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.
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.
We take a peek behind the curtain and chat with Peilin Chou, the Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks), an accomplished producer who has worn many hats through her diverse and fascinating career in show business.
This accomplished CTI alumna began her career with Walt Disney Studios, went on to work at Nickelodeon, MTV Networks, AZN Television, and even helped to launch Spike TV. Peilin has also kept her foot in the stage door of Broadway, where she was a Company Manager & Artistic Associate at the Roundabout Theatre whose projects included Cabaret and Sideman, and helped to launch the Tony Award-winning musical Fosse.
Can you talk a bit about your position as Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio? What are some of your responsibilities? What are some of your goals?
As Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio, I oversee all the content created by Pearl Studio. A CCO is a bit like a CEO, but for all things creative. My job includes overseeing everything from buying and developing ideas and scripts, to overseeing films in production, to working with writers, producers, songwriters, and visual artists on all facets of the development and production process. I am also responsible for the overall creative direction and goals of the studio. The mission of Pearl Studio is to be a premier family entertainment brand, creating original world class films that enchant, inspire, and awaken audiences around the globe. My goals are every day to actively do something towards that mission.
What led you to this career path? How has CTI affected you?
Growing up, I never thought working in film, TV, or theater was something you could do for a career. I never knew anyone who worked in the field. I went to college at UCLA, and ended up doing a bunch of internships, including one on a scripted drama television show where I really got to see (through fan mail) the strong impact that what we were creating had on viewers there. From that moment, I was hooked! I was lucky that my first job out of college was at the Walt Disney Studios in Creative Development. Since that time, I have pretty much worked in creative development for my entire career. It has spanned a number of mediums and genres — film, television, animation, digital, and of course, theater, but always in creative development. CTI has been a great inspiration to me, as well as a great resource for networking, finding talent, and learning about new projects. I did what I like to call the CTI “trifecta” of programs — the NYC 3 Day, the O’Neill 3 Day, as well as the NYC 14-week. Each of them was a different experience, but I got a lot out of each of those programs.
First, being in the CTI community is always inspiring — being in the company of others striving to achieve similar goals, as well as hearing the stories and experiences of speakers that have achieved certain goals, was always energizing and exciting. Second, I have met so many people through CTI that have directly led me to very fruitful creative endeavors. It’s been so fruitful, I’ve actually kind of lost count. One example is I met an actress at a networking event during the NYC 3-day, which directly led me to producing a musical. And that experience led me to meeting songwriters who I actually ended up hiring on a film project right here at Pearl Studio! You never know where one thing will lead to. The other great thing I love about CTI is the camaraderie amongst those in your classes. These people are your peers and potentially your greatest supporters — you kind of end up growing up in the industry together in a way. The relationships I made in the programs I participated in definitely extended far beyond the duration of the class.
What do you think makes content global? What are steps that producers can take to make a production appealing to a wide audience?
I think one of the key things that makes content global is having universal themes that everyone can relate to. The idea of home, and finding home, for example, or the concept of family or belonging, are meaningful whether you’re a child in Brazil or a grandmother in China. There are certain things that can resonate worldwide. When you’re looking at global content, I think it’s important to make sure the broader scope of what you’re saying or talking about is wide enough to be universally relatable. The particulars and details of course can (and should) be specific to a character or a culture, but the larger themes can be relatable to any culture.
What makes a project exciting to you? Are you working on anything now that you are particularly enthusiastic about?
What makes a project exciting for me is working on something that I feel people are going to be moved by, and that has the potential to perhaps expand the way that people see the world. We talk about “awakening the audience” in our mission statement — and that’s really at the heart of what we mean by awakening. We currently have two projects in production at Pearl that I’m really excited about. ‘Abominable’ is the story of a Yeti trying to get home to Mount Everest with the help of three Chinese teenagers. This is being produced in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation and will be released worldwide by Universal Pictures in the Fall of 2019. Our second project is called ‘Over the Moon.’ It is being produced in collaboration with Netflix and is the story of a little girl who decides to build a rocket to go to the moon, in hopes of meeting a legendary moon goddess. What I’m most excited about on ‘Over the Moon’ is the opportunity to work with animation legend Glen Keane, who is directing the film. Glen was at Disney for almost 40 years and is the animator who created so many beloved Disney characters, including Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ The Beast from ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Rapunzel from ‘Tangled.’ Watching Ariel and ‘The Little Mermaid’ was one of the things that made me want to work in animation to begin with, so it’s kind of a lifelong dream to be able to collaborate with him on this film. I know he will make ‘Over the Moon’ an unforgettable and deeply moving film.
