San Jose Rep Rights its Course, Again

Ever since Rick Lombardo took the reigns and imprinted his vision on the San Jose Repertory Theatre, the performance center has had excellent seasons. The artistic director has brought new design concepts, a more contemporary sensibility to play selection and imaginative direction. The Rep has gained increased audience size and critical acclaim.

This season opened in spectacular fashion with a show that drew in thousands of new patrons. One Night with Janis Joplin is the first show in the Rep’s history to have made its single-ticket goal before opening night. Shows were added and people raved.

But behind the scenes a different drama was playing out—one that would test Lombardo, Managing Director Nick Nichols and the Rep’s Board. Despite the promise of the season and the auspicious start, the overall cash-flow situation was projecting shortfalls that had been foreseen. The reasons for the shortfall are complex—basically, fundraising was not at the appropriate level and expenses came in higher than projected. (Full disclosure: I founded the Rep in 1980.)

No one panicked, but the seriousness of the situation got the attention of the Board and staff leaders. There was a key decision made early on not to run to the city, as was done prior to Lombardo’s arrival. That would only be a last resort.

Going to the city would mean two things that could hurt the Rep: one, there would be a public indication of trouble, which could harm fundraising and reduce ticket sales; and two, it would only patch things up temporarily.

The leadership decided to address the situation boldly over the long term by ramping up fundraising and cutting the budget.

Rick Lombardo got on the phone and hustled himself to meetings and secured funding. He didn’t stop until he and the Board raised a half-million dollars—in just about nine days. The other part of the solution was more difficult, but in the end it seemed the only way.

Nick Nichols, who rose from production manager to managing director, was a key reason for the Rep’s turnaround since the dark days of the pre-Lombardo era. But Nichols knew that a restructuring was needed. The Board decided to eliminate his position and make Rick Lombardo the sole executive.

It seems drastic, but times are such that arts groups have to be very lean. I am sad to see such a dedicated leader leave the company, but I think it was the best option. A smart nonprofit will seek Nichols out, and they’ll get a great, savvy manager.

I actually favor single leadership of arts organizations because it eliminates confusion about who is responsible for the “art” and who is responsible for the “money.” A company leader must take care of both. Lombardo has a challenge ahead, but he keeps proving himself capable. And with a Board dedicated to fundraising, the Rep’s future is as bright as ever.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He is also the founder of the San Jose Rep. He can be reached at [email protected]  or 408.893.PARK.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected] or 408.893.PARK.

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