Meet Debby Buchholz Theater Devotee and New Managing Director of the La Jolla Playhouseby Pat Launer June 26, 2018
The La Jolla Playhouse has a penchant for the “new.” For each of the last five years, the theater has presented a full season of world premiere plays and musicals.
Now they can boast another first: the Playhouse’s first female Managing Director. Debby Buchholz joins Tony Award-winning Artistic Director Christopher Ashley at the theater’s administrative helm.
With the departure of Michael Rosenberg, who had served as Managing Director for nine years, the choice of replacement was clear.
“Debby has been at the Playhouse for 16 years,” says Ashley, “preceding me by a few years. She’s a major figure in the American theater, even serving as vice president of LORT [the League of Resident Theatres]. In 2009, she received a San Diego Women Who Mean Business Award from the San Diego Business Journal.
“She’s a fantastic collaborator,” Ashley continues, “and we’re extraordinarily fortunate to have her. When it came time to search for a new managing director, we knew we already had the person we would’ve wanted. It was universally decided that we couldn’t do any better than Debby Buchholz. We went right to her. There was no in-between time. She and I have had a lot of fun together, and I’m sure we’ll continue to have that going forward.”
“It was very humbling,” says Buchholz. But she’s thrilled. A graduate of UC San Diego, she’s spent a lot of time in this city.
A native Californian (she was raised in Woodland Hills, in the West San Fernando Valley), she says she “grew up in ‘The Brady Bunch.’” Her physician father died when
she was eight years old, leaving her mother a widow with three kids. Her divorced stepfather had four children. So, there were seven youngsters in the house, with only a 6½-year age-spread; at the time of the remarriage, they ranged from 6 to 12 years old.
Her mother, who studied early childhood education, was the nursery school director at the family synagogue, Congregation Beth Kodesh (now Shomrei Torah), a conservative shul where Debby had her bat mitzvah.
Her husband also grew up in a conservative congregation, in New Jersey, where he became a bar mitzvah. With their three children, they joined Temple Solel in Cardiff. Their two younger children went to Mountain Chai overnight summer camp in Angelus Oaks, where Debby’s brother-in-law served as camp doctor.
The family continues to have what Debby calls “an adapted kosher” home: no shellfish or pork products, no meat with dairy.
“For me,” she explains, “it’s reminding myself, being grateful and aware. Every time I go out and look at a menu, I’m reminded. It’s all about being intentional.”
One of her husband’s grandfathers was born in England; his other grandparents were American-born. No one’s certain of the source of his Germanic surname. Debby’s maiden name was Goosenberg (of Russian origin). Her middle name is Rivkah. Her mother is a fourth-generation descendant of the rabbinical scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch, the intellectual founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
Debby’s husband attended Bucknell and then Cambridge University. He has been an economic policy advisor and author. Now, he and their oldest daughter are working on a musical; she’s composing the score; they’re collaborating on book and lyrics.
“It’s a mixed marriage,” Debby quips. “I’m a Democrat and he’s Republican. But we have a very clear rule: we’re all respectful of all sides.”
Growing into her position
Debby majored in political science at UCSD. In 1984, she worked for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign.
In her teens, she was very active in USY (United Synagogue Youth). And she participated in theater in high school.
“I was terrible,” she admits with a smile. “I don’t sing, though I love musicals as well as plays. But some people are meant to be administrators.”
She has the perfect combination of skills for her new position. After graduating from UCSD, she earned a law degree from Harvard University, and practiced for several years in a New York/D.C. corporate law firm—Kramer, Levin, Nesso, Kamen and Frankel (all observant Jews), a “very social-justice-oriented group.”
She was a transactional lawyer, primarily concerned with business deals. But she realized that her job was “not as exciting as other jobs friends had.”
She found her excitement at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., where she served as associate general counsel (in-house lawyer) for a dozen years. She was also a faculty member for the Smithsonian Institution’s program on Legal Problems of Museum Administration.
She married in San Diego in 1988, when her husband (whom she’d met at Harvard), chose to relocate to be near family.
“I came without a job,” says Debby. “My husband writes, consults, manages money and is a corporate speaker. All he needs is an airport. I had never not worked. I worked through having each of my children. When I moved here, I had an eight-year-old, a two-year-old and a two-month-old.
