shortly after his hiring in mid-2009 that the Playhouse was in woeful fiscal shape. When it filed for bankruptcy in May 2010, it was $2.3 million in debt, with just $102,000 in cash and savings.

“He gave stalwart service to the theater with real dedication and intelligence and passion, and served us extremely well during a tough time,” Epps said Thursday.

Epps, Eich and Engemann said that the company is now in solid financial shape. Eich, who will leave at the end of this month, then serve as a consultant through June, said the Playhouse had a $350,000 surplus in the 2010-11 season coming out of bankruptcy, and that this season’s shows have succeeded well enough to allow it to continue building a reserve –- as long as fundraising, always vital for nonprofit arts companies, remains on course.

The budget, now under $4 million, is considerably pared back from pre-bankruptcy levels. In February 2010, the Playhouse laid off 37 employees, leaving just a handful of staffers, led by Eich and Epps, to try to rebuild the operation.  Eich said there are now 14 full-time employees and some part-timers.

 “I just have completed my task, in my mind,” he said. “I kind of feel I’ve done what I can do for [the Playhouse], and I’m very fond of what has happened. It’s a great arts-business story about how the theater resurrected itself, and it wasn’t just me.”

Eich, 56, is a veteran theater executive who made his name as managing director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company from 1979 to 1995 as it became one of America’s most acclaimed stage companies. From 2000 to 2008 he was managing director of the Geffen Playhouse. In between he has worked as an independent producer, and he said he has new projects in the works that he couldn’t talk about yet.

Engemann said the Playhouse board will begin a search for a new executive director soon.

It’s not the only important personnel matter on the agenda: Epps, in his 15th season as artistic director, has a contract expiring at the end of this year. “I don’t think Stephen’s decision affects my plans at all,” Epps said. “I’m very happy with where the theater is and my relationship with the theater, and I think both the board and I would look to extend that beyond the current contract.”

The Playhouse had relied primarily on musicals –- typically an easier sell than non-musical plays -– as it made its way back into business after the 2010 shutdown. But Engemann said that Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” an Epps-directed drama last fall, and the current revival of Yasmina Reza’s popular comedy “Art” both have done well.

With the next season due to be announced this spring, Eich said, “Sheldon has a clear playing field” to choose plays without worrying so much that a show that falters at the box office could have critical repercussions for the company, Eich said. “It’s back to a comfortable state, and that’s a big thing to say. For now, we are in really good shape.”

ALSO:

Theater review: 'Art' at Pasadena Playhouse

 Pasadena Playhouse files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Sheldon Epps puts his director's hat back on in Pasadena

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Pasadena Playhouse leaders Sheldon Epps, left, Michele Dedeaux Engemann and Stephen Eich. Credit: Times file photo.

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