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“David is not a pushover,” says Joy Zinoman.

Coming from a woman whose titanic personality has kept at least two generations of Washington theater people busy telling backstage stories, that can only be counted as a compliment.

“David” is David Muse, who’ll be stepping into Zinoman’s shoes come September, when he takes over as artistic director of the Studio Theatre, the company Zinoman co-founded 35 years ago. Currently the No. 2 guy at a big D.C. house with another big temperament atop the org chart—the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he’s been Michael Kahn‘s associate artistic director for the last five years—Muse is just a year older than the theater whose reins he’s about to take.

And there were those in D.C. who weren’t convinced, as rumors flew in the days leading up to the announcement last week, that Muse would be the right fit. Too shy and soft-spoken, some whispered, to work the room and raise the money. Too young, maybe too green to ride herd effectively on the three seasoned and loyal lieutenants Zinoman is leaving behind.

“I can’t answer that question,” Zinoman says, with regard to the last. But she notes that the selection process was a long and careful one. (Seventy-five people threw their hat in; Zinoman personally interviewed 24, and the selection committee eventually narrowed the shortlist to six.)

And besides, Zinoman points out, Muse has personal history with two of the three veterans whose goodwill he’ll need: Serge Seiden, Zinoman’s artistic second and the company’s de facto production manager, and Keith Alan Baker, who as managing director helps make the trains run while also serving as artistic director of SecondStage—the theater-within-a-theater that works mostly with less experienced artists, and where Muse directed two well-received shows before graduating to the Studio mainstage. (His roaringly successful production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty runs through May 23.)

“He studied with Serge,” Zinoman says of Muse. “And there is nothing more powerful than teacher-student. [And] the first two things he did here were at SecondStage, with Keith as artistic director.”

Still, how those personal connections—and the professional considerations threaded in among them—will settle out is “a question much discussed,” Zinoman acknowledges. “Only a person of exceeding charm” could be expected to manage such a transition successfully.

“So one of my answers will be that David has that in spades. Right?  He can woo them. He can, and does, and has.”

And when the wooing doesn’t work? Zinoman points out that at the Shakespeare Theatre, casting shows and negotiating deals, Muse has been perceived by many D.C. theaterfolk as “the tough guy.”

“So, although I will not use the word ‘hatchet-man,’ that impresses me,” Zinoman says. “I think … he has the charm to do it, but he also has the strength.”

The House That Joy Built

The institution Zinoman is handing over to Muse is, to put it bluntly, a prize: A handsome 60,000-square-foot edifice comprising four theaters. Between 900 and 1,000 seats, depending on how the auditoriums are configured. Sixteen apartments for visiting artists. An enviable earned-income ratio of 65 percent—nationwide the average is 52 percent—on a $5 million operating budget. A half-million-dollar surplus as of September 2009, amid a recession that has had many theaters bleeding cash.

And it is, without question, The House That Joy Built.

The usual nonprofit-theater model involves the sort of triumvirate that kept things in Rome so interesting: an artistic director to handle the aesthetic questions, a managing director to keep things running smoothly, and a board to raise the money the other two spend. The exact balance of power varies from house to house—but almost without exception, the AD and the MD have to answer to the board for what they spend and how they spend it.

Not at the Studio Theatre.

“The artistic director in this theater raises the money,” Zinoman says. “With the director of development”—Morey Epstein, the third of Muse’s new colleagues—”and now the managing director. Three of the four of us raise the money.” And they set the theater’s agenda themselves, in a style Zinoman describes as “both communal and hierarchical.”  (It used to be more of the latter, but the balance shifted a bit as Zinoman began to think about retirement.)

That’s the underpinning of the “artist-managerial philosophy” that board chair Susan Butler held up as sacrosanct in the Washington Post story that profiled Muse after word of his appointment broke on April 30.

It’s a crucial difference, Zinoman stresses—”because if you raise the money, you have the power.”

It’s why Studio, under Zinoman’s leadership, has been able to take risks like a season anchored by an expensively produced bit of lesser Chekhov and two little-known contemporary Russian plays — or a near-impenetrable but unexpectedly thrilling Caryl Churchill play about hatmakers, which was really a play about totalitarianism and global war.

Studio’s institutional structure is set up to let a bold artist go for that kind of gold. And its physical plant—the Zinoplex, as an anonymous wag on my now-defunct theater blog dubbed it a few years back—is designed to let the company seize the moment when lightning strikes: With multiple spaces at its command, Studio can extend a show when audiences decide it’s a hit.

