Struggling State Theatre names new executive director

crosenbl@centredaily.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Looking to shore up its finances, the State Theatre board of directors has hired a new executive director for the downtown State College nonprofit venue.

It’s also saying goodbye to one of its mainstays.

Greg Ray, the theater’s lighting designer and programming manager, starts in March. Also after Feb. 28, Richard Biever, the State’s artistic director and former executive director, will step down after more than two years at the theater.

The changes were announced to the staff Wednesday night.

Ray, who has worked at the State since 2008 and started booking national touring acts last year in addition to his lighting work, said he was excited to lead the theater.

“This really felt like a role that I was ready to take on,” he said. “It truly comes from my love of the State Theatre and my love of State College as my adopted home.”

On Monday, Biever’s first day back from a vacation, the board informed him of its decision, offering him the lesser position of musical theater director, at about a third of his present salary with no benefits.

Biever said that, after careful consideration and a family discussion, he decided to decline the offer.

The new job, he said, would take him “out of the management loop, out of the creative process,” restricting him to just bringing in or directing a handful of musicals a year.

“It feels to me like the board is moving in a different direction,” Biever said. “I felt like the direction we were in, and the way we were heading, was working, and it doesn’t seem like a fit to remain, even in that limited capacity.”

The State Theatre, originally a 1938 cinema, reopened in 2006 as a nonprofit community arts center after a complete renovation.

Biever, a musical theater director and conductor whose professional background includes work in New York City, became the theater’s third executive director in December 2011.

Last year, the board of directors split the position’s duties, hiring for the business side a general manager — who was subsequently fired months later — and making Biever the artistic director.

In both capacities, Biever focused on turning the theater into a hub for Centre County’s arts community, continuing to book national music acts but scaling back the number of concerts in favor of more local music, dance and drama groups.

Board President Lisa Peters said she doesn’t foresee drastic changes to the theater’s programming mix.

“We are still going to continue theater, music, movies, that combination, a lot of local (groups), so it fulfills the mission of the theater as originally stated,” she said.

But, Peters said, directors “feel we needed to make changes in our focus for the theater,” wishing to return to having an executive director because they “feel this model will be better for the sustainability of the theater.”

Board members voted unanimously for the changes.

“(Rich) was wonderful,” Peters said. “But we really need to get back to a management model. We dearly love Rich, and we’re very sad about this, but we need to put someone in there who can look at it all and the bottom line.”

Since its conversion, the State has annually run in the red, though Biever said the theater had been making progress toward climbing out of debt during his tenure.

“It’s no secret that the theater has always struggled financially. Things were worse, when I got in, than anybody really knew,” he said. “You keep working through it, because the purpose and the mission of the place is worth making it work.”

“There’s no way anybody could turn it around in a year or maybe two,” he added. “It really is a gradual progression.”

According to the State Theatre’s 2012 Form 990 federal tax exemption records — the latest available on the GuideStar website for nonprofit financial data — the theater reported about a $290,000 operating deficit.

But that represented about $26,000 less than the previous year’s deficit.

Peters said the theater “is slowly moving toward our goals,” but that the board voted for further improvement.

“It was driven by the numbers,” she said. “That’s our job, to ensure the sustainability of the theater, just driven by the numbers. It’s been a tough, tough decision.”

Peters said the theater will beef up its fundraising by hiring a part-time employee in charge of development. She declined to identify the person, but said the individual already assists the theater as a volunteer.

Ray started in theater at Guilford College and has worked professionally for 20 years. His resumé includes stops at the Florida Theater in Gainesville, Fla.; the Carolina Theater in Durham, N.C.; and the Portland Center Stage in Portland, Ore.

Ray’s work last fall with the theater’s marketing and programming, which led to four sold-out shows, helped land him the job, Peters said.

She said the board “has done its homework” by using an employment agency, which volunteered its services “to review some candidates.”

Out of the review, she said, Ray emerged as “the best candidate.”

“He’s a natural leader,” she said. “He’s respected within the theater. He has worked very hard on some business plans and proposals, and the board likes what it sees.”

But Biever said the board did not conduct a comprehensive search, instead choosing between Ray and another local candidate. That contrasts with his hiring after the theater narrowed its short list to five people, and with the hiring of his predecessor, Harry Zimbler, selected from 12 interviewed applicants.

Ray said he shares Biever’s commitment to local arts, but wants to reach out to the community, through surveys and meetings, for feedback to hear what the public wants from the theater.

That way, he said, the theater will “know more and more of our purpose.”

“The State Theatre needs to engage in active dialogue,” he said. “We need to be more present in our community, in community forums, in places of business, in our civic organizations.”

Ray said he hopes to build on the theater’s past successes, including those of Biever’s, while tackling the challenge of creating “a financially successful model that gives us all confidence that the theater is going to grow and thrive and really be a gem in our community.”

“For starters, I would like to show our community that we mean business about putting our financial house in order,” Ray said.

Based on public feedback to him, Biever said, the theater already became a beloved local treasure under his stewardship and was “heading in a positive direction.” But, he said, his vision for the State’s future apparently didn’t match that of the board.

“I don’t take it personally,” he said. “I don’t think they intended it as personal, that they don’t like me. It’s just they feel that what’s happening is not where they want the theater to go.”

Peters agreed, saying, “We wish him every success and opportunity, and will always hold him in the highest esteem.”

Before leaving, Biever will direct a production of “Annie,” the swan song for FUSE Productions, the State Theatre drama company he founded. Then he’ll spend his last weeks helping to prepare for the transition.

He questions the wisdom of a return to placing sole responsibility for running the State, which presented 265 events last year with a tiny staff, on one person’s shoulders.

But Biever doesn’t have to wonder why he devoted more than two years of his life to the theater.

“It’s a no-brainer how important it is, and that it is worth the time, energy and effort to keep pushing that boulder up the hill,” he said. “The community needs it.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.

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