Theatre Memphis announced last week that it would not renew the contract of its executive producer Ted Strickland, who came on board in late 2000 after the controversial ousting of short-time EP Michael Fortner. During Strickland's tenure, TM seemed to make a significant comeback in terms of production quality and ticket sales. So why wasn't his contract renewed? TM's board president, Dan Conaway of Conaway Brown Advertising, admits that the decision was a difficult one but one that had to be made. In a candid, occasionally blunt, conversation he contemplates his organization's recent shortcomings and paints a detailed portrait of the person who will lead Theatre Memphis into the future.
Ted Strickland has thus far declined public comment, citing severance negotiations.
Flyer: When Michael Fortner replaced Sherwood Lohrey in the '90s, it seemed like he was coming into a pretty good situation.
Dan Conaway: Perceived to be, but not actually.
Subscription sales were in a decline?
A big decline.
But there was still a subscriber base and a tremendous economy.
Michael allowed the things that were already soft to get much softer, much worse. And the quality of what was going on the boards started to slip. You could almost watch it slip. His idea of community theater [can be compared to] the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies: We've got a barn, let's put on a show. You didn't audition. You showed up, and you got in a show. Every once in a while we would root up an acorn and do a good show, but that was starting to become the exception. As a result, the better directors around town -- and Memphis is blessed with good directors -- weren't coming out [to Theatre Memphis] anymore. And crew people and other volunteers just sort of drifted away.
But when Ted took over in 2000, the economy was already starting to slip. And still, it really seems like things are turning around.
Our quality is up. It really is. And interest is up. And we have a lot of new volunteers. When Ted [came] in, we were in the midst of retooling the board and the executive committee. And all that paid off. It paid off especially in Ted's first year. We stopped the downward slide in the second year. We stopped [the problems] and got back on a nice, in-the-black, moving-up [situation]. We got honest about a few things, like where our [audience] base really is. But the momentum didn't continue.
You said in The Commercial Appeal that one of the reasons for making this decision was a belief that your EP just wasn't connecting with the community. What does that mean exactly?
Memphis is a town. It has a lot of city things, but it's a town. That's its charm, and maybe Memphians don't see it, but people who come here from out of town do. It's the friendliest place on earth. [But] you have to know people. You have to be connected. If you have the city of "Memphis" in your name [as in "Theatre Memphis"], then you need to represent the city, and the only way that is going to happen is if the leaders of the organization are involved in the community. We need to have that from whoever leads us.
And what other qualities are you looking for in a new EP?
You will see a lot of energy from that person. And you will see that person. Ted wasn't seen much. The city is going to see this person. They are going to have to see this person, so that when the word "theater" is mentioned in Memphis, you think of this person. If you have an interest in what's going on in theater in Memphis, this is the person you are going to want to call. If you had Michael Fortner's energy and Ted's ability to run theater-based numbers and add the third and most important element -- knowledge of this marketplace -- you're going to have an executive producer who can take us where we need to go.