“The greatest invention was not the light bulb, electricity, or space travel,” avows Edgar Dobie, invoking an idea he heard in high school and never forgot. “As human beings, our greatest invention was language.”
When the concept first seeped into his young mind, Edgar found himself not only embracing it, but also evolving it. He came to understand that language is the building block of stories, and that stories are, in turn, the best and most generous way to exchange a commodity as precious as language. And what better way to express language and stories than through a live performance?
“Along that vein, it became clear to me that the great storytellers were playwrights,” he continues. “I realized that I wanted to be doing something that engaged with this concept. I wanted to take literature and breathe life into it by working with an artist to interpret it and bringing an audience together to witness it. And by breathing life into that language and those stories, you make them perishable in that they’re different every day and they don’t last forever, but that creative challenge and complexity is what drives me.” Now the Executive Director and co-CEO of Arena Stage, a theater company that promotes creativity and community in Washington, DC, paying homage to humanity’s greatest invention is another day in the office for Edgar.
Edgar assumed his role at Arena Stage in 2009, but the company has been active in the greater Washington area for over 62 years, remaining a pioneer in the resident theater movement. In the 1950s, the area had very few options when it came to live theater. “People weren’t as enlightened at that time, and the National Theater had a whites only policy,” he remarks. “The founders of our theater, Zelda and Tom Fichandler, were engaged in the civil rights debates going on here. But they moved beyond the protest. They wanted action.”
Thus, the Fichandlers and others in the community sought to address two concerns. For one thing, none of the art being performed in Washington was created in the community; rather, it was whatever was a hit on Broadway. “The train would arrive with the actors and the scenery, stay for a week or two, and then be on their way,” Edgar explains. “There was no real connection to the community.” For another thing, due to segregation, theater wasn’t available to the whole community. Thus, the Fichandlers hoped to create a place where the artists lived and worked within the community, and a place where everyone was welcome. “What I love about the Arena Stage is that, because it adhered to those two founding principles over time and touched enough people in the community, it has built up an equity that makes it as essential as the public library, the university, or the hospital,” he points out. “The community has come to embrace it.”
Arena Stage got its name from the “arena in the round” format. The Fichandlers used an old Vaudeville house that had been converted into a movie theater, turning the stage and part of the orchestra into an arena format in which the audience sits on all sides. “It’s an architecture and format that reflects the mission and vision of the place, as there is no balcony that segregates people,” Edgar points out. “If you’re seeing theater in the round, you’re there witnessing the art and looking at people from your community at the same time.”
For most of Zelda’s tenure as artistic director, Tom served as the executive director. Arena was launched as a for-profit corporation with shareholders, but he initiated the infrastructure shift into a not-for-profit in the late 1950s. They were one of the first theaters to approach Congress to request an educational status of 501(c)3, and they were able to convince the government that there was a strong public purpose in doing so. With that, they became a resident theater and built up an ensemble of actors. Tom helped to found an organization to do the collective bargaining with the actors, and later a theater communications group. As one of three resident theaters in the United States at the time, there are now over two thousand built in its image.
Doug Wager took over as artistic director after Zelda, and he was succeeded by Molly Smith in 1998, who brought with her a new vision to produce American writers’ work exclusively. Writers like Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller had produced a body of work that could sustain the theater alone, and while Arena maintained its commitment to developing new work, they resolved to focus on American playwrights. “We know that if a particular writer has a great relationship with their own home base theater, chances are that no other location will do a better production of that writer’s work,” Edgar adds. “Since we’re resident in our community, we feel a need to be connected to local universities like Georgetown, ensuring that there are opportunities for students to do fellowships at Arena as well.”
Today, Arena Stage is an operation that draws $18 million per year, employing around 130 people. They’ve just built a $135 million building that houses three theaters of different designs to accommodate different types of artistic works. Through transformational gifts and donations, a committed membership base, a community engagement program with eleven teaching ensembles throughout the D.C. metropolitan area, and their fellowship program, Arena Stage’s role in the community and in the landscape of theater is bustling and multifaceted.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Arena Stage, however. When the former executive director, Stephen Richard, left to become Campaign Director at the Children’s Museum, the company scaled back to performing six shows a year as they searched for the perfect candidate to join the team, using that time to vacate the site of the two organized theaters so construction could begin. Several candidates had a few key skills, but not the entire repertoire. Fundraising had stalled in the wake of the economic crisis in 2008, so the successor would undoubtedly face a formidable challenge. “But Arena Stage is Arena Stage,” Edgar affirms.
When Edgar heard about the search and contacted the recruiting firm, they told him he wasn’t the sort of person they were looking for because he had been involved in the commercial sector. Time passed, however, and he noticed the position was still open, so he contacted the firm again, to find that it was no longer on the assignment. Arena had formed a board committee, so Edgar contacted them directly, and was received with a warm welcome. They had just gone through a large reduction in workforce and were scaling back even further on their programming. Furthermore, they were about a year away from assuming the title of their new building, and they didn’t have an operating plan in place.
“The plight of the company was even more complicated than I had originally thought, but from my perspective, more interesting,” Edgar says. “I’ve always been drawn to those situations in which you have to repair an aircraft mid-flight. I like that challenge. My wife and I were also ready to have a child, and I wanted something that would bind me to a community like Washington with a glue like Arena Stage.” It was an organization that was trying to find its way, and Edgar had the map.
