GIGS: Elizabeth Doran: NC Theatre

Creative Cultivator
N.C. Theatre’s new CEO

by Jessie Ammons
photograph by Elizabeth Galecke

Elizabeth Doran is not from around here, and she thinks that’s a good thing. “There’s value in remembering what the outside world is saying about your community,” she says. It’s late March, and Doran is a few weeks into her new role as CEO of North Carolina Theatre. Already, “I dig it.”

But she knew she would: The outside world is impressed with Raleigh’s arts scene, and Doran is ready to dive in. With both business savvy and theater chops, Doran says she hopes to honor tradition and shake things up at NCT. “I’ve found that you are makers here: There’s a lot of homebrewing, from scientific research, biotech, data, and then beers, honey, coffee. … I would like our audiences to understand that N.C. Theatre is valuable in ways outside of just being a Broadway touring home. We are a maker, too.”

What Doran didn’t expect, she says, was the diversity of creativity in Raleigh, and she thinks that’s another good thing. The New York native most recently hails from Southern California, which she calls “a big melting pot,” many cultures interwoven and combined so that it’s easy to forget where one stops and the next begins. In the Triangle, however, “a lot of work has been done to protect heritage and to protect the root of art forms. There’s an abundance of very well-developed but distinct cultures.” Rather than a melting pot, she likens our region to a “botanical garden,” where each plant flourishes alongside another to create a sea of beautiful different blooms: music, pottery, dance, theatre. “It’s all very positive. There’s distinction but there’s also admiration.”

An early seed planted in the figurative Raleigh botanical garden was the nonprofit NCT. Founded in 1983 to produce Broadway musicals, NCT has since become a respected pipeline between local talent and the national stage. By tapping local and regional performers in recognizable big-name playbills, budding actors and actresses can gain a foothold in the big-league acting scene. Clay Aiken, Lauren Kennedy, and Beth Leavel have appeared on both NCT and Broadway stages in the past decade, as has beloved local actor and show creator Ira David Wood III. The organization’s legacy is not lost on its new leader. “There’s a beautiful, shameless love of the arts in a lot of people in this town. People can – people are – making a living in the arts here…The quality is already very high.”

Doran hopes to take a really good thing and make it great; she says that’s the best way to reflect the community and momentum she sees. NCT board of directors member Su Shearin says the organization sees a bright future with its new CEO. “With her creativity, vision, and nationwide theatre connections, I’m convinced Elizabeth will take NCT to a new level.”

What Doran says she wants to do differently is focus on the audience. Her background is in the theatre, both as an actress and as a producer and developer, and she, too, has a shameless love of the arts. As she talks about the power of live theater, her tone takes on the cadence of a stage actress delivering a monologue. “We are born compassionate, and the theatre emphasizes it. It makes you sit in a room, feeling. … The arts is this place to just lay it all out, and have fun, and be our compassionate selves.”

She’s learned, she says, that the best way to ensure both a packed house and an affected audience is by adopting an attitude of service. “Our job – my mission – is to serve the community by doing theatre that reflects the community, and helps the community to examine its questions.”

Nonprofit mentality

How might an outsider, a newcomer to Raleigh, lead the charge to produce theater reflective of the community? “With a nonprofit thought process,” she says, informed by business savvy. Along with decades in the theater, Doran has an MBA: “I felt like there were systemic issues in arts organizations that somehow our arts-focused training programs were not, at the time, solving.” An MBA and postgrad stint abroad working in international marketing added strategic perspective to her arts leadership approach. “We were looking for a high level of business and theatre experience,” board member Shearin says of the CEO search. “We assumed we’d have trade-offs, to varying degrees. We’re delighted that with Elizabeth we have the best of both.”

Since Doran’s arrival to Raleigh in March, she’s been culling data: census demographics, retail statistics, past ticket sales. She’s also been engaging in her favorite form of research: attending arts festivals and meet-and-greets. “I really want to meet hundreds and hundreds of people and talk to them. What are the things in our collective consciousness right now?”

With an idea of her audience in mind, Doran says her NCT will carefully cultivate partnerships, programs, and incentives. If an avant-garde performance ends up on the season docket, then “we’ll work for nine months before the show to educate the community about it.” If it’s a taboo topic, she says, NCT education programs will take it apart, break it down, and engage with relevant groups throughout the city to bring the topic to the forefront of public conversation.

Which is not to say the feel-good musicals will fall by the wayside (see below for the upcoming season). Doran already knows her audience better than that. “Every performance has the underlying goal of talking about core values,” and often, lighthearted song and dance is the best way to bring people together. “Our feelings can be protected, in a way, from the onslaught of bad news. You sit in a dark room, and the world quiets, and you feel.”

She’s also committed to NCT’s foundational pillars of youth education and civic engagement. “We put these Broadway people next to these local Broadway-type people next to these kids, and it feels really good.”

Curriculum Vitae

She’s performed as an 1850s immigrant, greeting visitors to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island museum in New York (“I’d choose an accent for the day”), and she’s worked with big names throughout her career. They include Academy Award winner Tim Robbins, Grammy winner Sheryl Crow, and Pulitzer Prize winner
William Kennedy.

Here are a few of the collaborations in her repertoire:

– Partnered with Tim Robbins to lead a theatre troupe, the Actors’ Gang, in Los Angeles for five years; among its alumni are Jack Black and his band Tenacious D.

-With Robbins, produced a music and culture festival featuring Gore Vidal, Harry Bellefonte, and comedian Sarah Silverman, among others.

– Produced a show in Pasadena, CA starring actress Taraji P. Henson.

– Produced Broadway-
bound musicals including A Night with Janis Joplin and Sleepless in Seattle.

– Curated a film series in San Diego with rotating relevant presenting partners, such as Monty Python producer John Goldstone.

– Sought to blend theatre, music, and film through series at San Diego Theatres that included hosting a talk by TONY-nominated Emmy-winning Jeff Jampol and a screening of rare classic concert films like Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense.

– Managed the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where gala performers and supporters included architect Cesar Pelli, opera singer Placido Domingo, and musician Sheryl Crow.

Up next at The North Carolina Theatre

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, July 25 – 30

Gypsy, Nov. 14 – 19

Love Letters, Jan. 12 – 21

The Wizard of Oz, March 13 – 18

Bright Star, April 17 – 22

The Wonder Years, The Musical, May 4 – 13

Disney’s Newsies, July 24 – 29