Q&A: CTI Sponsor Ken Davenport

pastedImageCan you tell us about your background and what led you to producing?

My parents dragged me to an audition for a local theater company when I was five years old, and I was hooked. After flirting with the idea of becoming a lawyer, I ended up at Tisch at NYU studying acting, until I got a production assistant-ship on a Broadway show, and realized that I enjoyed the other side of the business so much more.

That internship led to a career as a company manager for ten years on such shows as Ragtime, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Gypsy, and many more, until I started producing my own shows in 2004.

You are the founder and President of your own company, Davenport Theatrical Enterprises. What goes into creating and running such an organization?

I never set out to run a company. I set out to produce shows. Having a company is a by-product of that. Many people think they need to get an office and then start producing. It’s the reverse. Find a show. Produce a show. Let the office and company rise up around you. I ran my company out of my apartment for two years.

In addition to producing, you run multiple other theatrical businesses – you own a theater, organize classes, and coordinate group sales. Can you tell us a bit about these other endeavors and how you balance everything?

Everything I do supports my core mission of trying to get more theater out there in the world. I work with lots of writers and directors in trying to help them get their shows off the ground. It takes balancing but it’s something I’m passionate about, and I always believe that if you’re passionate about something you can find the time for it.

Can you talk a bit about the process of producing a new original musical?

Producing a totally original musical is a unique process because it’s like creating a brand new start-up company that no one has ever heard of before. It’s super challenging, but it’s also super fun, and I also feel like shows like this can be the most exciting and rewarding when they do take off, like a few of my early shows.

What excites you most about a potential project? Is there anything in particular that draws you to work on a specific production?

It has to hit me in the gut. It has to be something that I want to see over and over. And it has to be unique or have some quality that has never been seen on a Broadway stage before.

What do you think was the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, and what did you learn from it?

Just because you live and breathe your shows doesn’t mean everyone else does. You have to always be marketing.

Do you have any advice to aspiring producers?

If you want to be a producer, start producing something today. Anything. Doesn’t have to be a Broadway show. Produce a Shakespeare reading series in your dorm room. Find a friend who is a playwright and produce their show in the park. Create something yourself. But start. Because something good will come from it. It will lead you to bigger and brighter things.

Ups and Downs

THOMAS VIERTELBroadway is notoriously seasonal. The ebb and flow of New Yorkers’ theater-going habits, tourism and weather, along with a host of other factors, all contribute to these ups and downs. Sometimes the good periods can last for weeks, sometimes only a few days. The summer has become especially good with so many visitors looking for Broadway experiences, even though New-York-based theater-goers tend to head for vacations out of the city. Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks provide big ups, even if just for the week itself. Holiday weekends like Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day also do well.

Other periods – for example, the winter weeks from mid-January to Presidents’ Day and the period right after Labor Day weekend are more challenging.  So are the Independence Day week and, often, Halloween. These aren’t immutable truths. The weeks right after Thanksgiving leading up to Christmas used to be bad ones, but that often hasn’t been so in recent years.

The September period that we’re headed into used to be one of the biggest lows for Broadway grosses as kids head back to school but Broadway Week, a promotion of the Broadway League and NYC&Co, has gone a long way toward ameliorating this difficult time. Broadway Week is a 2-for-1 promotion offering half priced tickets to a great number of shows during the two weeks after Labor Day. Last year, Broadway Week sold thousands of tickets for that period and what used to be a precipitous drop in grosses became much more of a mild dip. A similar promotion in the difficult winter period, Kids Night on Broadway, has also been effective in increasing sales.

Marketing and promotions can’t solve everything, but well-planned and well-timed, industry-wide initiatives can make a big difference.

Q&A: Hannah Rosenthal

CTI 14-week alumna Hannah Rosenthal is an accomplished theater professional who is currently the booking coordinator and assistant to Orin Wolf at NETworks Presentations. Discover how Hannah’s career in show business was sparked during her childhood by an influential educator from the suburbs of Baltimore, leading her to work alongside the lead producer of the 10-time Tony Award-winning musical The Band’s Visit, and learn the key advice she would give to aspiring theatrical professionals.

