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Oregon Shakespeare Festival hires new executive director

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced Friday that David Schmitz will become its fourth executive director on Sept. 1.

Schmitz, 44, has worked at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company for the past 15 years, serving as director of finance and administration, general manager, managing director, and currently as executive director.

He succeeds Cynthia Rider, who held the OSF position from 2013 through 2018, and Paul Christy, who became acting executive director in January of 2019 and has been leading the festival’s transition throughout the executive search period.

Schmitz will provide shared leadership with OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett.

“David’s reputation and accomplishments working with theater makers, artists, patrons, and partners in the arts precede him,” Garrett said. “I’m grateful for the breadth of experience he brings to OSF.”

Schmitz will be drawing considerably on that experience as OSF deals with the hemorrhage of cash caused by cancelation of the 2020 season after only two weeks, and the disruptions of the wildfire smoke-filled summer of 2018. The top priority for Schmitz and Garrett will be to return transformative theatre to the OSF stages in 2021.

As the executive director, Schmitz will focus on enhancing the role of philanthropy in the organization, supporting artistic and education programming, while overseeing all administrative functions—including development, marketing, facilities and operations.

Diane Yu, OSF board member and chairperson of the executive search committee, expressed the board’s confidence in Schmitz in his new role.

“He is a consummate professional,” Yu said, “who has impressive experience in all phases of theatre management — from finance, marketing and development to operations, community relations and theatre building.”

Schmitz’s work at Steppenwolf has won him widespread national acclaim. Under his leadership, Steppenwolf experienced significant growth in annual fundraising, up 25% while he was executive director.

During his tenure, he forged significant partnerships with national foundations, including the Wallace Foundation, Roy Cockrum Foundation, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

“David is well known for his strategic thinking and interpersonal and communication skills,” Yu said, “and is committed to OSF’s core values, including inclusion and diversity.”

Steppenwolf was founded in 1974 by Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Gary Sinise in a Chicago Unitarian church. The founders recruited six additional members: H.E. Baccus, Nancy Evans, Moira Harris, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, and Alan Wilder.

In many ways, Steppenwolf’s nonprofit business model mirrors OSF’s, which includes the transfer of plays to other venues — 20 to Broadway, and others regionally and internationally.

Now located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, it has become one of the nation’s premier ensemble theatres, presenting up to 16 plays and nearly 700 performances on three stages annually. Its accolades include the National Medal of Arts and 12 Tony Awards.

Schmitz says he is inspired by the legacy and dedication of OSF’s audience, patrons, and supporters.

“I am thrilled to begin this partnership with Nataki Garrett and the OSF board,” Schmitz said. He says he is looking forward to working with OSF artists, staff, volunteers and the Ashland community at-large.

Schmitz says he has been following OSF for years.

“It’s an organization with a national reputation as a unique destination theater,” he said. “When I heard that Nataki took over as artistic director, my ears perked up.” He had collaborated with her before and was impressed with her work.

He believes that OSF is well equipped to move forward toward a strong reopening in 2021 with its loyal audiences, donors, and strong connection to the community.

“All theaters in the world have to figure out how to operate in the post-COVID world,” he said. “The biggest challenge for all theaters is a shift in the relationship to audiences, from subscription to single ticket sales.”

He says financial challenges and the challenge of structural change can be met with smart management and successful fundraising.

“I look forward to working here with a strong staff and world-class theater makers,” he said, noting that OSF can appeal to a new generation of theater-goers while also celebrating the generation that made the organization what it is today.

His experience as an actor, designer, fundraiser, and manager gives him a unique perspective and informs his approach to administration. In the executive director role at Steppenwolf, Schmitz led strategy and execution for all fundraising, marketing, and business-related activities.

He, his wife, and two sons will move to Ashland in early August. From now until he officially takes charge, he will be consulting with Garrett and Christy to ensure a smooth transition. Christy is expected to stay on for a short period after Sept. 1.

Schmitz is originally from Denver and attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. He moved to Chicago in 1998 and attended graduate school at Roosevelt University there.

“I’m inspired by the legacy and dedication of OSF’s audiences, patrons, and supporters to become their partner at this unprecedented time in the world of live theater,” Schmitz said. “I look forward to meeting everybody.”

Jim Flint is a writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Courtesy photoDavid Schmitz has been hired as the new executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, effective Sept. 1. He has worked for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago for 15 years, most recently as executive director.