Can you discuss the major differences and similarities between producing in the film industry versus the theater industry?
There are many practical differences in terms of budget, players, approach, or scope, but actually there is also a lot of overlap as well. Probably more than you think. First, at Pearl we hire talent from the theater world all the time. Playwrights as well as songwriters are most common, but sometimes set designers or choreographers as well. And of all the film genres, the process of animation development and production is probably the closest to theater, because of the storyboarding process. All films are storyboarded first before they are animated, so you get to see the whole film up on reels (storyboards) before any sequences ever go into animation — which is quite similar actually to the workshopping process of theater. You get the opportunity to see something up on its feet, and then re-write or reconceive based on that experience, and then go at it again. Unlike live-action where footage has been shot, storyboards can be quickly re-drawn and changed to be something completely different. It’s one of the parts of the process that I really enjoy the most, because getting at the heart of characters or story and being able to see what’s working and what’s not working — that’s to me the purest and most meaningful part of the development process. And that’s true regardless of the genre or medium you’re working in.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
My advice would be to always follow your passion and listen to your heart when it comes to picking your projects. No one can tell you that your taste or what you love is wrong — it’s your taste! When I started out in the industry, I was playing a lot of catch-up, and I often found myself questioning whether the things I loved were worthy or worthwhile or “right,” but what you learn over time is that no one really knows or has all the answers. And so much of it is also about climate, and timing and medium and purpose.
I remember early on in my career I came upon an obscure student film that I thought was really hilarious, and I took the initiative to try to share that film with other executives at my company in hopes of being given the opportunity to pursue other projects or ideas with the directors of the film. At the screening, people were bored and restless, and all of these seasoned and well-respected executives left the screening room before the film had even ended. I was mortified and thought certainly they would never value my opinion again. A short one year later, the directors of that film, launched a then unknown television show called…’South Park!’ And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the directors I had been trying to “champion”, became household names forever. So, as you can see — you never know!
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to commercial producing?
I began my career in the film business, working in both NYC and LA. I had a series of jobs – from producer’s assistant to development executive – and then decided to leave LA and get my MBA at Columbia. I knew I wanted to start a production company (at the time, I was thinking it would be a film company), and I thought having the business background would serve me well. After graduating, I produced a small, independent film. Soon after, my father, who had been investing in and producing theater for a while, started his own theatrical production company with two other producers. Having grown up in NYC, I was a huge fan of theater, and thought it would be fun to learn about the business. So, I joined my father, and associate produced three productions with him, two on Broadway and one off-Broadway. While involved with the revival of Sly Fox, in February of 2003, I went to see a very early version of In the Heights in the basement of The Drama Book Shop. I was blown away by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s talent, and getting involved with that project changed my life forever.
As a recipient of the Robert Whitehead Award and a Commercial Theater Institute alum, how has CTI affected your career?
CTI was enormously helpful at the start of my career. I learned so much about the business, hearing from representatives in all areas of the industry, and got a chance to network too. And of course, winning the award was a huge honor, and is something that will be in my bio forever. The icing on the cake was that Lin-Manuel presented me with the award.
You founded Jill Furman Productions. What type of work does your company produce? Is there anything in particular that excites you about potential projects?
I don’t take on too many projects, because every project is a labor of love, and I need to feel passionate about each one. I look for material that is unique and special, but because it is a business, I have to believe the projects can have broad appeal. An aspirational or relatable tale, a singular idea, vision, sound, or fresh take on a story are all elements that speak to me.
Jill Furman Productions has multiple projects in development that span television, film, and theater. How do these mediums inform one another? How do they differ?
Film is more of a director’s medium, whereas theater and tv are more writers’ mediums. Also, producers in television and film get paid at least some of their salaries upfront, whereas theater producers don’t make a dime until a show is actually produced. Theater is more of a research and development business. But at their core, each medium represents different modes of telling stories, and great stories being told in exciting ways are what interest me.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
The first piece of advice I always give people who are interested in theater is to talk to as many people in the industry as you can and reach out to people in positions of power whom you respect or who inspire you, to set up informational interviews – many won’t respond, but some will. I always recommend taking at least the CTI 3-Day seminar, because it’s a great crash course. Finally, always trust your gut, and do things you’re passionate about.
Next month we begin our O’Neill Summer Workshop. Led by Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Tom Viertel, this CTI course offers producers-in-training the opportunity to “risk, fail, and risk again.” There’s a reason the O’Neill is a destination for creators around the world. Come explore the magic and inspiration of this beautiful campus yourself at the O’Neill Summer Workshop.
Tom Viertel, Chairman of the Board of the O’Neill, sat down with Executive Director, Preston Whiteway, to discuss the history of this legendary theater.
