L.A.’s oldest theater group names first Black director

By Darlene Donloe

Contgributing Writer

For the first time in its 61-year history, Theatre West, the oldest continually running professional theater company in Los Angeles, has installed a Black man as its managing director.

Eric W. Reid, a 20-year theater veteran, recently took the reins and is eager to put his stamp on his new position. The magnitude of his appointment isn’t lost on the Baltimore native.

Asked if he finds it sad that in 2023 his appointment is still considered a big deal, Reid, who came to Los Angeles from San Francisco six years ago, was quick to brush it off.

“The reality is, it is a big deal,” he said. “Whether we consider it or not. To think it’s sad is an emotional response. It’s a big deal that traditionally white institutions, for them to evolve they have to show examples of installing leadership positions that speak to the voices of color. 

“Money talks. We’ve had an impact culturally,” he added. “Now, it’s financial. If you want to attract ticket buyers, then you better speak to the people buying the tickets. We’ve always had the culture. Now they want our dollars.”

Reid, 50, who has an easy-going personality and an infectious, energetic enthusiasm for theater, admits that it means a lot to him personally to be the “first,” but he said he can’t “get distracted by that.”

“There is a job to do,” he said. “Theater is evolving. People of color are becoming more valued in our society. Post COVID and George Floyd, our voices are even more important. 

“It’s refreshing that it’s being recognized,” he added. “Let’s not even discuss whether they had any women. For some reason, when people think about people of color, they think of Black people. There are other people of color. Yes, I’m the first African American. But in my history, I have always created my own thing.”

Before becoming the managing director at Theatre West, a membership collective of actors, playwrights, directors and technicians, Reid, an actor, director, playwright and theater producer, was the founder and executive director of Theater MadCap in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its mission was to cultivate original works by minority artists. From 2007 to 2017, the theater company produced more than 50 original plays by women and minority writers.

Reid, who at one time was the audience services coordinator at the Greenway Court Theater, is known for his dedication and commitment to supporting local theater and minority artists. He is most proud of creating and curating performance spaces so that Black and brown voices can be heard.

“When you think about the contributions to the American culture, I don’t know that there is a group that has had a bigger impact on our cultural identity than Black and brown voices,” said Reid, a father of one and grandfather of two. “We haven’t figured out a formula to have that recognized.

“The reason we are not recognized is America’s white guilt surrounding slavery,” he added. “To give us recognition seems like it takes away from their contributions. Instead of it being a collective effort to add to American culture, that’s where it gets difficult. 

“Don’t try to change America’s mind, just create our own gravitational pull. We’re not looking for their approval — we have it for ourselves. We’ve contributed to everything. We’re in the recipe. You take us out, that dish doesn’t work.”

Leading a theater is nothing new for Reid who has been doing so for many years.

“I love doing this,” he said. “I love taking an institution and giving it financial and cultural stability. There is an artistic board that picks the programming. I get to have a voice as to whether or not it gets financing. If the programming doesn’t reflect the community, we will have to rethink this.”

In his new role, Reid will look at all finances from the grants, plus individual donations, membership dues and ticket sales.

“I distribute it and budget for it for our season,” he said. “Through the grants, we have to make sure we are culturally vibrant. We have 134 dues-paying members, a unique model in Los Angeles. I make sure financially we can get funds to what is culturally able to generate new works from minority voices.”

Reid’s plans include stabilizing Theatre West, whose alumni include Ray Bradbury, Beau Bridges, Richard Dreyfuss, Sally Field, Martin Landau, Jack Nicholson, Carroll O’Connor and Paul Winfield.

The Hollywood-based Theatre West has produced more than 300 plays and musicals. Of these plays, nearly 70% are original works developed in its workshops and many have led to Broadway, regional tours and feature films including “A Bronx Tale” by Chazz Palminteri; “A Very Brady Musical” by Lloyd Schwartz and Hope Juber; “Our Man in Santiago” by Mark Wilding that transferred to off-Broadway in fall 2022; and the co-production of “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground,” which went to Broadway in 2023.

With high hopes in tow, Reid wants to effect change.

“An audience has an appetite for live experiences,” he said. “I’m trying to guide us to having intimate experiences with each other.”

Reid’s decision to work at Theatre West was the venue’s “history of wonderful work.”

“They won me over,” he said. “They were serious about change. They understood that they needed to move forward and be more relevant. I want us to be on the cutting edge. I want us to be in touch with the needs of our community and be mindful of the conversations we have with each other. 

“What we want to put on stage is ultimately and naturally important,” he added. “How do we use this venue where those voices are heard immediately?”

While he doesn’t know the programming schedule for Theatre West yet, Reid does know that the company is going to refurbish its infrastructure.

“We’re going through a psychological shift — changing the building itself,” he said. “We’re updating our membership to make it more robust. We’re bringing in teaching artists. We will have something called the West Best — a showcase of our members’ work. We want to create great producers. We are producing artists.”

When Reid talks about theater, there’s a joy that escapes, indicating he’s where he’s supposed to be.

He remembers lovingly, his grandmother, who was an educator, taking him to Baltimore to watch his first play, “Purlie Victorious.”

“It felt like a major event,” he said. “I felt special. People were dressed up and pridefully taking their seats. But my love for theater came later in my life. I started acting in my late 20s. I loved that my grandmother always took me. The seed was planted early.”

When it comes to theater, Reid loves that it’s “artsy and intimate.”

“Theater made people of color have more than one dimension and one circumstance,” he said. “I like August Wilson and James Baldwin. Their voices were unique and vibrant. Their stories feel like home. I could sit in a theater and feel like I’m in my living room hearing my uncles talk.”

Surprisingly, unlike some “artsy” folk who consider Broadway as the pinnacle of theater, Reid is not enamored with the Great White Way.

“Broadway is big, commercial theater,” he said. “I like smaller, more intimate pieces. Broadway is not my goal. My goal is to tell the story the best I can. I want it to be successful. There are so many fantastic artists here. I’m good where I am.”

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.