Can you tell us a bit about your career path/background and what you are currently doing now? What are your ultimate career goals?Screen Shot 2018-08-07 at 16.09.32

My interest in theater began in a Baltimore suburb where I attended a public magnet school for the arts. I had an amazing theater teacher who not only put together very slick middle school productions, but also worked diligently to get as many students as possible backstage, onstage, and into the audience. I was incredibly fond of the experience he created for me and my peers, and knew that I too was interested in creating theater and getting as many people as possible involved! However, I didn’t know this interest was a career until I attended the University of Michigan and became involved in their wonderful student run theater company, MUSKET. There I learned what a producer was and ultimately majored in Performing Arts Management.

After college I moved to New York and began working as an assistant. I have been very lucky to see how a show comes together from many angles by working in a casting office, an agency, and for several wonderful producers. I currently work at NETworks Presentations as the Booking Coordinator and Executive Assistant to the President, Orin Wolf.

I hope to always work on the development and production of new theater. One day I would like to have a producing office of my own.

You took the CTI 14 Week in 2017. How has that affected you thus far?

My previous boss, Ruth Hendel, told me about CTI, and I am very grateful that she did! CTI was incredibly helpful to me because so much of producing is personal and situational. Getting to hear anecdotes from numerous producers about how they spearheaded and supported their productions was invaluable.

Because a great deal of my background is as an assistant, I am frequently in a busy office where projects are in many different stages, and there is not time to pause and have things explained. While a lot of learning comes from being on the job, CTI answered many of my questions that were as small as defining specific terminology to as big as gaining a full understanding of the role each team member plays on a production. I left more confident in how all of the puzzle pieces come together.

Most importantly, as someone who aspires to produce her own work, the 14-week course did an excellent job in helping me understand the first steps necessary in turning a project from an idea into a tangible possibility.

The Band’s Visit just won ten Tony Awards – congratulations! As lead producer Orin’s Wolf’s assistant, in what ways do you think that has impacted the production?

Thank you! I take absolutely no credit for the production’s success, and feel very fortunate that Orin has allowed me to have a close look at a project he has been shepherding for so long. Opening a show and going through awards season are two big undertakings. It requires a lot of attention to detail in order for everyone to be in the right place, focused and ready to do the best work possible. I think I play a small part in making sure this happens.

What excites you about or draws you to a project? Are you working on anything personally right now?

I’m excited by any material that makes me emotionally invested in a new perspective and that is told in a way that feels accessible. Currently, I am working on a new play called The German Party by Elisabeth Frankel. I am also involved with SheNYC, an organization dedicated to showcasing the work of up-and-coming women in theater, and am one of the associate producers for its summer theater festival.

What advice do you have for our readers who are also young, emerging professionals?

It is equally important to work as an assistant and make time for projects of your own. Any side project, no matter how small, allows you to apply what you’re learning in the office and shape your distinct personal taste.

Q&A: Ray DeForest

We talked this week with another CTI alum. Everyone who joins our courses brings with them a rich history of experience, and Ray DeForest is no exception.

Long-time thespian and producer, Ray, tells us about his goals, his huge array of abilities, and his fabulous alter-ego, Doris Dear. A fascinating, inspirational, and wide-ranging career in the entertainment industry gives him a unique perspective on theater-making of all kinds. Based in New York, he has championed new work in the US and across the pond in London. Underpinning everything he does is a strong focus on equality and inclusion; giving time and action to a cause close to his heart.

Can you start us off by talking about your career path and your background? How has CTI informed and affected that path?

I am celebrating my 42nd year of working full time in the entertainment industry, starting out as an actor/singer/dancer and then moving on to directing, choreographing and writing. My first professional job was at 18-years-old working in the “borscht belt” as a singer/dancer doing “summer stock.” A year later I was hired by Walt Disney Productions and spent 5 years learning to be the best I could be at my craft. Soon afterward, I moved to Denmark where I produced several shows with a former Broadway gypsy, Gene Nettles, who invited me there to work with him. It was an experience that deepened my knowledge and theatrical skills beyond anything I could have imagined.

