It will be some time before it’s known how Loewith and Olney adapt to each other, since the company is in the midst of a season assembled by its previous artistic director, Martin Platt. Still, the hiring of Loewith, who started informally last Friday and takes over officially Feb. 26, comes in a turbulent period in Olney’s history.
Platt departed in December, after seven months in the post, in what was described as a “mutual” decision, and at a time when the company is struggling to define what kind of theater it wants to be. The slightly schizoid programming can be seen in the recent lineup: The follow-ups to the family-friendly holiday offering of “Cinderella” are a racier rock musical, “Spring Awakening,” and a provocative 2011 play about race and art, “The Submission.”
Loewith inherits the leadership of a three-theater campus with a $5 million budget, about 50 full- and part-time employees and interns and the job of retiring $6.2 million of debt — some of that expenses from the construction of a new main stage, some from years of budgetary red ink. Jennifer Kneeland, a Bethesda bankruptcy lawyer who chairs Olney’s board, says that the company’s finances are now stabilized and that after a lean period, with painful layoffs, Olney has had a balanced budget for the past three years.
But it might be cementing a coherent niche in a crowded marketplace for theater in the region that proves Loewith’s most difficult mission. Recently, for instance, Olney scrapped plans for a production of “Carnival” this summer and replaced it with the better-known “A Chorus Line,” in part because it’s a title that is easier to sell.
“I have always been drawn to a challenge, and hopefully not just a crazy challenge but one that’s going to end up being rewarding for the theater, the patrons,” Loewith, 44, said. “There’s a team there dedicated to each other, to doing anything to make that place work. What they have been waiting for is a vision for what the organization can become artistically and institutionally.”
Since 2009, Loewith has been executive director of the National New Play Network, a confederation of more than two dozen nonprofit theaters across the country that commissions plays, supports development of others and arranges for some new plays to receive debut productions at a succession of theaters, in what are known as “rolling premieres.” Prior to that, he was artistic director of Next Theatre in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, where he was recognized twice with best- season trophies from the After Dark Awards.