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Interview with Terry Dwyer

As the Segerstrom Center for the Arts turns 25, its president talks about the importance and relevance of the performing arts.

Ralph Palumbo

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Terry Dwyer became president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (then the Orange County Performing Arts Center) during a challenging time. It was 2006 and the stage was set for a major economic downturn just as the center was only months away from opening the 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and in the midst of its $240 million endowment fundraising campaign. So with the performing arts already fighting to stay relevant in the age of video-blasting and Web-speed new media, you could say the bar was set pretty high.

Here’s the interesting thing: Dwyer raised it higher.

His stated goal was not just to hold onto the audience perennially loyal to the center and the arts, but to attract new followers from socio-economic groups never particularly interested in or exposed to the performing arts.

Dwyer, who holds a master’s degree in theater management from Yale, had had some success in this area during his 30-year career in arts management. He served as managing director for the Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre, Houston’s preeminent theater, which produces a wide variety of works for diverse audiences. With his planning and execution of a $44 million capital campaign for a new theater complex, expansion of acclaimed education programs and the launch of the Playhouse’s popular Flash Performance series, Dwyer changed The Alley from an organization in debt to one that is thriving financially and artistically. Also impressive was Dwyer’s 12 years with the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, a company Dwyer is credited with turning around.

So it’s no wonder that the Segerstrom Center for the Arts is now seen as an Orange County treasure – for the entire community. Here, Dwyer discusses his passion for bringing the performing arts to the masses and why making the arts relevant to everyday life is vital.

How and when was your passion for the performing arts stoked?
I grew up in south New Jersey with seven brothers and sisters and my parents were big fans of the performing arts. We would go to plays produced locally and see The Philadelphia Orchestra. But I think my passion for the arts really began later when I saw two touring productions of Equus and Jesus Christ Superstar. They were both extremely well done and very theatrical and at times provocative and thought-provoking. [The performing arts] seemed like a very exciting world and I threw myself in that direction.

Did you ever want to act, write or direct?

I got a master’s degree in directing and was going to be a director. But somebody hired me as a stage manager and I did that for five years, then went back to school for theater management. I went through a number of paths and settled on arts management.

Was it a hard decision to leave the more creative side of the arts?
No. I was blessed early in my career to work with some extraordinarily gifted actors, directors and designers. I found that inspiring and motivating and I knew that I wanted to be part of that world. And I was a pretty good director, but I wasn’t at their level and I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere close. But I wanted to have an impact on the environment in which they create. So that’s when I moved to theater management. You lead an organization and if you do it successfully you can have a real impact on bringing the arts to a community.

Which most would argue you’ve done well here in Orange County. What drew you to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts?
These are challenging times for the arts and I was anxious to continue working in every possible way to keep the flame alive and do everything I could to help ensure that great work continues to be produced on stage and great people are able to stay in the field. I thought that there was a real opportunity to work in a place like the Segerstrom Center, which has great facilities and fantastic support in the community. And the community has great pride in its cultural organizations. So it was an important opportunity to make a difference in the field during some challenging times.

The times are challenging, so how is Orange County and the Segerstrom Center doing?
When I was speaking of challenging times, I was speaking nationally. The story of the performing arts in Orange County is an amazing success story. This is a relatively young town and the fact that it has so many major cultural organizations that are so successful and so well supported in the community is a great story that is, to my knowledge, unequalled. That so much has been accomplished in such a short time is amazing and speaks to the community’s pride and to the value of the arts as part of our quality of life. It’s been a great community in which to make sure great works are produced and great audiences are attracted to that work.

That said, do you think Orange County and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts gets its due respect?
There is still some geographical bias – East Coast versus West Coast. Since Orange County is comprised of many small- to medium-sized cities and no major urban center it isn’t in itself a major media market. It’s often mistakenly lumped in with Los Angeles. So I think the quality of the work and education programs [Orange County] organizations produce is underappreciated outside Orange County. But that’s changing. And I think it’s been changing for years and will continue to change because the organizations in Orange County are so significant that inevitably attention will be brought to bear on them.

What have been the greatest challenges in your tenure with the center?
When I started it was seven months before we opened the new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall so that was an extremely busy period when the organization was rapidly expanding in size and running the gauntlet of opening a major new facility. It was a challenging time to start. I also inherited a capital campaign that was over half done, but not completed. For a few years we raised some significant funds but then the economic downturn hit and that made raising funds a challenge. We hope and expect that will change and things are moving in that direction even as we speak. It’s important for the center to finish that campaign so we can have funds in our education and artistic programs.

What about the long-term challenge of continuing excellence?
The challenge is how you resist letting short-term economic pressures force you off your path to produce excellent work without compromise, and really pursue important and innovative education initiatives. And even a bigger issue is how the performing arts remain relevant and important to a community that’s going through such enormous and rapid change, changes in demographics and technology, and economic upheaval. The organizations that are going to be successful and relevant and important to people’s lives are the ones that wrestle with these issues and get ahead of the change curve. That’s a big challenge but also an exciting opportunity and I think we’re succeeding.
How do the performing arts compete with the age of video?
I actually think the digital age is a great opportunity because people will always respond to a genuine communal experience. I think there is still a thirst and real need to experience something meaningful and exciting and at times inspirational with other people. The digital age is in many ways moving us away from that and organizations that can provide it in a high-quality and innovative way have a real opportunity. That’s part of what we’re working on.

Along those lines, the center has made a concerted effort to broaden its audience. How is that going?
We’re very proud of the progress we’ve made and the direction it’s going. We’ve continued to invest and expand on all of our core programs and we’ve added low-cost and free performances and events in the plaza and in our various halls. They’ve been very successful. We’ve had outdoor dance performances that have 5,000 or 6,000 people watching. During our 25th anniversary celebration weekend, we had a band, Ozomatli, that had 2,000 or 3,000 people watching. We had a Walk for the Cure fundraising event with thousands of people. So we’re trying to be fully engaged with the community and not just a great cultural center but also a great civic and town center. I think we’re making significant progress.

Is that helping to broaden the demographics of audiences?
Yes. The audiences that are showing up to the free and low-cost events tend to be younger and more diverse. And by far the largest portion of them are first-time attendees of the center. And that’s exactly what we want. What we’re trying to do is get on the radar screen of the broadest possible audience, of all ages and all ethnicities that for various reasons have been underserved in the past. We want the arts to become relevant in their lives, whether it’s education programs in the schools or free events in the plaza. That’s what we’re here for: to keep the arts relevant and keep the arts contributing to the quality of life in our community.

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