On Petosa’s watch, the sprawling 14-acre campus off Route 108 has built a new mainstage, an intimate theater lab, and an outdoor amphitheater for summer Shakespeare by Olney’s touring company of young professionals, the National Players. He took Olney Theater Center from a part-time theater to one that operates 10 months a year.
As Olney’s artistic leader, Petosa, 57, has conftonted both financial and artistic struggles. In 2010, the theater faced a $6 million debt and a 5 percent drop in subscriptions. Olney reduced its programming — six shows per year instead of eight — and added more family-friendly shows instead of the more cutting edge theater Petosa favored. The strategy seems to be working, but for Petosa, the artistic challenges lie elsewhere. He will step down as artistic director at the end of this year.
“I’m at a stage in my own career where I really want to focus on projects that I, from a personal artistic point of view, really believe in . . . and I think sometimes personal artistic ambitions and institutional artistic ambitions don’t necessarily meet,” he says.
Olney’s 2010 roster ended with a well-reviewed revival of “Annie.” Its 2011 season opened with “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and included a revival of “Grease” and the Agatha Christie mystery “Witness for the Prosecution,” and it is ending with “The Sound of Music,” which has just been extended a third time, through Jan. 22.
In between “Joseph” and “Grease,” Petosa squeezed in more intellectually prickly productions of Beau Willimon’s political drama “Farragut North” — the play recently adapted by George Clooney into the film “The Ides of March” — and Michael Hollinger’s “Opus,” about contentious players in a string quartet. But the overall tone of season 2011 at Olney has been demonstrably tried, true — and commercial.
“I found myself in a financial situation [such that] I could not support artistic choices that conveyed financial risk . . . after the economic downturn of 2008,” says Petosa.
The plan seems to be working. The theater met its ticket sales goal for 2011 by the end of October, before “The Sound of Music” even opened, and will post a profit at year’s end, according to Olney Board President Jennifer Kneeland. The theater has begun to pay down its debt, incurred as a result of a capital expansion project completed in 2005 that was hit by a loss of funding and cost overruns.
The family-friendly programming is not viewed by the theater’s board or its audiences as an “unconscionable compromise,” says Petosa. Indeed, they “seem to be responding to these programming ideas with enthusiasm and passion.”