Arizona Theatre Co. Hits the Big Time with New Managing Director

June 21, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Behind the scenes – backstage, if you like – Arizona Theatre Co. has gone through a changing of the guard in the past year and started a transformation into a modern theater company.

Mark Cole is finishing his first year as managing director of Arizona Theatre Company.

On stage, it’s still the same mix of musical, play, drama, comedy, straight-off-Broadway show or a timeless classic (Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” this coming season) that Artistic Director David Ira Goldstein has delivered for 20 years.

At the business end, however, ATC has seen a sea change over the past season, since the arrival of Mark Cole as managing director in August 2011.

Cole’s arrival ended the Jessica Andrews era at ATC, where she had been managing director since 1995 except for a one-year spell in 2009-10.

Business as usual was not what attracted Cole to Tucson and Phoenix from the Miami City Ballet, where he had been general manager since 2006 and production director starting in 1998.

“I’ve made a number of changes,” Cole said. “The first thing I did was work with the board. I made sure we had clear job descriptions for our board members to create a culture of accountability and fundraising.”

ATC relies on ticket sales for 70 percent of its revenue. Most theater companies across the country come closer to a 50-50 balance between ticket sales and contributions.

“Just two weeks ago, I had a trustee solicit a gift for $25,000,” Cole said.

Arizona Theatre Co. may not be as entrenched in the psyche of Arizonans as, say, the Guthrie Theater is in Minneapolis. Cole sees no reason why we shouldn’t have a high-profile theater company.

He has enlisted high-profile marketing and design firms to put ATC in front of as many people as possible, be it with bus stop advertising or a sleeker, pared down season subscription brochure.

Cole shipped out in-house marketing duties to E.B. Lane Advertising & Public Relations, a Phoenix firm that counts as its clients Arizona Cardinals, Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Arizona Lottery, Super Bow XLII, Harkins Theatres.

“They are going to make a difference for us in terms of how we’re positioned in the market place,” Cole said.

E.B. Lane just started working with ATC in May.

“I think the surprise is for people who discover ATC,” said Beau Lane, E.B. Lane’s chief executive. “The challenge is to get more people exposed to that. The challenge is to expose what happens to a new set of people to experiment with it. Primary to it all is exposing the brand and the wider understanding of what it stands for.

“In Phoenix people associate with the Herberger Theater. We need to create a real identity for ATC. The Tucson audience tends to be older. The challenge is to get some different demographics.”

Cole brought on the Oberlander Group from Cohoes, N.Y., an Albany suburb, to revamp the season brochure. Oberlander has done publicity materials for Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. Distinctive art now promotes each show on one page and much less text now rests in a sea of white space on the opposite page.

The cluttered old brochure (upper right), the new, cleaner brochure (bottom left).

Cole contrasts this cleaner look with the cramped clutter of prior brochures.

“There is just so much stuff in here. This is trying to be so many things,” Cole said about the prior season’s brochure. “This is simply to sell subscriptions.”

The ambition with these moves is to bring the business operations of Arizona Theatre Company up to big city par. Cole’s immediate metrics to achieve this are a $2 million budget increase from $6.5 million to $8.5 million, doubling contributions, and a 50 percent increase in ticket sales.

“We have capacity in both theaters,” Cole said about ATC’s homes at the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson and the Herberger Theater in Phoenix. “We have more subscribers in Tucson and more single ticket sales in Phoenix. We have more individual giving in Tucson and more corporate and foundation donations in Phoenix.”

That gives Cole plenty of opportunity to strengthen each of these areas. But in his decades around theaters, Cole learned it is just as important not to estrange the audience you have.

“We need to keep everybody we have,” he said. “We started a type of stewardship. Board members go out in the theater and greet people. That’s made a big difference.”

ATC has a dual command structure. Cole oversees the business side, and David Ira Goldstein has been artistic director since 1992.

“It’s always good to get fresh eyes into any organization and get them looking at things we’re doing well and things that need improvement,” Goldstein said. “The thing that has been so impressive about Mark is his level of energy. I don’t think he’s taken more than two days off. He comes with so much experience. Mark brings keen focus on fundraising.”