When I came back to the states, I started my on-camera television career. I did several local TV morning shows in top 20 markets and then moved on to hosting shows for HGTV, The Food Network and had a syndicated design show through Fox Productions. I was also producing major LGBT events throughout the world at the time, and decided it was time to produce on TV, and became a senior producer and director of a syndicated woman’s magazine format show.

No matter how far I went from theater it was always calling me. I went back to theater with a successful show I created and was approached by investors and decided that before I accepted, I needed to attend CTI to “get the facts” and knowledge I needed to make a truly informed decision that would protect me and my property. Once I took the 3-Day course I realized producing commercial theater was a natural step for me and was where I truly wanted to be. I then moved on to taking all the one-day courses and was invited to participate in the O’Neill Intensive CTI course, which truly changed my life in theater. The experience at the O’Neill forged new strong relationships and partnerships for me and opened the world of commercial producing to me.

You are the President and owner of DeForest Theatricals. What type of work does your company produce? Is there anything in particular that draws you to a project?

I created DeForest Theatricals to “make theater grow.” I believe as a commercial producer I have a responsibility to create a commercial entertainment experience for the audience. I am attracted to many different types of theater whether it be a socially relevant piece, LGBT pieces, a musical which lifts my heart or comedy which brings laughter to my soul. Most of all, the piece has to speak to me on some level.

Is there something in the theater industry that you think can be improved, and how would you propose to change it?

I think as theater professionals it is our duty to constantly try to be better at how we treat each other in the industry and how we spend our money bringing new shows to commercial production. I serve on the LGBT board for SAG-AFTRA and also on the SAG-AFTRA presidents committee on Sexual Harassment. I have spent most of my adult life fighting for and demanding equality in all aspects of life. As leaders, it is most important for us to lead the way – to make theater a safe space for everyone involved and support each other. By constantly reevaluating our work and our work spaces, we can assure that we create those safe places. With the rising costs of commercial theater I believe it is time for us to seriously look at how we develop shows and financially support that development. We have to think outside the box, find new avenues of producing and bring more creatives into the commercial producing space.

You are currently working on three commercial productions to bring to both the US and the UK. Can you tell us a little about these projects, and how producing in New York differs from producing in London?

I currently serve on the board of the non profit theater Pipeline Theater Company. After my theatrical lawyer invited me to one of their shows several years ago, I was really blown away by the creativity and theatrical “eye” this small company had. After meeting with Ariana Schrier and Natalie Gershtein who run the company, I was asked to join their board. The show I saw, The Gray Man, really stuck with me, so I decided to meet with the first-time writer and discuss optioning the piece to try and take to a commercial production. I immediately realized it was not really a commercial piece for NYC and after meeting with several high-level producers, Tom Viertel included, I decided to try to bring it to the UK. It’s a wonderful piece of mystery and horror that scared me to death when I saw it! I went to London this spring and met with several theater owners and producers who are interested in partnering and possibly bringing the show to the UK for a commercial production.

Here in NYC, I am working as a co-producer with Jack Viertel and his production group on Bull Durham, A New Musical that we will have on Broadway very soon. It has everything I love – big musical numbers choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, amazing music by Susan Werner, script by Ron Shelton and directed by Marc Bruni. I met Jack Viertel at the O’Neill Intensive with CTI and he has been a great teacher and sounding board for me. It is a prime example of how CTI can connect you to great professionals and how important relationships are within the industry. I am also working with a Pulitzer Prize finalist, one of our great American writers on his newest piece. It is a journey unlike anything I have ever experienced. I love the creative involvement and find myself learning more about the process of artists.

The interesting thing for me is that when I was at CTI, I said… “I’ll only do a musical” and “I won’t go to produce in London”. LOL. Never say never. The biggest difference in London versus New York is costs. The cost of bringing a commercial production in London is much less than here in the states for Broadway. The economics are very different and the risk in London is much less.

You produce and star in a one-woman show as Doris Dear, can you tell us a bit more about that?

