By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The dramatic theatre news of the day comes from the Citadel: executive director Penny Ritco has announced she’s leaving the company after 13 years.
One of the country’s most accomplished, astute, and respected theatre leaders, Ritco will stay on at the Citadel through a transition period, through summer and into fall, as the search begins for a replacement in the demanding ED job at the helm of a 51-year-old company with a $12 million a year budget.
The Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran, who’s been working with Ritco now for nearly a year, paid tribute to her “visionary leadership. “She believes so fully in this company, this city, and the transformative power of art, and she has worked tirelessly to ensure the Citadel is a place where art can thrive. ” Board president Sheila Witwicky says “Penny has played a critical role in ensuring the Citadel’s ongoing success and vitality in our community.”
And it hasn’t been easy. At Edmonton’s largest playhouse, the challenges and artistic accomplishments of the last 13 years — 12 of them in tandem with former artistic director Bob Baker — have been immense. The recessionary downturn with all its implications for sponsorships, ticket sales, frozen or diminishing grants, a large and aging facility to run and renovate notwithstanding, the indefatigable Ritco has demonstrated huge energy and commitment to making the shows happen.
The innovative Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre Program, the Citadel’s restructured Academy and Young Company, the re-imagining of the Rice Theatre as a cabaret venue, the partnerships with Catalyst and Rapid Fire Theatre — they all happened under Ritco’s executive directorship. And in the annals of Canadian theatre, notoriously fractious in the tensions between the artistic and administrative sides of theatre, the Baker-Ritco partnership proved unusually durable and harmonious.
“Thirteen years of being ON seven days a week, a building to run, people, it’s a huge responsibility,” says Ritco. “Theatre is changing. And I’d like to be part of creating and producing its new forms. Theatre is more and more artist-led..And they need someone to teach them how to be viable.”
” If there’s a place for me (in that), in a role that isn’t quite as all-consuming….” says Ritco, a graduate of the National Theatre School whose entry point into theatre was as a stage manager, producer and tour manager before she went into TV and film at the National Film Board, Great North Productions, and Alliance Atlantis. The Citadel job, which reunited Ritco with Baker — they met when he was acting and she was stage managing at Stratford — brought Ritco back to her first love. “Live theatre,” she declares firmly, “is where my heart is.”
The sheer size of the Citadel operation is exhausting. “Keeping the facility open means millions that never get put into the art,” Ritco sighs. “Artists have to find money and audience in order to create…. Today our payroll was for more than 200 people; I know towns that aren’t that big! The amount of money we have to generate on a daily basis in phenomenal! It’s a big job.”
“I don’t know if I’m a creator. But I’ve always been an enabler,” Ritco says, and laughs. “I need to enable some other things than bricks and mortar.”
Typically, Ritco has figured out the optimum theatre logistics for her exit, which won’t happen before October at least. “Even if the new executive director starts in the summer it will be a learning curve for them. And then, in September when Daryl is in rehearsal for Shakespeare in Love, and we move into (the complications) of Hadestown (a pre-Broadway collaboration with an American team of creators), I’ll be there to help the new executive director, and start preparations for the 2018-2019 season….”
Ritco isn’t looking for another version of her job at a different company. “I haven’t been made to feel unwelcome by anyone; I get on like a house on fire with Daryl…. I just need to step off for a minute to see what I want to do next. If anything.” (Laughter). It will be something. I just don’t know what.”
“I think this is right. Because I feel good. And that is how I would like to leave, not tired or grumpier. Or losing my ability to work for 16 hours day!”