Paula Tomei. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory
Paula Tomei, South Coast Repertory’s longtime managing director, will step down in August 2024. The announcement was released today. Tomei, 66, has been with Orange County’s most prominent theater company for 44 of its 60 seasons, the last 30 in her present position.
“It takes a couple of years to sort through something like this,” Tomei said of her decision. “For probably three years I’ve been focused on what the timing would be and talking to board leadership along the way.”
The decision actually took longer than Tomei had planned, which she said is a good thing. “What’s cool for me is that I’m actually here a little longer than I thought I would be. It’s the 60th season and I’m here for it. I’m here to help produce the world premiere of the musical version of ‘Prelude to a Kiss.’ (The play made its world premiere at SCR in 1988.) There’s a lot of exciting work we’re doing this season. I get to be a part of that.”
David Ivers, South Coast Repertory’s artistic director, said Tomei’s decision to leave her position was not sudden or unexpected. “It wasn’t sprung on anyone. It’s like all of her leadership, which is thoughtful and mindful of the trajectory of the institution.”
Tomei is highly respected by theater professionals in Orange County and elsewhere.
“Paula has been a friend and colleague since my days running the Laguna Playhouse, when I could always count on her advice as we transitioned to full professional status,” said Richard Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County and the former executive director of Laguna Playhouse. “And she is an ardent advocate for Arts Orange County as a longtime member of our board of directors.”
“Envisioning South Coast Repertory without Paula Tomei is a challenge. Her legacy is evident in the multitude of artists and leaders she has nurtured over the years, myself included,” said Oánh Nguyen, executive artistic director of Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills. Nguyen was a producing associate at South Coast Repertory, and SCR under Tomei has been supportive of the Chance in other ways over the years.
“Paula has been so important as a woman in a leadership role in American theater. As a mentor she made a space for many women,” said Meghan Pressman, managing director and CEO of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, which includes the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters and the Mark Taper Forum. “She really helped put SCR on the map as a supporter of artists and playwrights and being an incredibly strong producing company.”
Tomei is SCR’s first and only managing director, and she steered the Tony-winning institution through many years of growth, transformation and challenges. During Tomei’s time at SCR, the company has presented 435 plays, 149 of which have been world premieres commissioned and produced with SCR’s support.
The most obvious change during her tenure was SCR’s physical expansion, completed in 2002, which added the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage, technical shops, administrative offices and theater conservatory classrooms.
Tomei presided over the difficult COVID years and the post-pandemic recovery, which saw a contraction of SCR’s season. She also was instrumental in developing Outside SCR at Mission San Juan Capistrano, which has brought productions to an outdoor stage at the mission for the past three summers.
Her legacy includes the annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, founded in 1998; the Theatre for Young Audiences and Families series, which has provided free performances for more than 175,000 Orange County elementary school children since 2003; and the Theatre Access program, which offers free SCR tickets to high schools and colleges.
Ivers said Tomei played many crucial roles at SCR. “She excels in … cultivating relationships with the board and with the community. She’s a master of resources. Her understanding and strategy with … the budget is incredible. She just has this uncanny ability to lead from the point of view of ‘we’ll get it done.'”
Tomei’s national reputation is well established. For four years she was president of the board of directors for Theatre Communications Group, a service organization that promotes professional nonprofit theater in the U.S. She was also vice president for the League of Resident Theatres and a member of its negotiating committees.
“She exemplified the commitment to make the field stronger,” Pressman said of Tomei’s work with TCG and LORT. “It was her work and sense of purpose beyond the doors of SCR that really helped influence other theaters and theater makers.”
Pressman admired Tomei’s approach to the business, which she said combined uncanny business sense and a human touch.
“She’s so kind and thoughtful, and she is also a smart businessperson. She sees ways to bring things to the table (that will) strengthen projects, and she does it with such generosity and kindness.”
Ivers thinks Tomei’s personality made her well-suited to her position. “She’s got a huge, fantastic curiosity about the theater and about life. She’s a great person, funny and vibrant and smart. And she just knows instinctively what is a three-alarm fire and what is a 10-alarm fire. That’s a really calming thing at times. All of those dovetail beautifully with the job. “
Stein credits Tomei with carrying out and extending the vision of the founders.
“David Emmes and Martin Benson were the visionaries that launched South Coast Repertory, but as the theater grew, Paula was no less formidable an architect of its enormous success over the past four decades because of her skill, her passion and her devotion to the art form.”
Ivers agreed. “She’s like a tenacious steward of the brand. She cares deeply about its legacy and its future.”
SCR’s board of trustees is organizing a search for Tomei’s successor. “There’ll be a national search,” Tomei said. “The goal is to have somebody here in place before I leave (so) I can help transition them, which I’m happy to do.” If it takes longer, Tomei said she will be available to help with the transition even after she steps down. “I will always be available, because I care so much about this place.”
Richard Stein, who is quoted in this story, is member of the advisory board for Culture OC.