Tarell Alvin McCraney, an acclaimed playwright who won an Oscar for writing the story that became the 2016 film “Moonlight,” has been named the next artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse, a prominent nonprofit theater in Los Angeles.
The Geffen, like many regional theaters in the United States, has been hit by a downturn in the field — as of this spring, its subscriptions were 40 percent below prepandemic levels. But it was among the more innovative theater companies when theaters were closed during the pandemic, producing some popular virtual shows, and it is now in better shape than many.
McCraney, 42, said he was fully aware of the crisis facing the field, which he said was the impetus for him to decide to step into leadership.
“We’re at a place where, if I really love this, if I really want to effect change, I have to get in,” he said. “I can’t just sit on the sidelines. Across entertainment and across the arts there is a strong shift for everybody. Everybody is feeling this new something — that something else is coming — and I could wade through it, or I could be helpful by being in leadership.”
McCraney, an important figure in the American theatrical landscape, won a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2013, and he recently wrapped up six years as chairman of the influential playwriting program at Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama. He is also a member of the ensemble at Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, and an associate artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain.
His play “Choir Boy,” about a gay adolescent at an elite prep school, was staged on Broadway in 2019 and has been performed in theaters around the country, including at the Geffen. Among his other plays are “The Brothers Size” (a part of his “Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy), which has been discussed for a possible Broadway production, and “Head of Passes.”
“Moonlight” was adapted from a script McCraney wrote called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”; in 2017 he and Barry Jenkins shared the Academy Award for adapted screenplay.
McCraney said he would keep writing his own work, for the Geffen and for other theaters, even as he assumes this new role, in which he will choose the productions staged at the Geffen and oversee their artistic development.
Stepping into a leadership role, he added, is not as much of a swerve as it might seem. “It’s been something that’s been with me for a long time,” he said. “As a young person in Miami, I always imagined I would run the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which has been shuttered for years.”
The Geffen, founded in 1995, has two stages — the 512-seat Gil Cates Theater and the 149-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. The Geffen has 45 full-time staffers (and another 150 part-timers) and a $12 million annual budget. McCraney succeeds Matt Shakman as artistic director; Gil Cates Jr., whose father founded the theater, serves as its executive director and chief executive.
McCraney currently lives in Miami, which is where he grew up; he said he would relocate to Los Angeles. He has worked in Los Angeles, not only on “Moonlight,” but also in the writers room for the television show “David Makes Man,” and for a variety of other projects, including a production of “Head of Passes” at the neighboring Center Theater Group.
“Los Angeles is a city that is reminiscent of Miami,” he said, “and it has a theater scene that is often thought of as secondary, but I always thought it had a rich community of artists who were hybrid, and that’s exciting for me to connect to folks who have those multi-hyphenate careers.”
Building stronger relationships with U.C.L.A., which is across the street from the Geffen, will be among his priorities, he said, as well as nourishing playwrights in a way that he felt nourished by nonprofit theaters early in his career.
“We don’t necessarily take care of our artists,” he said. “I want to be more intentional about that.”