Today, Edgar is involved in finding new opportunities for production. Having come out of the commercial world, he knows that the interests of his investors—the audience—are the company’s own interests, and he takes this into account in executing the company’s business plan. “I often think of myself as a casting director,” he says. “My job is in large part about building and promoting the right team. You can’t do all the fundraising, market all the tickets, or be in every classroom making sure the community engagement program is running properly. You have to make sure you have great people in those areas, reinforce the vision of the enterprise, and then stand back and let them shine.”
Edgar was born in a small village in British Columbia, where an appetite was created in even the smallest communities to see live theater. His father was a mechanic and his mother was a telephone operator, and he was raised the second oldest of five boys in a 900-square-foot bungalow. His older brother, Donald, had cerebral palsy and was severely handicapped, but the family supported him wholeheartedly. He had a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years but lived to age 54, largely because he was so engaged in the life of the community.
Edgar’s was, and continues to be, a family that fights for what it believes in. His mother fought for just wages and fair pension benefits, joining the union movement. As a small business worker, his father sat on the other side of that aisle, making for interesting dinner table conversation. The family worked to found a small assisted living group house that would allow Donald to move out on his own, and Donald himself worked to turn the group home’s van into a carrier service for nonprofits. Edgar, himself, is the only one of his brothers who left home to attend college.
“My parents only asked that we find our own way, and that we made sure it was something that contributed to society,” Edgar recalls. Working in the community theater and holding a leadership position in the drama club, he thrived in school, and there was never a question that he would attend college. At that time, if they studied hard and earned good grades, students in Canada paid no tuition for higher education, so Edgar was able to attend university and emerge four years later without debt. He got his undergraduate degree in Theater and English at the University of British Columbia, and then got his Masters in English at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, England.
One of his undergraduate professors was founding a company at the time he was graduating and wanted him to join the venture, so she agreed to hold a position for him for one year only. His masters program was two years, but he instead started his thesis the first day of his coursework so that he could graduate in time to accept the job. Thus, he started as managing director, bookkeeper, production manager, house manager, and bar tender for the New Play Center, where he worked for over five years. Their purpose and mission was to provide an avenue by which any resident of British Columbia who wrote a play could receive assessments and critiques.
Before long, they had built up enough producible material to launch one-act festivals, which they found a sponsor for. They then decided to build a theater along with two other groups, West Coast Actors and Carousel Theater. Edgar was elected to be general manager of that project, and several of their writers were produced on Broadway later on, attracting the interest of the National Arts Center in Ottawa. The National Arts Center offered Edgar a position as managing director of their English language resident company, where he made many professional connections that led him to a position as managing director at a new civic theater company in Toronto called Canadian Stage Company. “Our idea there was to build a company with the resources, heft, and level of activity that the Stratford and Shaw Festivals provided for their writers,” says Edgar. “We wanted Canadian Stage to provide the same level of support and opportunity.”
The work and relationships he developed in that capacity later led to a Sunday afternoon phone call from an entertainment executive who had founded a company called Cineplex/Odeon, which became the second largest moving exhibition company in the world. He was interested in building a worldwide vertically integrated entertainment corporation with a live entertainment division and wanted Edgar to come discuss his vision over tea. Edgar accepted the position and led the company to purchase and restore a theater and to put on the fastest-recouping, most profitable production of Phantom of the Opera in the world at that time.
That production caught the attention of Andrew Lloyd Weber, who asked Edgar if he’d come serve as President and COO for him in New York City. “That offer was based on the simple act of doing a good job,” Edgar reflects. With that, he came to America in 1992 and worked for him for seven years, winning a Tony Award for his production of Sunset Boulevard. Edgar then decided to venture out and launch his own company, through which he collaborated on the introduction of Riverdance, a highly successful Irish dance show, to the United States. He also produced Paul Simon’s The Capeman and was managing producer of the Tony Awards.
After a stint on Broadway with his independent company, Edgar found himself sitting on a commercial theater panel with a specialist recruiter for resident theater. He had just produced a show called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which had not been well received, and it dawned on him that he was most happy when he was running a public theater. The recruiter then connected him to a job at Trinity Rep, where he worked for six years. Then one fall, his father and brother passed away. “You’re reminded of your own mortality, and I wanted to do what was meaningful to me,” Edgar recalls. “I had taken on so much that I wasn’t getting that sense of joy from doing a really good job.” After another five years in the commercial world with Riverdream Productions, The Pirate Queen, and 9 to 5, Edgar returned to the public theater work again—and to Arena Stage.
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Edgar emphasizes the importance of looking for an opportunity with some authority attached. “That way, you can take an action and feel connected to what you’re doing,” he says. “You also must be prepared to work collaboratively. Try to understand how an organization operates and what its mission is, and try to touch that in a small way at first. The more you embrace, the more you share, the better equipped you will be to deal with whatever issues come your way in the future.”
Beyond that, he emphasizes the importance of choosing your path deliberately. “To choose is to renounce,” he says. “Looking back, I didn’t have a planned trajectory for my career. It was more of a career by invitation, and in retrospect, there are some invitations I wish I hadn’t taken.” Despite those offshoots, however, the main course of Edgar’s professional path followed a course dictated by passion, and nothing less. “When I come across an important story,” he says, “and when I have the opportunity to help translate that story into reality in a meaningful way—one that can be shared with the community and thereby enrich it—that’s something that endures.”