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A LAST CURTAIN CALL
GAVIN CAMERON-WEBB GETS READY TO SAY GOODBYE TO BUFFALO'S THEATER SCENE

It's midmorning and the sunlight that burst through his office found Director Gavin Cameron-Webb in a dreadful state. He knew it would happen, just as it had so many times on opening night. No matter how hard he tried, Cameron-Webb would never be able to stave off Opening Night Blues.

"Opening night for directors is like closing night for actors," he explained. "It's supposed to be a celebratory occasion, but you feel dreadful. It's the time that you, the director, say goodbye to the play because you're no longer working with it. You're no longer obsessed by it, consumed by it. It's no longer going to interrupt your sleep or be part of your every waking thought. It's gone."

Very soon this artistic director will be gone, too. After 13 seasons at the Studio Arena Theater, Cameron-Webb announced in November that this season would be his last in Buffalo. Sunday's performance of "Quartet" marks the final production directed by this gentleman Brit.

Cameron-Webb says among the reasons he's leaving is to find more personal time, and to seek more creativity.

"The job -- apart from eviscerating your personal life, which over the years gets more and more burdensome -- prevents one from concentrating on the arts, and I entered this business in the first place to direct plays and not to push paper around the desk or any of the millions of other administrative duties that fall to me to do. So it's time to leave and go back to concentrating on what I love to do, which was creating the art."

Come May, he'll head to Vienna to revive the mobster comedy "Breaking Legs." Next month, he'll watch as wife Jane Page directs "Rounding Third" at Studio. In July, he moves to their home in Denver. But for now, he's reflective. At age 59, he wants to pursue freelance directing, to see his wife, to live his life. Private but polite, he knows one thing for certain. It's time to move on.

"I don't mean to be a loss for words, but essentially I haven't had a personal life here and that's because the job is so all-consuming," he said.

Hits and misses

Cameron-Webb directed some fine art and also championed his share of duds, according to some members of the local theater community.

A subscriber base of 9,000 supports Studio Arena -- down 2,000 in recent years -- a number that more mirrors the area economy than poor play programming, maintained Executive Director Ken Neufeld, who has worked with Cameron-Webb for five years.

"We've had a drop in subscriptions during the 13 years, but we've been able to hold on to a very large subscriber base as compared to other cities of our size," Neufeld said.

Look at the renewal rate, Neufeld insisted. A season's success is judged by the patron renewal rate.

"The industry standard is 65 to 75 percent," Neufeld said. "The last two years, Studio Arena has done 85 percent."

At least one voice in Buffalo's theater community did find a problem with Studio Arena's offerings.

"I've seen Gavin do some wonderful, wonderful stuff," said Patrick Fagan, former president of Shea's Performing Arts Center. "I see some other stuff where I sit there and wonder what's happening."

Fagan points to earlier this season.

"Irish Classical is doing 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' and what is Studio doing?" he asked. " 'A Thousand Clowns.'

"Now the language is rough, the theme is really rough and here you have the 200-seat professional theater doing something that in my mind should have been done (at Studio Arena). The risk was great, but you can do one of those a year and satisfy someone's fix for hard-hitting, cutting-edge theater. I haven't seen that with Studio."

There were more than several bright spots at Studio Arena under Cameron-Webb, said Fagan.

" 'Twelve Angry Men' was an incredible production, and the five-year retrospective of the Tennessee Williams plays was just wonderful. That was great theater, and that's what theaters have to do.

"He worked within the budget he had," Fagan continued. "The idea to do Buffalo plays is not bad, but I think that at some point you have to make a change, work in some new works. By and large I give him pretty good marks."

Making a difference

Cameron-Webb commissioned plays that he believed would make a difference in the community.

Tom Dudzick became a go-to playwright, the homegrown writer who turned his childhood memories into a stage trilogy that includes "Over the Tavern," "King O' the Moon: Over the Tavern Part II" and "Lake Effect: Over the Tavern Part III." Dudzick's "Hail Mary" kicked off the current season.

"Gavin's been a good sounding board," said Dudzick. "He knows theater backwards and forwards. He knows play structure. He is just so friendly and welcoming. He also is willing to do whatever it takes to help with the project."

Change in the winds

Cameron-Webb's departure mirrors a change in the regional theater movement, one that started about two decades ago, according to Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a theater service organization in Manhattan.

"The role of the artistic director in theater has radically changed over the last 20 to 30 years," Cameron said by phone from his Manhattan office. "As the complexities of what it means to run an organization have increased, as theater leaders now have to think differently about advocacy, about fund raising, about marketing, about public relations -- that substantially has invaded the time that most artistic directors can give to the institution artistically.

In a perfect world, Cameron-Webb would have built a second stage and created a theater center that could offer a greater variety of work. He looks back at Studio Arena's second theater -- called Studio Too! -- as a time of excitement and exhilaration. The project, devoted to more adventurous productions at the Pfeifer Theatre across Main Street -- survived but a few seasons in the late '90s.

The biggest heartbreak, however, was the inability to bring the Western New York audience Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen and other "great dramatic writers of the past 2,000 years."

"But we simply did not have the resources to do so," he said.

What will he miss most?

"I am going to miss the sound of an audience enjoying themselves," he said. "As a guest director, you never hear that, because you leave on opening night. There's no sound like it. It's just a fabulous feeling."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com