Kristy Edmunds at UCLA Royce Hall in Westwood. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
When David Sefton resigned as the executive and artistic director of UCLA Live at the end of the 2009-10 season, he complained that excessive budget cuts would afford him little opportunity to keep the campus' venturesome performance series relevant. The deciding factor was the university's elimination of the high-profile and hugely valuable International Theatre Festival that Sefton had established. With generic programming in its stead, UCLA overnight got the reputation for provincialism, eclipsed in scope and sophistication by the programs at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the smaller UC Santa Barbara.
But in 2011, UCLA appointed Kristy Edmunds to replace Sefton and just as suddenly overturned that reputation. Edmunds has had long-term relationships with many of the same progressive artists — such as theater and opera director Robert Wilson, composer Philip Glass and performance artist Laurie Anderson — whom Sefton championed. On Friday night, Edmunds opened her first season at UCLA with a production in Royce Hall of Eugène Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" by Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, thus heralding the return of international theater, if not the festival.
But make no mistake. Edmunds, who has headed the Melbourne Festival in Australia and the Park Avenue Armory in New York, does not intend to fall into the same traps that made Sefton unpopular with the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture, which oversees the campus performance program. Even though her first season is notable for its lowering the quotient of mainstream material perhaps even further than Sefton had, she is banking on making the work feel far more UCLA-centric. Edmunds is already involving the vast university community and resources as well as the broader arts community at large with the advent of three-year residencies and shorter fellowships that will go to both major and emerging artists. And she hasn't excluded such popular speakers as David Sedaris.
I first visited Edmunds in her office behind Royce Hall in the spring. Moving crates lined the walls, and she seemed in continual motion, commuting between Manhattan and L.A., buzzing around the campus and around town. She had little time to put together a season and everything to learn about her new home.
"When I started, I was working at lightning speed," she says. "There was nothing, no inherited nothing, just the blinking cursor. But you don't walk into things and have absolutely no idea about what you want to do."
Earlier this month, we met again. She had finally unpacked and moved full time to L.A. with her two young sons and her partner, Australian dancer and choreographer Ros Warby. The 47-year-old Edmunds is friendly, focused and intense. She laughs easily, her laughs punctuating elaborately structured sentences and a formidably formal vocabulary. With her first season about to begin and scheduling for 2013-14 in full swing, she appears more, not less, of a whirlwind for what is essentially a one-woman show with only a small support staff. Yet she emanates the centered, curious calm of someone who manages her time closely.
Edmunds emphasizes that UCLA is back in the picture. The first sign of that, she notes, was when she was in discussion for the job, "because I didn't want to come in and have it be, so here's a person with a certain reputation who's here to close down the shop."
"I always look at resources and expectations to see if they are in any form of alignment," she adds. "And rarely are they. But the other part of those resources, aside from direct financial contribution, is will, the will for art forms to be able to find footing, find an audience and thrive as part of the ethos of what this university is. Of that I have no question."
This means a return to significant and adventurous programming, she says, with an annual budget of nearly $3 million for presenting. "And while it's nowhere near the depth and scale that I'd love," Edmunds says with a sigh, "it's definitely a significant start, if not yet on the level that UCLA previously enjoyed." Sefton had been quoted as saying that he worked with around $9 million, but Edmunds said that was a misleading figure for comparison, because he was including significant operating costs and she was talking only about programming.
What's new with Edmunds is her hands-on development of major projects and her compulsion to bring students and the wider university community into art making. This impulse comes from her own background, having begun as a filmmaker and visual artist from the Pacific Northwest who took a job at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon in her early 20s and made it her business to begin, as she puts it, building a bridge between the artistic community and the institution.