Ha! The secret is out! I grew up in Staten Island, NY. My parents were Taffy and Duke! With names like that it writes itself! My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and during her decline she opened up to me about her life as a 1950s model and strong woman who believed in being her best.

She changed laws, protected children and was a strong believer in family and friends. To deal with her slipping away, I decided to write and perform a show about her. Doing it as “Ray” seemed to have limitations so I created a character named Doris Dear. Doris Dear is 1950’s “Americas Perfect Housewife.” She tells stories through songs and stories and uses magazines from the period to highlight those moments. I only meant to do it once, but it became a sold-out hit and 4 years later I now do several shows a year in NYC, where I invite talented amazing people to perform with her. It’s like a “Dinah Shore meets Judy Garland” TV show. I have traveled around the US performing the shows and it continues to grow with now a possibility of taking her to TV!

Finally, what advice do you have for our readers?

I am truly a lucky man. Having a 40-year career in entertainment is truly unbelievable. My advice to anyone who is considering joining this amazing bunch of people would be: you have to love it to make it. Follow your heart, listen with your soul, and build relationships with others like you. And most importantly… learn to listen.

Thank you for the opportunity to chat today. And thank you CTI for opening up this amazing world to me!

Q&A: Dori Berinstein

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Taking center stage this week is four-time Tony Award-winning producer, Emmy Award-winning director, and CTI’s Robert Whitehead Award recipient, Dori Berinstein!

Ahead of bringing the upcoming musical The Prom to Broadway this season, Dori took time with us to discuss her eclectic career, ranging from her early days as an investment banker, all the way to producing Tony Award-winning plays, and musicals!

To start us off, can you talk about your career path and your background?

I grew up dreaming of producing Broadway shows and directing films, but I had no connections whatsoever to either world. This initial challenge, I believe, turned into a giant win for me as it launched me on a VERY eclectic career path. I’ve loved every adventure.

I was advised by my college mentors to get a rock solid foundation in business and finance before losing myself to a career in the entertainment industry. So, my professional life began as an Investment Banker at Morgan Stanley in Mergers & Acquisitions, then in Strategic Planning for NBC and Paramount.  After graduate work at Harvard in Business and at the Kennedy School of Government (Public Policy & the Arts) and later at the Yale School of Drama, I immersed myself in film and special effects. I helped launch a small film company and began producing movies. I supervised production on the film Dirty Dancing (as well as the “DDTV Adaptation) and produced a slew of low budget films. This lead to a thrilling opportunity to run a division for Walt Disney Imagineering, supervising all their cutting-edge, f/x-driven Theme Park films (including Muppet Vision 3-D).

Afterwards, I relocated to New York to begin my career producing Broadway shows. I’ve had parallel careers in film, TV and theater ever since. Non-Theater highlights include: directing and producing a TV series with Alan Cumming, directing and producing a TV series with Isaac Mizrahi (also Exec Producing his film Unzipped), spearheading President Clinton’s Post Presidential Website and directing, producing and writing six feature documentaries, including ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway, Gotta Dance, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life; Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love and The Last Blintz (a doc about the closing of the Café Edison).

On the Broadway side of my life my producing career began with Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Fool Moon and includes such productions as: Thoroughly Modern Millie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Crucible, Flower Drum Song, Legally Blonde, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the upcoming musical The Prom.

I’m so very fortunate to be able to pursue projects on stage, on screen or on TV that I care deeply about; stories that I feel must be told.

As a recipient of the Robert Whitehead Award and a Commercial Theater Institute (CTI) alum, how has CTI affected your career?

CTI has been invaluable to my career over and over and over. I can’t imagine taking on the responsibilities of producing a Broadway show without the training CTI offers. Not only was I able to grasp all the complex moving parts of producing, but CTI introduced all of us aspiring producers to the movers-and-shakers in the business. So much of my day-to-day work now as a producer is informed by my many invaluable CTI experiences over the years, particularly hearing experienced producers candidly share their war stories. Learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do!

You have two theater projects underway The Prom and Half Time. What drew you to each of these shows?

