In many successful small nonprofits, one individual winds up being the organization's public face. At Durham's Common Ground Theatre, that's been Rachel Klem. She founded the intimate performance space off Hillsborough Road in 2005 with Michelle Byars as a vital and affordable home for theater groups.
The community responded; within a year of its opening, Common Ground was in the black. Its reputation since as a haven for emerging and itinerant theater and comedy troupes, solo artists and musicians—those most affected by the shortage of performance spaces in the region—earned the venue an Indies Arts Award in 2009.
Now, after hosting more than 300 productions, Klem is making her exit, leaving Common Ground's management in new hands. On Jan. 1, 2014, as the theater enters its 10th year, Devra Thomas will become its executive director and assume responsibility for the building's lease.
"Endings are always hard," Klem says. But when she began working as acting coach at N.C. State in January, she realized she couldn't continue doing both by herself. Bringing in a manager for day-to-day operations proved "a Band-Aid solution that wasn't really working. I still had the major responsibility; my name was on the lease." By July, Klem realized she had to let go.
"I held on because I believed in Common Ground and I love it," she says. "That dream was a hard part to let go of. And I feel responsible to the community, and the people who use it and are committed to it; if it closed, that would leave a hole."
In early September, Klem informed theater insiders that she was looking for a replacement.
"When I heard the position was open, my initial thought was, 'Am I ready for this?'" Thomas says. "My second thought was, 'I'd hate for Common Ground to be no more.' And my third thought was, 'Well, why not?'"
Thomas is a familiar name to the area's theater community. Theater manager at Deep Dish Theater Company since 2007, she's a member of the Orange County Arts Commission and has worked at other theater groups around the Triangle.
During her tenure at Deep Dish, the theater's subscriber base grew by 20 percent each year—defying the national trend over the same period. In May, she informed the Deep Dish board that she would leave, anticipating the completion of her graduate degree in arts management at Goucher College in Baltimore next spring.
It didn't take Klem long to choose her. Citing Thomas' experience as a theater manager and her academic work in management, Klem says, "Those two things alone were more than I ever went into this endeavor with. And her passion is in producing and administration, as opposed to being an actor or director who would just be doing the administrative stuff to support their other work."
Paul Frellick, Deep Dish's founder and artistic director, concurs. "Devra's track record with Deep Dish has been to take on jobs that exceed her experience and then grow into them in astonishingly little time and promptly surpass all expectations."
Keenly interested in bringing more women into theatrical management roles, Thomas also co-founded Ladies of Triangle Theater, a regional arts activism group.
"It's wonderful to see Common Ground's leadership pass from one woman steeped in Triangle theater practice and community building to another," says Jules Odendahl-James, visiting lecturer and resident dramaturg at Duke University's theater studies department. "It's a sign that women continue to play integral leadership roles in the Triangle's theater community."
The rest of 2013 is fully booked, and productions are starting to fill the calendar for 2014. Common Ground will maintain its current programs, including its summer camps, and to ensure continuity, Klem will remain on the theater's board. But in January, the lease goes in Thomas' name and the board will appoint her executive director.
"We need champions for the business side of the arts," Klem says. "Arts managers are the unsung heroes of our community; they tend to get no credit whatsoever. But they're the ones that are going to save the arts if the arts are to be saved.
"That's why I feel so lucky that Devra is the one that's stepping up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Giving ground."