“I knew I didn’t want to take the California Bar exam. I was interested in arts management, having seen the inside workings of a massive arts institution. I had stayed in touch with several of my professors at UCSD. One of them, who knew Joan Jacobs [wife of Qualcomm founder, Irwin Jacobs], introduced us, and she sent my resume to the Playhouse.”
When she was general manager, she oversaw Playhouse business operations, human resources, board governance and artist and production contract negotiations.
“I had a good background in Human Resources from the Kennedy Center,” she says. “And I had managed lots of labor agreements.
“What I loved about both jobs—at the Kennedy Center and La Jolla Playhouse—is that my interactions cut across all departments. The Kennedy Center was almost entirely a presenting institution while I was there. After six months at the Playhouse, a presenting and producing institution, I realized that that was the most rewarding thing in the world.
“I’m thrilled that Chris and I are now peers. He’s an incredible artist and an incredible leader. He’s a great listener, and he creates a real team. He’s so collegial and collaborative. And really, really smart. And funny. And self-deprecating.”
Over the years, she has watched the Playhouse grow to a $15 million annual budget and 10,000 subscribers.
“Now, there’s a ton of immersive and WithOut Walls work,” she beams, referring to the off-site or site-inspired program Chris Ashley initiated eight years ago.
But her new job is a big change.
From General Manager
to Managing Director
“In my prior role,” she admits, “I’ve been a very internal person. This is a very external job, representing the Playhouse. That’s easy. I love the Playhouse, and UCSD, and the art we make. This job entails a lot of fundraising. That’s new for me. I need to hire a development director, and a general manager, because right now, I’m doing my old and new job.”
In case that doesn’t fill up all her time, she also serves on the board of her temple, and the board of the Canyon Crest Academy Foundation, which raises funds for the school’s wide-ranging programming, including its highly regarded theater program.
“So, I’ve been on both sides,” she says, “both asking for and giving money.”
It’s the art itself that really gets to her.
“There’s nothing like standing in the back of the theater during tech week, and watching it all come together, and feeling you were a part of it.”
She especially remembers the Standing-Room crowd (“within code, of course”) for “Jersey Boys” and “Come From Away,” both still running in New York. Typically, she sees almost every production five to seven times—and that’s just from the first table-read to opening night.
“Sometimes I really fall in love with shows, watching them come into being.”
She especially loves world premieres, which are “hard to do, but enormously gratifying. People flock here because they love to be part of something new.”
Chris Ashley has originated several other new programs: the Residence Theatre Program, which provides a temporary home to up-and-coming theater companies with no fixed location. Among those that have been given a major boost by the Playhouse are: Moxie Theatre, San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre, and Teatro Máscara Mágica. The 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 recipient was Native Voices at the Autry, which produces plays featuring Native American writers, casts and directors.
Ashley also initiated an Artist in Residence Program; this year’s recipients are married playwrights Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza, who have been commissioned to write a trilogy, “The Colonialism Project.” During their residency, they’re also working on a musical, “Bhangin’ It,” about the high-stakes world of intercollegiate competitive bhangra – a traditional Indian folk dance.
One of the challenges of the Playhouse—and any theater—is attracting new audiences, and young people, to become theatergoers.
“There are two pipelines,” says Debby. “One is the WithOut Walls participatory work, presented in a place that’s not intimidating, and focuses on subjects—or the community— they’re involved in.
“Another is big musicals. After coming to see big blockbusters, people often take a chance on another show. Many sign on for a three-play series.”
One of the fun parts of her job has been sitting down, just before she goes to bed, and reading the stage manager’s report. There, she’ll encounter statements that can be hilarious out of context, such as “Tomorrow there will be a blood meeting, to discuss viscosity and color.” Or “Thank you for Velcro-ing the corpse to the back of the van.”
Before Debby (sort of) left her position as general manager, her chief operating officer made her a 3-D-printed, hand-cast pendant of the La Jolla Playhouse logo. She plans to wear it at all times. One co-worker made wearable buttons for every show. Another etched the Playhouse logo into drinking glasses for Debby.
“Theater attracts people with all sorts of hidden talents,” she beams.
And that’s just one of the things she loves about her work. Though she’s not directly involved with artistic decisions, she says, “I get to tell Chris how much money we have for a production, or the season.
“I have absolutely the dream job: Theater arts management for an institution that makes great theater.”
Information and tickets for La Jolla Playhouse productions are available at 858-550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org.