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Nao Tsurumaki steps in as the new executive director of Winter Garden’s Garden Theatre

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For several months, Orlando's theaters have been engaged in a slow-motion game of musical chairs that kicked off with the departure of Orlando Fringe executive director George Wallace. Ever since the Garden Theatre's founding executive director, Alauna Friskics, announced she was replacing Wallace at Fringe (reported in my March 22 column), we've wondered when her successor would be installed. Well, the answer is now, because Nao Tsurumaki steps in to run the Winter Garden gem as of July 10. It's a big step forward, in a journey that has taken a Japanese-born and Orlando-trained arts administrator around the world and up the eastern seaboard, before returning to the town his family considers home.

When I spoke with Tsurumaki on the eve of his appointment's announcement on June 28, he began by sharing some formative experiences from his 1980s childhood that sparked his lifelong passion for performing arts, from attending both Japanese productions of Broadway musicals like Cats and the traditional kabuki theater where his mother worked to stalking the cast member-only doors at Tokyo Disneyland. "I was always the kid who was caught trying to sneak into the backstage area," he says. "I always wanted to see what was behind the curtain. I didn't know what that meant, but I wanted to be in it and stay in it."

That desire led Tsurumaki all the way to Kansas as an exchange student at age 17, and then to Central Florida, where he attended Daytona Beach Community College (now Daytona State College) and worked at Seaside Music Theater. "That was my beginning of doing this for real," he recalls. "I discovered that people actually do this for a living." After graduating from UCF's stage management program and interning with Disney Theatrical's national tour management department in New York, he returned to Florida as company manager (and later general manager) of the Orlando Rep from 2004 to 2011.

Six years ago, Tsurumaki was lured away from Orlando by D.C.'s Kennedy Center, becoming executive director of the Children's Chorus of Washington. "It had more to do with our personal life and choices than professional reasons," he explains. "My wife and I had just gotten married and we wanted to explore and expand our horizons before we had a family." Even so, Tsurumaki says that he always "had every intention of coming back here to Orlando, and being ready to lead an organization of my own." The couple finally returned in 2013 to have their first child, and Tsurumaki took a job at Nemours Children's Hospital, even though he'd "never worked in the health care industry in any capacity."

He also hadn't worked with the Garden Theatre prior to his hiring as executive director, but Tsurumaki says he "paid a lot of attention to its beginning 10 years ago,"and was "so wonderfully surprised by how the theater was thriving artistically and financially" upon his return, saying, "Around the country a lot of prominent regional theaters have closed or gone bankrupt, and this one has thrived." He sees his new leadership as "a really good turning point in my life [and] a wonderful way to come back to my roots as a theater administrator." One thing Tsurumaki doesn't want to disrupt is the "strong sense of family within the staff and board of directors, which is not always seen in nonprofit organizations." Recalling a volunteer who enthusiastically pitched him on upcoming shows as he stood in line for popcorn, he praised the Garden Theatre's "family environment where everybody cares," calling it "one legacy that I would like to carry over to the next decade and beyond."

Garden Theatre's 2017-2018 season (which is now on sale at gardentheatre.org) will proceed as already announced, but "quality, education and outreach" will be Tsurumaki's top priorities going forward: "We want to offer exactly what the community needs, not just what we want to offer them." At the same time, he wants the theater "to be a place where artists that we love and respect can unleash their creativity." Tsurumaki is "looking forward to the dialogue" with producing partners like Beth Marshall, hoping to support "different concepts and methods of storytelling," and excited to "coexist and collaborate" with his fellow area executive directors, with whom he "really feel[s] this sense of community."

"Ultimately I want the best theatrical experience for those who create it, and for the audience," Tsurumaki says. "No matter what show we choose to do, I want the audience to expect a high standard of patron experience from beginning to end, and I would like that kind of trust and reputation to drive a new audience into our theater. ... I just love the potential this theater has, because theater comes in so many different shapes and forms. It isn't limited just to the theater-going experience. How many different ways theater can touch people's lives is just limited by our imagination."

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