In her nearly 16 years as La Jolla Playhouse general manager, Debby Buchholz has been part of some significant history — from the launch of the smash-hit musical “Jersey Boys” in 2004 to the current Broadway success of the Playhouse-bred “Come From Away.”
Now, Buchholz is about to make history of her own, as the first woman to serve as the institution’s managing director.
The Playhouse announced April 18 that Buchholz will join artistic director Christopher Ashley as one of the renowned regional theater’s top two leaders, overseeing the company’s administrative and financial operations.
She succeeds Michael S. Rosenberg, who is departing after nine years as managing director to take on the same position at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center. Buchholz’s official start date is May 1.
Buchholz comes to the job with an abundance of qualifications. Not only has she already helped run the Playhouse since 2002, but she is a Harvard Law School-trained attorney and former corporate lawyer with deep experience in such areas as contract negotiations, fundraising and human resources.
The Solana Beach resident, a native of Woodland Hills in the L.A. area, also has longtime local ties as a graduate of the University of California San Diego, where she studied political science.
And Buchholz, who served as counsel to both the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Symphony Orchestra in the nation’s capital before joining the Playhouse, also has been active with theater on a national level.
She is the vice president and a longtime board member of the League of Resident Theatres, which represents 75 of the largest theaters across the country, including the Playhouse and the Old Globe Theatre.
Ashley, the theater’s artistic chief since 2007, said Buchholz was such a clear choice for the job that the theater’s board chose not to launch a national search (the customary next step) after Rosenberg announced his exit in March — but that if it had done so, “Debby is the one we would’ve been lucky to get.”
“I feel as though Debby is the person who everybody wants in American theater right now,” said Ashley, talking alongside Buchholz at the Playhouse on Tuesday. “Her skill set is immense — she’s a great manager, and she’s really got her eye on, ‘How do you support the arts?’
“She’s personable and articulate and wise, and really fun to work with. It’s really a tribute to Debby and the institution that we have this extraordinary person ready to step into this job.”
Buchholz said that while there had been efforts by other theaters over the years to recruit her away as managing director, “this is where I want to be. I grew up at UCSD, my family is all here, my kids were raised here.” (Buchholz and her husband, Todd, an author who was a White House economic adviser to former President George H.W. Bush, have three daughters.)
The inclusive management approach of Ashley and Rosenberg, Buchholz said, has meant that she already is well-versed in much of what her new job will demand.
“It wasn’t a classic general-manager position,” she said of her previous job. “It was a lot of sharing. And a lot of letting me do the things I’ve always enjoyed doing and am good at.”
She noted that her years at the Playhouse have bridged the tenures of former artistic chief Des McAnuff and his successor, Ashley, and said: “Watching two amazing artistic directors do the job differently, and grow the institution differently — and to be able to participate in that — has been a dream job.”
Buchholz, a daughter of two schoolteachers whose early introduction to theater included a high-school role as Mustardseed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” now will head up the financial operations of an institution with a budget of about $17 million a year and one of the highest profiles in American theater.
Three shows that premiered at the Playhouse are on Broadway right now: “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” “Escape to Margaritaville” and “Come From Away,” and Ashley won a Tony Award last year for directing the latter. Another Playhouse-bred musical, “Miss You Like Hell,” just opened at the esteemed Public Theater in New York.
Buchholz sees her new job as in large part keeping true to what got the institution to the position it enjoys now.
“It’s not about, ‘We want to get bigger and we want to do more,’” she says of planning for the Playhouse’s future. “It’s about, ‘We want to do what we do better and deeper.’”
--James Hebert is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune