Lisa Mallette, the executive artistic director at City Lights Theater, says she fell into her role after helping out a colleague in the summer of 2001. Almost 12 years later, she ended up staying and has helped produce many shows, including the popular Jesus Christ Superstar, which sold out every night. We met with Mallette to discuss highlights of her career at the theater, upcoming shows she’s looking forward to and some of her favorite restaurants in downtown San Jose.

Lisa Mallette
Occupation: Executive artistic director at City Lights Theater

How long have you lived/worked in San Jose?
I have worked here for 12 years. I don’t live in San Jose though—I live in San Mateo. I’ve worked in the South Bay and other theater companies in the past but now I’m here at City Lights and I really love it.

How did you find out about City Lights?

Back in the summer of 2001, a friend of mine was taking over the artistic director and he was looking for a little help and a little advice. My intention at the beginning was to come in and see if I could give some advice or point certain parts of the organization in another direction. I just never left. I wasn’t looking for this job. I got hooked because the people are so charming and the work is good. The organization has changed a lot in the last decade and it’s grown quite a bit. I can’t imagine stepping away from it.

What got you interested in theater work and why?
It was in high school. I was into music, I sang in the choir and played the flute. … I ended up going to a theater conservatory instead of college. Right out of high school, I went the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria and right after that, I moved to New York and attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. I’m really an actor first, but I find that theater is so collaborative and knowing all the different sides of how it’s put together and made makes for better theater. It’s funny where your career path takes you. 20 years ago, I didn’t know I would be running a theater company. I thought I would be just working at a theater company.

What is most rewarding about being the executive artistic director?
I’m a very big advocate for collaboration, partnership and sharing of ideas, innovative problem solving and telling a story. That’s where it all starts. What story are we telling and how can we tell that story to the best of our ability for the audience? Seeing that happen here with six main stage shows a year, is extremely rewarding. We also have a lot of emerging artists that work here and it’s a great stepping-stone to get more experience and get reviewed. I feel that that’s very rewarding for me too—designers and actors that get to learn and be creative here, get better at what they do and they eventually leave here to go to one of the bigger theater companies.

What is the most challenging part of being executive artistic director?

The money is really the biggest challenge. It isn’t the people or personalities; nonprofit theaters are set up to be only 50 percent of the money it takes to run a theater company coming from earned income or ticket sales and the other 50 percent gets harder to find. What’s most rewarding and challenging about this company is that 45 percent of our audience is under the age of 45, but this generation has different buying habits. They don’t generally donate to theater companies—not that they wouldn’t or couldn’t—it’s not part of their culture. It makes it challenging to keep the business going. We have to rely on individual contributions or foundations but it gets harder.

Is there any one moment that stands out as a highlight during your time at the theater?
I will never forget how hard the cast and crew worked on Jesus Christ Superstar the summer of 2006. I had the privilege of directing that show and it was an amazing cast. We worked together to do some pretty spectacular things with it. At the time, we had a pay-what-you-can preview, and there was a line of people that went down the block. And I wondered, where did all these people come from? That show was sold out for every single performance.

What do you like most about San Jose?
I was born in San Francisco, so I’m thrilled that it’s such a diverse community because that’s what I grew up around. I just love the different mix of energies, ages, cultures and the different activities. There are museums, the market—there’s a lot of life and action down here. And I love the weather; It’s lovely.

Where are some of your favorite restaurants?
I stated going to Café Stritch; it has a fun vibe. I like PF Chang’s and I recently checked out the new Greek place, Nemea. Los Gatos Brewing Company is really fun. The Loft has the most amazing Chinese chicken salad. There’s a lot of great restaurants, it’s hard to choose. The Grill is great and so is McCormick’s.

If you could change one thing about San Jose, what would it be?
I feel like it’s important to have more conversations with our city officials for them to understand how important arts and culture are to our vital health and community. This area has creative-type jobs, with the tech industry and everything. I feel, with no disrespect, that arts and culture aren’t a big enough part of the conversation. Sometimes I’d like to hear more focus from the city about arts and culture.

Where can we find you in San Jose when you’re not working at the theater?
I try my hardest to see at least two other pieces of theater or arts and culture events a month, no matter what, that have nothing to do with City Lights. I really like to see my colleagues’ work and be supportive. I love music, so anytime I can tag along with my mom to the San Francisco Symphony I do that, but here in San Jose we have ballet, opera and museums.

Who is the most interesting person you know in San Jose?
There are two that come to my mind. Rich Braugh—he’s on our advisory board but he works for UBS Financial, and he’s just so smart, has such a great sense of humor and is so down to earth and approachable. I find him fascinating and always so grateful that he’s a fan of City Lights. Carl Cookson is a hero of mine. He is so involved with so many organizations and has done so much—and I could never find out about it because he’s so humble—but that guy is an angel. He is super connected with so many people and he’s just a dear man. They’ve been so much help to me with advice and leadership.