In a press release announcing her new job, Cynthia Fuhrman called it a “moment of kismet.” In an interview with Oregon ArtsWatch, she summed up the moment by saying, “When the universe delivers, you have to say ‘yes.’”
The moment has led Fuhrman to say yes to a new job as a consultant and to leave Portland Center Stage, where she’s served as managing director since 2017.
The move is another in a growing series of top leadership changes in Portland-area theater – with transitions already in progress at Artists Repertory Theater, Portland Actors Conservatory, Bag & Baggage, and Corrib Theatre. And while it’s a logical extension of Fuhrman’s experience and expertise with the national theater industry, it’s still something of a shock considering how strongly identified her career has been with PCS, dating back to the birth of the company in 1988.
“I was telling (PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf) this morning, I think everyone thought I would just die in my chair there,” Fuhrman said, talking by phone the day after announcing that she’ll leave next month to join the Tom O’Connor Consulting Group. As vice president in charge of the company’s executive search services, she’ll help the New York-based firm find the next cohort of arts leaders amid a time of widespread social and generational change.
Though the consulting offer came only recently, Fuhrman said the idea of making a career change had been germinating for a few years, initially planted with the departure of former PCS artistic director Chris Coleman.
“When Chris left, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s going on to another act in his life. Do I have another act in me?’ So I started thinking: If I didn’t work here, what would I do?”
Not surprisingly, head-hunters of the sort she’s about to become already were approaching her about jobs with other theaters. “But I already had the best job as a managing director,” she said. “Marissa arrived, and I loved working with her. I love PCS. I love living in Portland. So I always said, ‘No, I’m not interested.’”
But as happened with so many people, the past two years of pandemic shifted her perspectives. Part of shepherding PCS through the crisis meant communicating even more regularly and thoroughly with colleagues at other organizations, sharing resources, information, strategies.
“It pulls you up to thinking differently,” she said. “It took me into a bigger national focus. My work became more external and about advocacy. It made me think about the field nationally and about what was changing – both because of the pandemic and the racial reckoning our society’s been going through.”
Fuhrman serves on the board of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), the country’s largest professional theater association. She said that, although theater has been better on diversity and equity issues than some other cultural fields, “the LORT world is still majority white and majority male. In the theater, we think of ourselves as agents of societal change; we’re putting those issues forward all the time in the stories we put onstage. But in our organizational structures we haven’t made those changes as fast.”
Meanwhile, Fuhrman had known Tom O’Connor as a theater-industry colleague: He’d been director of marketing and audience development for New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company during the years Fuhrman held a similar post at PCS. “I’d seen his company grow since he left the Roundabout, and so around the holidays, when this job opening popped up with him beefing up the search division, I was intrigued: What would it be like to have a role in finding that new generation of leaders? So I called him, we had a few really good conversations and I decided to put my hat in the ring.”
The result suits Fuhrman’s interests and inclinations. “I get to live in Portland and still be engaged in the field nationally. … To actually have some impact on this transition to a new idea of what leadership looks like is really exciting. And one of my priorities is to stay engaged in the Portland arts community. Where I can support and help, I want to do that.”
All the same, with someone as skilled and beloved as Fuhrman changing roles, it marks the end of an era.
“It’s sad in the sense that we all love Cynthia dearly and wish that we could work with her forever,” said Sharon Martell, PCS director of marketing and communications. “But it’s also mixed with a real sense of excitement and pride for her as she makes this career transition. She’s done so much to create a strong, stable theater here at PCS and it’s fitting that she would move to a position where she’s able to continue to manifest that, not just for one arts organization, but for many. Plus, she’ll still remain in Portland and we know she’ll always be a regular at PCS!”
After all, Fuhrman has left before. Her career has wound in and out of Portland and PCS for decades.
“The summer I finished my master’s degree, at Southern Oregon State College, I was living in Ashland, didn’t have a job and had no clue what I wanted to do,” she recalled in a 2018 interview with Artslandia and Oregon ArtsWatch. “The way I occupied myself that summer was going to different park talks at the festival where they’d have staff members outside the Lizzy (the Elizabethan Stage) talk about what they do. There was a guy talking about writing press releases, working with the press when they visited, occasionally teaching a class about Shakespeare. I thought, ‘I could do all those things.’ Even though I’d been a theater fan it never occurred to me there were jobs in theater other than being an actor or making costumes. Then he mentioned that he was moving at the end of the summer and I thought, ‘Oh. Job opening!’“
Fuhrman joined the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an intern and stayed on until taking a job with StageWest in western Massachusetts. But she was soon lured back to Oregon when OSF enlisted her to join a small group sent to Portland in 1988 to start a satellite company – which later became the fully independent Portland Center Stage. After a decade, she left amid the dot-com boom to help lead a digital advertising start-up, then moved on to marketing and communications posts at Seattle Repertory Theater and the City of Portland. Not long after PCS moved to its current Armory home, she returned to the fold as marketing and PR director, then chief operating officer, then managing director. Meanwhile, she’s in her second stint on the board of the national service organization Theatre Communications Group, as well as the LORT board.
Asked what she considers the greatest accomplishments of her time with PCS – though she later cites a major grant she secured from the Wallace Foundation and the successful transition between Coleman and Wolf as artistic directors – her instant response was “starting the company.
“I know it’s old news now, but that was such an exciting time. There were six or seven of us who arrived in May of ’88 and took over an office in the PCPA (Portland Center for the Performing Arts) that had nothing but a few chairs, a couple of phones and one computer.” They had to set up a scene shop, program and cast a season of shows, sell tickets and sponsorships, etc. “By November, we opened as one of the 20 largest theater companies in the country. Granted, we had the support and the brand identity of OSF. But it was kind of amazing, and so much fun! That’s always going to be a highlight.”
Fuhrman conceded that the timing of this latest move wasn’t quite ideal, with the pandemic not yet fully in the rear view. But she finds optimism in the theater’s sales numbers between last year’s return to staging and the rise of the omicron variant that dented audience confidence again last fall.
“We were very fortunate. We were able to get a good deal of relief money and were able to stay in the black that first year. It feels like we’ll end this year in the black, too. The big question is how quickly do we launch a full season. If we come back with an eight-to-10 show season, will the audiences come back with us? I think the bones are there. Marissa and her team have a great plan, and in April I think will announce a really interesting year. It’s just a matter of whether the audiences will come.
“But one of the reasons I feel comfortable about leaving is that the team there is so creative, so smart and committed and flexible. They’re gonna be great – so well suited to bring things back to the old level and beyond.”