A Theater Giant Steps Into Retirement

Lucy Gellman | March 2nd, 2020

A Theater Giant Steps Into Retirement

Downtown  |  Arts & Culture  |  Theater


Shubert Director of Education & Outreach Initiatives Kelly Wuzzardo, Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown and librarian Phillip Modeen, and Fisher. Shubert Theater Photo. 

John Fisher has led the Shubert Theatre for almost a quarter of a century. Now he is preparing to take his final bow.  

Friday, Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) President and CEO Chad Whittington announced that Fisher, executive director of the theater, will be stepping into retirement at the end of this year. The announcement followed a candid message that Fisher sent to friends and colleagues earlier this week.

“My decision to leave is both bittersweet and fulfilling,” he wrote Friday. “I have had the honor and privilege to lead this most historic theatre and am very proud of the solid financial foundation we have built for the Shubert. Nothing is more important to me than seeing this legendary theatre off on the right foot towards her next 25 years!”

It marks the end of an era. Fisher joined the Shubert Theatre as its general manager in 1997, after positions with the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia and the Big Apple Circus in New York. At the time, the theater functioned as a not-for-profit owned by the City of New Haven. 

Before Fisher arrived, the theater had gone through a particularly difficult financial stretch. From 1976 to 1984, it was closed to the community entirely. While arts enthusiasts, nonprofit leaders and business developers successfully rallied to reopen it in 1984, it entered the 1990s needing millions of dollars in capital repairs. It wasn’t up to code. At the time, Fisher estimated that it needed between $7 million and $8 million in upgrades. 

But the city didn’t have that kind of funding for the theater. In 2001, Fisher guided the Shubert through the first stages of management from CAPA, a transition from city ownership that took just over a decade to fully complete. During the shift, Fisher remained onboard, working with representatives from CAPA to pitch an economic argument for the theater.

It worked. For several years, the city contributed between $250,000 and $400,000 annually towards the theater. Then in December 2013—the Shubert’s 99th birthday—the city sold it to CAPA for $1. Fisher remained onboard as executive director, as he plans to until the end of this year.

In his tenure, he has worked to grow the theater’s footprint in the community, including partnerships with the city’s Board of Education, Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, and most recently a program for young readers at the Stetson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library.

When it is not home to touring performances, the theater has partnered with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven Ballet, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and Yale Opera among others. In Hartford, Fisher has also been a vocal advocate for the $196,893 that the theater receives in state funding as part of the Performing Theaters Grant line item.

In a press release Friday, Whittington announced that CAPA will be working with a firm to conduct a national search for the theater’s next executive director. The association hopes to appoint that person before the end of this year. Fisher will remain onboard through Dec. 31 as executive director, and then through June 2021 in an advisory capacity.

CAPA representatives suggested that the transition timeline will ensure “a smooth and well-planned transition of the Shubert’s management.” The timing dovetails with the retirement of Fisher’s wife, Liz Fisher, from her position as co-director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

Len Suzio, who has served on the Shubert’s board for 12 of Fisher’s 24 years, praised him for his tenacity and dedication.

“He has a great knowledge of the theater universe and is well respected in New Haven and beyond,” he wrote in a press release Friday. “His stewardship of one of New Haven’s great assets has been vital to the revitalization of New Haven. I am certain he will be around to help continue that process. He will be missed by me and many!"