Cole also stood out among the 15 candidates who applied for ATC’s managing director post and the seven candidates who were interviewed.

“He did some creative things. He checked us out as much as we checked him out,” said Rob Glaser, the board president and, as of July 1, its chairman. “He donated $25 to see how quickly he was thanked. It took a month. It wasn’t good enough. He spent a lot of time reviewing the financials. The other candidates did not do that at the level he did. He had 25 questions. He had a very organized but aggressive approach.”

Like many a budding thespian, Cole faced stiff opposition on the home front.

“My parents were dead set against it,” Cole recalled. “We had huge adolescent arguments.”

Cole did not follow the usual food service path of many in the acting world. He worked a year at U.S. Steel in Bay Town, Texas,; was an executive assistant to a dermatopathologist, and put in a decade on Wall Street at E.F. Hutton, Barclays Bank and Wang Laboratories.

All the while, Cole earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at Auburn University and a masters of fine arts from the University of Minnesota. He maintained his Equity, Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists memberships while implementing Barclay’s first electronic mail system in 1983 (long before the term “e-mail”) and overseeing IT infrastructures.

His professional performance experience was a brief stint playing dinner theaters and children’s theaters in the greater New York City area.

“I was a very good singer, a mediocre actor and a clumsy dancer,” Cole summed up. “I wanted a nicer apartment and to go to nicer restaurants.”

And thus came his long detour away from theater. While with the skin doctor at New York University, one employee benefit was taking classes at NYU. He took COBOL computer language and finance classes.

“That made me valuable enough to go to E.F. Hutton,” he said. “I knew I was good with computers. At the end of the Eighties, I became deeply unhappy with my work.”

Cole got a leave of absence from Wang and enrolled in Yale Drama School and went to directing school at Balliol College at Oxford University in England. That led to his next career: stage manager.

His only Broadway show was “Cats” for less than a year, and then a string of national tours with a string of Broadway and off-Broadways shows including “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged” and “Picasso at The Lapin Agile.”

“If you play it right, your bank account soars,” he said, explaining that rooms are paid for and you get a per diem for most daily expenses. “My life was a lot on the road.”

That road took him on European tours, too, with months at a time in Berlin, Munich and Amsterdam, for instance.

“I had a leisure lifestyle,” Cole said. “Get up, work out, go to lunch, go to a museum, take a nap in the afternoon, get ready for the show, sleep until 10 a.m. I gained a great appreciation for Paul Klee and Kandinsky.”

Eventually you come to the end of the road.

“Then I was ready for another change,” he said. “I always had friends at American Ballet theater.”

Cole joined Miami City Ballet as stage manager in 1998.

“The guy who hired me immediately retired and I became production director,” he said.

He became general manager in 2006.

“I didn’t have a lot of experience with boards and fundraising. I learned on the job,” Cole said. “All the wealthy donors knew me and liked me and wanted me to be successful.”

He stayed in Miami until the artistic director he reported to retired. Arizona Theatre Company was the only job he applied for.

“I came to love ballet but never as much as theater,” he said. “It’s a chance to return to something I’m so emotional about. It was a natural fit to avoid winter. The alternative would have been go back to New York.”

Meanwhile, ATC was in crisis mode, though that did not play out on stage. Jessica Andrews had retired and was replaced by Kevin Moore, who was been with ATC for nearly 10 years. A year later, Moore suddenly left for a job in New York, and Andrews came back on an interim basis.

“We had very significant challenges financially and all of a sudden we had an enormous void,” Glaser the board president said. “It was really nice we could go back to Jessica. Very little strategic thinking was being done. First we did a search within the state. Then we knew we needed a strong ally for David Ira. We needed someone on the business side of the equation. We needed someone who could bring money into the theater. Mark is a very, very hard worker. His work ethic is extraordinary.”

Has he instilled this work ethic into the staff?

“Oh, yeah, very much so,” Glaser said. “Everyone is at a heightened level of constructiveness, creativeness, accountability. We have never been stronger doing the little things right and doing the strategic plan right. There’s attention to detail that there hasn’t been before.”