Marin Theater Company’s Managing Director Meredith Suttles on Regional Theater, NYC and Taking Over During the Pandemic

Meredith Suttles has an easy laugh and bright eyes that belie the scale of the challenge she has faced over the past two years. The pandemic was in full-swing when she stepped into the managing director position at Marin Theater Company (MTC), meaning Suttles took over a company that had closed its doors to in-person audiences. As MTC, along with many theaters across the nation, offered a virtual season and struggled to stay afloat, Suttles moved from New York City to shepherd the company toward reopening to live audiences. With unwavering optimism and two decades of experience on and off stage at renown theater programs, including Soho Repertory Theatre, Theatre Communications Group, New York City Opera, The Public Theater in NYC and TheatreWorks USA, Suttles has not only stabilize MTC, but aims to bring a new vitality and diversity to the stage.

You were in New York City for two decades. How did you find your way to Mill Valley and Marin Theater Company?

I had studied musical theater at University of Michigan then, naturally, moved to New York City to be on Broadway and lived there for many years, moving from performance into development. When I was in New York, people would always ask, are you going to move to L.A.? New York is always a grind, and L.A. has that grind energy, as well. I thought, if I’m making a move, I’m not going to the next level of grind. So I always said, if I move to California I’ll move to the Bay Area. And here I am. In 2021, I moved here, taking the job as Managing Director of MTC. Mill Valley reminds me of where I grew up, in Lansing, Michigan. It has got this small town feel to it. It’s not a big city, but it is not rural and there is a city nearby. It feels homey to me… but there’s no snow, and figuring out the weather here in Marin can be a challenge! One day I’m wearing shorts and the next I’m all bundled up.

You said you started your career on stage. How did you transition to working behind the scenes?

For about a decade I was a performer in New York, but the work was often taking me away from New York on tour. I was looking for opportunities for more stability. I applied for a job at The Public Theater in New York City in patron services and ended up on the development team working with donors. I had done this type of work in college — fundraising, talking to people, talking to alumni — and I had always felt comfortable. I always say development and fundraising finds you, you don’t find it. I eventually became the Director of Development for TheatreWorksUSA. In development I could help support the vision that would create that space for artists, and then it was a natural progression to step into a Managing Director and CEO position. I am passionate about creating spaces for artists to thrive and here I get to support a platform that allows artists to do their best work. 

You arrived at Marin Theater Company in the middle of the pandemic. That must have been challenging?

It was spring of 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, and I said to myself, You know what’s a good idea? Move across the country! (laughs) I landed at MTC during the final production of the theater’s virtual season. We were looking toward reopening, and we did open the in-person season again that fall of 2021. At the time, I was feeling a “Let’s go!” feeling, but with an undercurrent of dread about what was going on in the field at large due to the pandemic. The beauty of theater and theater artists is our hope, an unwavering hope. Marin Theater Company has a national reputation, so I was well aware of the quality of work that was being done here. There was a great foundation and I felt there was such potential and growth opportunity, so that was part of my motivation in taking this job. 

You mentioned dread. Can you describe what specifically was going on in the theater world to cause that dread?

There has been a dearth of talent in theater because people have left certain regions during the pandemic. Here in the Bay Area, given the cost of living and the lack of work, folks ended up moving out of the area. We lost a lot of workforce, including some of the necessary staff to stabilize the organization prior to my arrival. That was, and continues to be, a rebuilding challenge; rebuilding our workforce and capacity, coming in and needing to right size our offerings so we could meet our goals in terms of performance. We realized we can’t do the six productions we’ve always been doing, so we reduced our season to four plays to try to accommodate our staffing. We’ve had to re-shape the way we were doing things, and this is an ongoing theme since I’ve been here: transition. Much of our staff is relatively new, so it’s a very new organization at this point. We are both learning and innovating.

What made you interested in running a regional theater like MTC? 

Part of my history is that I worked for TCG (Theater Communications Group) a national arts service organization. This opened my eyes to the larger theater ecology across the country and gave me an understanding of the impetus for having regional theaters. Of course I love Broadway, but you don’t have to go to Broadway. I love that you can have a high caliber of theater in your backyard. I am blown away by the brilliance of what happens here at Marin Theater Company — the talent, everyone from the actors you see on stage to the set designers. This is a gem, and it’s right here in Mill Valley’s backyard. That is amazing. 

Also, most importantly, MTC is an institution that provides a service to the community, through our educational program of course, but also through the productions providing insight into other worlds and stories. We invite the community into those spaces for continued dialogue and expansion of thought. MTC was built almost 60 years ago as a high quality professional theater in the community here in Marin County. We are getting back into conversation with the community. We want to understand the community’s needs and how MTC can be a cultural institution that supports the growth and sustainability of Mill Valley and Marin. 

What can you tell us about the upcoming season?

We have a very diverse season coming up and I am so excited to share it with the community. There’s everything from classics reimagined to hilariously beautiful cabaret with all kinds of family dysfunction. Each of the four shows have such specialness to them. 

One of our core values at MTC is radical hospitality and we want to be a space that welcomes everyone. You are not going to please everyone, but as a cultural institution it is our job to lead by bringing diverse stories to the stage and bringing diverse folks into our community. We can be a gateway to shift the culture. How are we welcoming diversity and how are we learning from a diversity of people about ways they have not felt welcome in our community? How can we learn to be a more welcoming place? We have an opportunity here to level up. 

The season is also rooted in another of our core values: celebrating the richness of the human experience. As we started reading and assessing it came down to what we could shape to speak to that core value. It is kind of a dream that this season is so representative of that theme. It’s all of our humanity. 

Anything else you would like to share with Marin Magazine’s readership?

I want to invite people to come to MTC. We need you… we want our family back in the building. And don’t just come to MTC. Support your local arts institutions. It has been a difficult time and we are all feeling it. Institutions are going away all over the country, but having strong cultural institutions creates vital communities.