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New Playhouse board president is an old hand at theater magic

The new leader of La Jolla Playhouse is a man who takes San Diego’s role in the theater community seriously.

Ralph Bryan was named president of the Playhouse’s board of trustees in February, replacing Steven Strauss. Bryan and the seven others named to the board will serve in a volunteer capacity to oversee all aspects of the Playhouse’s operation except for artistic direction, including finances, fund-raising and outreach.

Bryan has worked as an investment officer and senior portfolio manager at Wachovia Securities since 1999. He is the senior partner in a team that manages more than $400 million in personal and endowment assets. He said working for the Playhouse will be a welcome change of pace.

“I’m a money manager for my profession, so this is a great opportunity to be part of something creative,” Bryan said. “San Diego has really become one of the preeminent areas for the birth of theater, with the Playhouse, the Old Globe and the Rep. It’s unbelievable. I’m just proud to be a part of that and I take that responsibility very seriously.”

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He grew up in Louisville, Ky., attended high school in Connecticut and came to La Jolla in 1986 to attend UCSD, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and minored in economics.

For the last three years, Bryan chaired the Playhouse’s Annual Fund Campaign, which raised more than $12 million in donations over that time. He said he would continue to work to make the Playhouse a welcoming place for potential donors.

“As I was chairing the annual (campaign), I realized that anyone who writes a check, whether it’s for $10 or for $100,000, that person is saying that they really want more involvement,” Bryan said.

That realization motivated Bryan to create a system of several different donor levels. Anyone who donates any money at all to the Playhouse is now invited to at least one special event where donors can get behind-the-scenes looks at Playhouse productions. Donors who give more than $1,000 in a year, of which there are more than 150, become part of a special group called the Inner Circle and are invited to the house for cocktail parties with the creative teams behind Playhouse productions.

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“They can come see what goes on behind the scenes and, if they want, they can ask someone from a show, ‘What were you envisioning when you designed that set?’ ” Bryan said. “We want to make it a great place to be a donor. There are over 2,000 individual donors to the Playhouse and the renewal rate is very high. We’re trying to make it a great experience and will continue doing that.”

Bryan’s other main goals in his new capacity include building up a larger permanent endowment for the Playhouse. Its current endowment is in the $5 million to $6 million range, but Bryan said it needs to be significantly larger.

“It needs to be larger in order for us to continue to take risks on the art,” Bryan said. “We use equity actors a lot, we cast all over the country and we have to pay for housing when they’re here. Housing costs are spiraling up and we have to figure out a way to solve that problem long term.”

Bryan’s wife of 14 years sits on the board at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts, and he counts photography as one of his personal interests. He is also an athlete who has competed in several triathalons. He recently completed a Half Ironman, a race that lasts about six hours. Bryan said he probably wouldn’t compete in a race that long this year because he hasn’t had sufficient time to train.

“For the Half Ironman, I was training 10 to 12 hours a week,” he said. “I’ll probably do a couple shorter races called sprints, where you can get away with just training two to six hours per week.”

Bryan said he is looking forward to the Playhouse’s upcoming season, which includes the first staging of “Zhivago” as a Broadway musical. In 2007, the Playhouse will stage the world premiere of “The Farnsworth Invention.”

“This season has some risk to it, which we like,” he said. “We want to push the envelope of American theater.”

The other newly appointed members to the Playhouse board of trustees include: David Dolgen, a co-principle of a real estate investment company; LaVonnya Fisher, a bilingual elementary school teacher at Central Elementary; Pauline Foster, an active volunteer with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Charmaine Kaplan, philanthropist; Etran Chane McComic, an active participant in UCSD’s International Advisory Board; Mary Walshok, Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Programs at UCSD; and Dianne York-Goldman, co-owner of La Jolla Spa MD.

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