SARANAC LAKE - An era at Pendragon Theatre is almost over.
Bob Pettee and Susan Neal, who founded the theater more than 30 years ago, are beginning a year-long transition to new leadership that will end with them moving away from the area.
Pettee said in Tuesday phone interview that he and Neal have been trying to figure out a workable exit strategy for some time now. He said they feel the comprehensive plan they've put together to transfer power to Karen Kirkham and David Zwierankin will create a smooth transition for the year-round, professional theater.
Pendragon Theatre co-founders Bob Pettee, far left, and Susan Neal, far right, welcome a younger man and woman in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 2010 during the theater’s 30th anniversary season.
(Enterprise file photo — Jessica Collier)
"We're feeling real positive about the change," Pettee said.
Kirkham will take over as the theater's new executive/artistic director. A regular director at Pendragon for the last 15 years, she is the chair of the Theatre and Dance Department at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. She will continue to teach there and work with Pendragon in the summer, though a sabbatical will allow her to be in residence in Saranac Lake from spring 2014 through summer 2015. At some point she will relocate to the area, according to a press release from Pendragon.
Zwierankin, who has a degree in theatre education from SUNY Potsdam, will have his boots on the ground in Saranac Lake as Pendragon's new managing director.
"For me personally, it's exciting and surreal all at the same time, and there's certainly a little melancholy to see Bob and Susan taking off in a year's time," Zwierankin told the Enterprise in a phone interview.
Originally from the Poughkeepsie area, he began as Pendragon's technical director in early August 2011 and now lives in Saranac Lake. He said moving into the new position will mean going from a hands-on approach to an eyes-and-ears approach, changing from building and painting sets to talking to patrons, looking for new donors, looking at new schools to work with and other ways to get involved in the community.
"I think the mindset switch, although not a huge thing, will be sort of a challenge," Zwierankin said.
He also said he thinks the public perception of his age - he's 24 - will also be a challenge, "but I don't doubt that after some time, and with my skill set, and working with Karen and the world of experience she has, that the people will be able to look beyond that."
Zwierankin has never worked with Kirkham, but he said he's not concerned about that. In theater, people often have to work with new people, so he's used to going into a new working relationship with a fresh mindset. The two will collaborate for the first time this summer when he does the lighting design on a show she's directing.
Zwierankin said he's grateful that Pettee and Neal put together the slow transition plan.
"I would be terrified if they were leaving at the end of this summer," Zwierankin said. "I'm blessed to be able to shadow Bob for the next year and to slowly take over more responsibility and have a year to ask questions ... and to have him there with me as I am slowly introduced to public, who has always supported us."
Board President Charles Carroll said in a press release that while the board will miss Pettee and Neal - thanking them for their years of service and wishing them a happy retirement - the show must go on.
"We are delighted that our new leadership team will ensure Pendragon remains true to its mission and tradition: presenting professional, engaging, diverse theater and education programs throughout the Adirondack region," Carroll said in the release.
Throughout this summer, Neal and Pettee will teach Kirkham and Zwierankin all the duties they've undertaken for the last three decades and gradually transfer responsibilities to them.
The new structure will be more hierarchical to transfer it from a founder-driven organization to a board-driven one. The board will be expected to take over more duties, including ad sales, following up with phone calls and other things Pettee did in the past.
"Lots of different changes like that will be coming down the line this year as we all settle into what the new rhythm's going to be," Pettee said.
During the 2013 season, Pettee and Neal plan to move out of the area permanently. That's not to say they won't be back to visit, and they'll be available to offer advice or thoughts if asked, but they feel like it makes sense to create some physical distance, Pettee said. They don't want the new leadership to feel like the founders are watching over them, "and we didn't feel that we'd be particularly comfortable looking over our shoulder."
"We're excited about moving on to a new world ourselves and other things," Pettee said.
Pettee said it is difficult to think of leaving the theatre, which he and Neal have put so much of their blood, sweat and tears into over the years. But it's something they've been ruminating on for some time now, and it's a change that is inevitable.
"The whole change - it's really all about the future of the organization," Pettee said. "We knew we couldn't be as vital with it forever and ever.
"It's all about the future of Pendragon. Hopefully that future will be a bright one."