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What No NYC Nonprofit Theater Likes to Talk About

An artistic director in Los Angeles is suing the nonprofit theater he led for 17 years — and the case has reverberations far beyond Southern California.

That’s because the lawsuit points to a fraught question for any not-for-profit, one that New York’s biggest theater institutions look poised to confront sooner rather than later: When is it time for a longtime leader to step aside and make way for new blood?

Both on Broadway and off it, most of the city’s major nonprofits are led by artistic directors whose defining tenures are measured in decades. Among the organizations with Broadway stages, Manhattan Theatre Club has been led by Lynne Meadow since 1972; Todd Haimes has been the chief executive at the Roundabout Theatre for 27 years; and Andre Bishop has been at Lincoln Center Theater for 25. Off Broadway, Carole Rothman’s founding run at Second Stage (soon to expand to Broadway) is coming up on 40 years, and Neil Pepe has led Atlantic Theater Company for more than 25.

The lawsuit brought by Randall Arney against the Geffen Playhouse, where he was artistic director for 17 years, highlights the land mines of leadership transitions and how they can go wrong. The 61-year-old Arney has accused the Geffen of age and disability discrimination, alleging he was unceremoniously ousted by the theater’s board. (Arney, his attorney and the Geffen had no comment.)

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In New York, the question of when the city’s most powerful nonprofits will change hands is something no one wants to discuss openly but everyone whispers about behind the scenes. A few years ago, the rumor mill seized on a story that Meadow had promised a longtime collaborator, director Doug Hughes (“Doubt,” “Junk”), that he would succeed her — only to change her mind at the last minute.

“Doug worked at MTC from September 2015 until May 2016, then directed [2016 play] ‘Incognito,’ and we had many talks during that time about MTC and what the future is,” said Meadow. “We prefer to keep the details of those conversations to ourselves.” Hughes remains a regular collaborator with the theater, where he’ll stage “Dan Cody’s Yacht” in the spring.

Local theaters also got a wake-up call when another organization, Signature Theater, was confronted with the unexpected loss of its founding A.D. In 2015, James Houghton announced he was stepping down from his 24-year post after being diagnosed with stomach cancer; he died in 2016. “Board members around town at other nonprofits were thinking, ‘What would we do?’ It gets discussed,” said Jeffory Lawson, the managing director of the Atlantic, where Pepe has been A.D. since 1992. (Signature, like a lot of organizations wary of a touchy subject, declined to comment for this story.)

In any transition, two competing considerations are at play. There’s the impulse to embrace the talented leader who made an organization what it is today, which butts up against the concern that after too long under any one chief, an institution starts to fossilize.

“When is it time for a longtime leader to step aside?”

“As hard as it can be, our job is to constantly be learning, listening, looking around and evolving,” said Pepe. “That’s hard. Your instinct is to want to preserve and lock down. But the point where it feels like it’s about trying to preserve success, where it’s atrophying, then I would think all the people around us would say, ‘It’s time to move on.’”

A theater’s board members, who function as its fundraisers-in-chief, have final say on who leads an institution — and when it’s time to go. How that decision was made and carried out is apparently the crux of the Geffen lawsuit.

In New York, thoughts of transition and succession seem to take a back seat to the day-to-day of running a major theater. “I’m thinking about tomorrow and the day after,” Meadow said. “That’s where the focus of these jobs is. There’s a fire to put out, and one to light, every minute.”

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