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In his calm hands

Terrence Dwyer's job is to make OCPAC fulfill its lofty ambitions.

September 13, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Terrence Dwyer's new job as president and chief operating officer of the Orange County Performing Arts Center comes with a huge portfolio and a small, nondescript office with no view.

The lack of flash in the windowless work space he's occupied at the back of the center's old wing since April may reflect his understated manner, his preference for getting out and around in the community -- or simply a glut of responsibilities that leave scant time for interior decorating.

Dwyer, 51, leads an institution in planned tumult -- a potentially creative upheaval that, if managed adroitly, could enhance an already productive patch of cultural turf in Costa Mesa.

An extended moment of opportunity begins Friday with the opening of the $200-million, 2,002-seat Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The new wing also includes the 500-seat Samueli Theater and fronts an outdoor plaza conceived as a performance venue and social hub unto itself. The project's purpose is to upgrade acoustics and intimacy for classical music, and to expand programming possibilities after years of squeezed scheduling in the original, 2,994-seat Segerstrom Hall. Including South Coast Repertory next door, Costa Mesa's performing arts district now has seven stages that seat 6,629 patrons -- compared with five venues that seat 8,448 at the L.A. Music Center.

Dwyer grew up in Moorestown, N.J., and got into the arts as a high school senior because he wanted to become better acquainted with the girl who was co-directing the school's production of "You Can't Take It With You." His biggest jobs until now were serving as managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse and Houston's Alley Theatre, much smaller and more narrowly focused institutions.

With the help of the paid staff of 114 he leads, and the volunteer board he answers to, he must launch OCPAC's new venues in a way that creates excited first impressions and a lasting buzz. He must persuade big-ticket donors to fill the new wing's potentially troublesome $49-million gap in construction funding -- a sum needed to ensure that the center can easily swing about $5 million in annual interest payments on bonds it issued to ensure the building's completion. Meanwhile, he's responsible for raising an additional $9 million a year or more to meet the increased operating expenses of an organization whose budget is expected to leap from $36 million to $50 million in the coming season. Beyond these fiscal challenges, he must oversee the booking and selling of scores of events each year.

"It's what attracted me to the job," says Dwyer, who has settled in Newport Beach with wife, Amy Carson-Dwyer, and their 8-year-old daughter, Claire. "This institution has great ambitions and is taking on a huge amount. People are motivated to work extremely hard and accomplish great things."

Low-key manner

If OCPAC's board thought this moment called for a Barnum of the arts -- an expansive, spotlight-grabbing type like Mark Taper Forum founder Gordon Davidson or the L.A. Philharmonic's former general director, Ernest Fleischmann -- it probably would have looked elsewhere. Dwyer, who has a three-year contract at a salary the center won't disclose, is an uncommonly self-contained man, his enthusiasm spiking most noticeably when he's talking about favorite things he's seen on stage.

He tends to take long pauses before he speaks, while sitting with knees crossed and hands folded as if in prayer. The posture and manner call to mind an earnest parish priest; "communication" and "collaboration" keep surfacing as his soft-voiced watchwords.

Early on, says Michael Gordon, the center's chairman, some people around the organization were concerned that Dwyer's reserve reflected a lack of take-charge vigor. But Gordon and others say there's fire and drive under the mild exterior: "He's not flashy, he's deliberate, he doesn't shoot from the hip and try to give answers when he hasn't really thought them out," Gordon says. "The first couple of months some people thought he wasn't doing very much, but I was delighted to see he was taking time to understand and learn before taking action."

"He's a type A personality -- internally," says Ted Cranston, a former La Jolla Playhouse board chairman. "He's quiet and thoughtful and maybe circumspect in his language, but I think he's as driven as a person can be."

Dwyer succeeds Jerry E. Mandel, an outgoing, ever-upbeat fundraising pro who arrived in 1997 without an arts-management background. As he approached retirement age, Mandel decided to step down so the expanded center could debut with a new president in place. This time, says Roger Kirwan, co-chair of the fundraising campaign for the new wing, "we needed a fundraiser who was an artist, or an artist who was a fundraiser." He thinks Dwyer fits the bill, bringing "a nice self-confidence without any arrogance."

Track record

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