Regarding The Prom, I was invited to dinner by Casey Nicholaw along with Bob Martin, Chad Begeulin and Matthew Sklar to talk about an idea for a brand new musical. They pitched a two-line idea that Jack Viertel had dreamed up: What if a teenage girl wants to take her not-yet-out girlfriend to the Prom and the PTA, as a result, cancels the entire event. What if a group of Broadway divas swoops into town to save this girl, but ends up making things far worse? With this off-the-charts dream team and this brilliant idea, an immediate ‘yes’ was a no-brainer. Bill Damaschke joined me as my GP Producing Partner and we were off and running. Who knew this incredibly exuberant story with non-stop humor, giant heart and the urgent message about acceptance and tolerance, would be so timely. The show opens on Broadway November 15th.

Half Time, a new musical directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, captures the unexpected adventures of the first-ever, senior Hip Hop squad for an NBA Basketball team. TRUE STORY! The show is actually based on a documentary film I directed and produced called Gotta Dance. I wanted to craft a fun, funny, feel-good, inspiring story that made the statement “Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re A Cheese,” given all the ageism I’ve seen out in the world. When this group of incredible, fiercely-determined seniors chasing a very unlikely dream landed in my lap, I knew, from day one of shooting the film, that I was laying the groundwork for a musical. With an extraordinary creative team:  Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar, Chad Begeulin and Nell Benjamin and a dream cast that includes Georgia Engel, Lillias White, Andre de Shields and Donna McKechnie, the show has surpassed every possible dream.

 

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Each show has been had many Readings, Labs, and Out-Of-Towns; in Atlanta (The Prom) and Chicago and at the Paper Mill (Half Time) specifically.

I couldn’t be more passionate about both shows. Both messages of The Prom – advocating acceptance, tolerance and hope for all – and Half Time – Go For It!!! Chase your dreams, no matter your obstacles – are so urgently important to me.

You also act as a director, writer, and producer for documentary films, including Gotta Dance, which is the original source material for the stage adaptation Half Time. Can you talk a bit about the process of working on a project in a variety of capacities?

I love storytelling, whether on stage or on screen. I believe strongly in the power of both mediums to entertain AND to change the way people see the world. As a filmmaker, I’m able to tell stories that come from deeply personal experiences; stories I need to tell. When my worlds collide, like they have on Half Time, I’m ecstatic. The experience of telling the story on screen, and now on stage, has been thrilling.

 

Who Knows?

Success in the theater is an alchemic thing. So much has to fall into place the right script and score, the right director, designers and cast. The right developmental path. Even the right mood of the theatergoing public when you finally arrive on Broadway.

Here’s one of my favorite stories:

Years back, Rocco Landesman was asked by its owner to take over Jujamcyn Theaters. He wasn’t well known in the Broadway community he’d produced one show and, although it had won the Tony Award for Best Musical, he was mostly teaching at Yale. One of his first hires was my brother Jack, who had been a dramaturg and later a prominent theater critic but on the West Coast, so he also had a low Broadway profile.

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Because the two of them were kind of X-factors on Broadway, quite a few producers, general managers, ad agency executives and others stopped by to introduce themselves and get to know Rocco and Jack.

One of these was a man named Arthur Cantor. Arthur had been a publicist and a sometime producer with an ordinary track record over many, many years. He was an old man by the time he sat on the couch in Rocco’s office. During the conversation they touched on many subjects and at the end of each of them Arthur would slump on the couch, sigh and mutter “I don’t know… I just don’t know.” Topic after topic, “I don’t know… I just don’t know. Finally, he got up and left. Jack and Rocco looked at each other and said “there goes the dumbest producer in all of America. No matter what the subject he ‘just don’t know.’”

But the longer we stay in the theater the clearer it is that Arthur was telling us everything we would ever really know about this crazy business you just don’t know.

I think that’s why experienced producers always advise those just starting out to “follow your passion” when it comes to picking projects. Your passion is as apt to be on the mark as anyone else’s and there’s nothing as satisfying as making a success of something you care deeply about.

– Tom V.