After 13 years at the helm of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, Executive Director Laura Aden will step down from that post July 20. During her tenure the organization's budget has grown more than tenfold, to its current level of $700,000, and its staff has grown to five from one.
Although Aden is so closely identified with the Theatre Alliance that many people assume she founded the group, she takes care to correct that presumption. "I was the first fulltime executive director," she told Back Stage in a recent interview. "That was in 1988. But I wasn't a founder. There was a part-time coordinator before that."
In the time she has led the organization, Aden said she has seen ups and downs, but the good has outweighed the bad. "We have had some problems through the years—the Whole Theatre closing, financial troubles at Crossroads and the American Stage—but overall the health of theatre in our state is very good. I think the biggest change is the recognition our member theatres have finally achieved. They're extremely well known, both here and nationally, for the work they're doing. Each theatre has its own unique mission, and each is doing extraordinary work. I've seen the restoration of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, changes at the McCarter Theatre and the George Street Theatre that have strengthened those organizations, and the arrival and growth of several new theatres which are doing wonderful work. There's been tremendous growth all across the state.
"People are realizing that they have extraordinary, quality professional theatre here in New Jersey; they don't have to cross a river to see wonderful work, and many times they can see them here for less money. Here's an example: Everyone who saw the production of 'Follies' at the Paper Mill Playhouse knows that it was the consummate production, the one that every 'Follies' fan has been waiting for. If that show had moved into New York, it would have won Tony Award after Tony Award after Tony Award, and gotten the Paper Mill the recognition it deserves. However, the Paper Mill may still get that recognition if its production of 'Funny Girl' comes to New York. It was absolutely wonderful, and I know several people are talking about bringing it to Broadway."
Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
An executive search committee is currently looking for Aden's replacement, and will accept resumes and cover letters from interested parties until this Fri., June 15. (They should be sent to Stephen Fredericks, Chair, Executive Director Search Committee, New Jersey Theatre Alliance, 17 Cook Ave., Madison, NJ 07940.)
Officially, the executive director "is responsible for directing all current and envisioning new programming" at the Theatre Alliance. When asked how much time the incoming executive director should expect to put in on the job, Aden broke into a long loud laugh and said it partly depends on how one defines "work."
"At certain times of the year, like when we're producing our Family Week at the Theatre, in March, we work seven days a week, and everyone on the staff sees a lot of theatre on evenings and weekends. It's a busy office, but it's a wonderful place to work. There's wonderful enthusiasm and great affection for what we do there. Let me put it this way: I've never gotten up in the morning and not wanted to go to work there. I know a lot of people who don't feel that way, so I know I've been very lucky."
So, one might wonder, why is she leaving? Aden admits it was "a very difficult, very emotional decision," and after praising her staff and the member theatres, she acknowledged, "The Geraldine Dodge Foundation is truly extraordinary. It's really and truly probably the only job I'd ever leave the Theatre Alliance for."
In her new capacity as program officer of the arts at the Dodge Foundation, she will be in charge of distributing some $4 million annually to arts organizations. According to the foundation's website, the groups that receive funding are "focused on New Jersey's cultural institutions and those national organizations which serve New Jersey artists or advance the arts in New Jersey." It goes on to say its emphasis is on "recognizing artistic excellence in the development of new and vital works; fostering the improvement of instruction in artistic disciplines; and helping to stabilize arts organizations integral to the lives of their communities."
In a letter to friends and colleagues, Aden wrote, "Leaving the Theatre Alliance was never something I actively considered, but the opportunity to work for the Dodge Foundation—a foundation that I have admired greatly for a very long time and that I believe is second to none in the country—was an opportunity I just couldn't ignore."
She pointed out that she will still be in regular contact with many of her colleagues and associates, and that now she will be giving out the money, instead of constantly trying to raise it.
It isn't a final curtain. It's just the end of one act, and the beginning of another.