“All we need is one giant hit, or two medium-sized hits a year, and we can survive,” Zinoman says.

But there’s the trap, too: A lazy artist might program less ambitious fare. A dominant money-guy might lean on a weak artistic director to make sure there’s enough light comedy each year to keep the books in the black.

“You need strong leadership,” Zinoman acknowledges, “to make sure that the values of the programming don’t get lost. … Are you going to be an aesthete, and be interested just in form? Or are you going to have some things that you care about? This theater has a long tradition and history of doing plays about certain things, and there are people who care about that.”

Which is why “not a pushover” is going to be important.

A Recipe For Schizophrenia?

Muse admits to a certain eagerness to find out how it feels to be a Zinoman-style big dog—to take the lead in that artist-manager role.

“The idea of running a place where … the same people are making the decisions about the money and the art, to me it’s a wild idea,” he says. “It requires people who can really put on different hats—who can think bold artistic-vision thoughts in one moment, and then check themselves and look at budgets and make sure those things are realistic.

If it sounds like a recipe for schizophrenia, Muse has at least danced with that devil before.

“The truth is it’s not terribly dissimilar to what I do in my role here every day, as the manager of budgets and a director of shows at the Shakespeare Theatre,” he says. “How do I keep myself in check?  How do I support the art and watch the bottom line at the same time? … Should this person be an Equity actor, or can we get away with a non-Equity actor? How big does the cast need to be? … Those are questions that come up all the time. And normally I’m dealing with those issues as I deal with other directors, or Michael. … But then sometimes you have to do it with yourself—which is I think what they do at Studio all the time.”

When The Founder Leaves

Any number of questions—and perils—come with a founder’s departure from a thriving institution. Do you promote the second-in-command, and can the battle-scarred troops learn to think of her as boss if you do? Can the person who spent decades loyally supporting a Caesar really have the right stuff? If you cast the net wide, do you risk hiring an opportunist whose goals don’t line up with the singular passions of the person who was driven to start the thing in the first place? Many a nonprofit has foundered on those shoals, and many a D.C. theater among them.

At the Source Theatre Company—launched just up the block from and a couple of years after Studio—Bart Whiteman‘s scandal-clouded departure ushered in a long, slow decline that ended with the company’s dissolution, and the near loss of the space to a developer who meant to turn it into a billiards parlor. More recently, Jerry Whiddon stepped down at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, and though Blake Robison has earned a degree of respect for the literary adaptations he’s been programming since he took over, the house doesn’t have a particularly strong personality any more.

But in Washington, the signal example is that of the 60-year-old Arena Stage, where the dynamic Zelda Fichandler handed the reins after 40 years to Douglas Wager, whose six-year tenure is referred to by some as “The Interregnum,” by others as “the Time of Which We Do Not Speak,” and by almost no one as a success. Wager’s own departure made way for Molly Smith, whose artistic stewardship has been uneven at best, but who has at least championed a $120 million overhaul that may help restore the company’s status as a regional-theater powerhouse and help get it back in the game as a producer of exciting new work.

Muse, who arrived in D.C. after most of those transitions, is careful to note that he doesn’t know much about them first-hand.

“But I know that Joy does,” he says. “And [while] there may be examples from here, there are also examples from all over the country. And I know the two of us are committed to learning all we can from them, and not repeating those mistakes. We’ve talked about it explicitly.”

The Point

Muse’s plans, in the short term, include a lot of getting-to-know-you. He’ll cement the relationships he has, develop more, learn the Studio’s operating rhythms from the inside. He told the Post that more international works are among his ambitions, and he says that for a while, at least, any spare time—as if—will be spent scouting artists and plays to bring home to D.C., rather than looking for outside projects of his own.

“Both about the international-play question and the new-play question, I feel like I’m wading into some waters that I have to become familiar with,” he acknowledges. “There’s a landscape to learn about that, working here at the Shakespeare Theatre, I haven’t been all that attached to, and it’s gonna take a lot of effort”—cultivating contemporary writers, reading scripts, attending developmental workshops, shopping for scripts in England and Ireland and Eastern Europe and  beyond.

“I’d say look to the programming of the Studio Theatre over the next five years,” Muse says, “and hopefully an answer will start to emerge.”

“The real issue,” says Joy Zinoman, “is what will he change? Will he continue the same kind of programming? Will he distinguish himself with new ideas? That’s the issue. … I mean, I hope he has new ideas. I hope he does—my God! What’s the point?”