Former City Paper publisher Amy Austin has been tapped as the new president and CEO of Theatre Washington, the service organization that runs the Helen Hayes Awards. Austin replaces longtime president and CEO Linda Levy, who retired last winter after major surgery.
Austin, 57, joined City Paper in 1985 and was its publisher from 2003 until she stepped down this spring. “I had been there for 30 years,” Austin said. “It was just time. I wanted to have another chapter, so I left very amicably.”
She studied theater at George Washington University and worked as a production manager for Horizons Theatre’s “A . . . My Name Is Alice,” the Hayes winner as best musical in 1988. “Theater is so much a part of me, but it’s not obvious,” said Austin, who chaired the board of the educational Theatre Lab for 10 years. “It’s not like you can look at my résumé and say, ‘There it is.’ ”
Austin’s City Paper tenure saw the rise of journalism’s digital platforms, deep cuts in staff and a lawsuit (eventually dropped) by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. “She was completely a dream publisher,” said Mike Madden, City Paper’s editor for a time under Austin and now a deputy editor at the Washington Post. “She believed in the mission and absolutely supported it.”
Theatre Washington has been frank about its struggles since expanding its mission and changing its name from the Washington Theatre Awards Society several years ago. Generating income to support operations is high on the list of tasks for the new leader. So is figuring out how to produce the recently expanded annual awards ceremony, which was not very ceremonial this April as 50 awards were handed out in a 70-minute sprint.
“We’re looking for creative ideas and new revenue streams, to be quite honest, outside of fundraising,” said Kurt Crowl, chairman of Theatre Washington’s board. “Amy brought the paper into the digital age and was extremely successful in dealing with an ever-changing environment. And her Rolodex, to use an old term, is quite strong.”
“Clearly what she’s got is tenacity and curiosity and passion for D.C.,” said Maggie Boland, managing director of Signature Theatre. “I’ve always known her to be interested and connected to the arts.” Boland also thinks it’s a plus that Austin “comes from a little bit outside” the theater community, with no hard-wired ideas of how Theatre Washington must be run.
Austin said she is quite familiar with the area’s theatrical landscape. As for any learning curve ahead, Austin said, “I have never run a 501(c)(3) organization before. But I think my for-profit sensibility will be a good asset.”