In 1999, Meghan Pressman was an apprentice at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. It was there that she met Michael Ritchie, then the festival’s artistic director. Little did she know that 20 years later, she would be working alongside Ritchie at Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles’s largest nonprofit theatre.
Pressman is in the midst of her first season as CTG’s managing director/CEO, which includes managing the budget for the $55 million three-venue organization. And Pressman is making L.A. theatre history as the first woman to hold that position. Innovation is part of her background. Prior to CTG, she was managing director of Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which focused on form-breaking new plays. And as director of development at New York City’s Signature Theatre, she oversaw their influential ticket initiative, which made tickets to every single performance $25.
We spoke recently about how she plans to bring a sense of play to her new job.
DIEP TRAN: It seems like you were doing great work at Woolly. Why move?
MEGHAN PRESSMAN: I adore Woolly Mammoth. I actually had a dream about them last night, because they had their big fall fundraiser this weekend and I saw so many great pictures. I had no desire or intention to get out of there any time soon; I really liked the work we were doing. But I was approached about this position and gave it some thought. What attracted me was: I’m in theatre administration because I want to have the biggest impact on both the theatre field and the audience. And to me there are a great many ways to get that done. Part of that is working at the most experimental, edgy theatre company; another part of that is working at a flagship theatre. I had hoped that would be a part of my journey at some point. I just didn’t necessarily see that opportunity coming to me when it did.
You’ve built a reputation as a person who knows how to raise money for new work. Is that part of your focus at CTG? As you know, Charles McNulty recently wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times about how L.A. theatre isn’t known for innovation.
I have a great history of being able to articulate why it’s important to invest in new plays for the community. And there’s no way I was going to go to a company that didn’t deeply believe in that. And it’s a significant piece of what we do [at CTG].
We do so many things; there are 16-plus productions a year here, and the company can only support the development process of a handful of plays at any given time. So it may seem like it’s a smaller portion of our work, but it’s actually a deep investment in time and staffing and development process.
A good portion of your past experience has been in audience engagement work. Southern California is one of the most diverse parts of the country, but that hasn’t been reflected in the audiences I’ve seen at CTG.
The biggest problem that we have here, and almost exclusively, is transportation. And I’m sorry to say I can’t fix that alone! It’s really hard in this vast Los Angeles area to ask people to go to a destination beyond their normal route. That’s what we’re asking people to do for live theatre every day. So the best thing we can do is figure out how to say to people, “Theatre should still be an essential part of your life experience. I hope you come here.”
I hope that theatregoing begets theatregoing. So I’m really interested in partnering and talking more to local theatre leaders and talking about theatre in our city. Because I do think what the Times article underscores is that it’s a great opportunity to talk about the visibility that we need to have as a community of theatres. I’m actually grateful in many ways that we’re elevating the conversation about how robust the community is, but also the real challenges of producing in this competitive environment.
When was the moment where you realized: I want to be the person behind the scenes raising money for artists, not making the art myself?
Wow, great question. I was in my 20s, working in Chicago theatre, and I was doing everything, as one does. I was performing, I did a lot of improv, I was working at the Northwestern theatre department as a staff member. I was directing shows. With a group of friends I started a company, Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences. I was at first the general manager and then, more specifically, later the managing director. And even at that company I performed and production-managed and ran the books. And I realized that the place where I felt like I contributed the most value to the groups of artists that I worked with was in producing, more so than being an artist within the group.
You’ve headed organizations known for new initiatives that many in the field thought weren’t doable: cheap tickets, or weird, innovative work. How do you go about raising money for untested initiatives?
Finding funding for experimental initiatives—either artistic or administrative, of which I’ve done a lot—it’s hard. A lot of the best supporters of that work can be foundations or even corporations who understand how important it is to invest in something about which you don’t know the outcome, that could have great potential for change. At Woolly we just got out of four years with the Wallace Foundation, who did a huge investment in totally experimental practices around getting audience. They understood that the outcome might be saying, after four years and a lot of investment, “This stuff didn’t work, and this stuff did.” That’s hugely important to our field, that there are people who are willing to invest in that.
You can also find individuals who are willing to invest in strategies. Part of why I was interested in Center Theatre Group is that I think there’s real opportunity at a company this large with so many different programs to invest in innovative practices that could have an impact on theatre on a larger scale. In Los Angeles, there’s so much experimentation and entrepreneurship. There are so many people thinking about different ways of presenting film and TV, and other forms of performing arts entertainment. My hope is that that vocabulary translates to people understanding we want to do that kind of thing from a theatre point of view. I really see an opportunity in this marketplace to say: We’re going to do things differently and need you to join with us.