Tom Viertel: The O’Neill has won the Tony Award for Regional Theaters. Do you think of the O’Neill as a regional theater? If not, how is it different?
Preston Whiteway: The 2010 Tony was an incredible moment of recognition for us, however, the O’Neill is so much more than what we often think of as a “regional theater.” In addition to our programs in music theater, plays, puppetry, and cabaret, we also support emerging directors, arts journalists, student playwrights, an undergraduate school, and house museum. The works and artists we develop leave our stages and play regional theaters across the country as well as Broadway, off-Broadway, and film/TV.
TV: The O’Neill has had an enormous impact on American theater, including being the launchpad for so many important careers. Can you talk about some of them and how they got their start at the O’Neill?
PW: The O’Neill is home to thousands of artists. Some of our most high-profile are: writers August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Edward Albee, John Patrick Shanley, Kia Corthron, Christopher Durang, Jeanine Tesori, John Guare, Robert Lopez, David Auburn, Theresa Rebeck, Samuel D.Hunter, Jennifer Haley, Alfred Uhry, Tom Kitt, and John Logan; directors Lloyd Richards, Jason Moore, Leigh Silverman, Thomas Kail, and Rebecca Taichman; actors Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, Danny DeVito, Kristin Chenoweth, Al Pacino, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cynthia Nixon, Kelli O’Hara, and Steve Kazee.
TV: The O’Neill has been growing over the years you’ve been Executive Director. How is it different now than it was when you took over?
PW: One of the greatest joys of the O’Neill is the ways the organization is able to be innovative and adapt to serve the theater of today and tomorrow. We have shifted methods in response to our artists and to better serve the field, and as a result, our programs are stronger than ever. Over the last decade, the O’Neill is in sound financial footing and has established a broader national reach, with consistent premieres of O’Neill-developed work across the country and the world. What hasn’t changed one bit is the magic of our campus and the absolute focus on the artists- they remain at the very center of everything we do. What’s improved, many will be happy to hear, is the quality of our housing and food.
Jim Joseph was born and raised in The Bronx, NY and currently is the Theatre Manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Broadway home of Manhattan Theatre Club. Since graduating from Marist College in 1991, he has worked in many different areas of the performing arts and Broadway including Development, Education, Marketing, Box Office and most notably Front of House and Theater Operations.
In December 1995, he was a part of the inaugural staff at The New Victory Theater, the city’s first theater dedicated to kids and family programming, helping to launch The New Victory Usher Corps – a groundbreaking, youth development program for NYC youth. From 1995 until 2008, Jim hired over 400 teens and young adults, giving most of them their very first job and helping some of them launch careers in the professional theater as artists and administrators.
Jim has worked in the off-off Broadway community as a director and producer, working with the ground-breaking Latino Theatre Company, Vaso de Leche Productions, and the actress/poet/activist La Bruja on her one woman show Boogie Rican Boulevard among others.
As an arts administration consultant, Jim has worked with The United Palace for Cultural Arts in Washington Heights, The Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College, 59E59 Theatres and The Apollo Theater.
In addition to his theater operations consulting work, he has been an advisor to the theater program at Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2010 and has served as an adjunct instructor of theater management.
He is a graduate of the Arts Leadership Institute (2010) and the Commercial Theater Institute (2014). He is a member of the Venue Committee of the Broadway Green Alliance, the Broadway Security Steering Committee and the Broadway League’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
Please describe your current position and company.
I’m the Theatre Manager for Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway home – The Samuel J. Friedman Theater.
How did you prepare for this career?
No one ever chooses to work in Front of House – Front of House chooses you! LOL
I was offered an opportunity early in my arts management career to house manage an off-Broadway production and I discovered very quickly that I had the skill set to do the job.
What are some of the challenges of your job? What are some things you find the most rewarding?
Every day I have 650 variables to my workday. Every audience member presents a unique set of challenges and demands, making no two performances alike. It’s the ability to adapt to many different variables but still deliver consistent service that makes the job a challenge.
How has the Broadway landscape changed over the past decade or so?
With the success of WICKED and the Disney musicals, we are seeing less original ideas on stage. Most works are adaptations of well-known properties and their success is dependent on the audience’s knowledge of the source material. Movie studios see the potential profits of a successful musical and are becoming more and more involved on Broadway.
What steps is the Broadway industry taking towards inclusion and a more diverse workforce? How effective do you think these efforts have been?
I don’t think there have been too many steps taken, sadly. Broadway producers don’t think of the Broadway industry holistically enough to even think about answering this question. They are concerned about their show and selling enough tickets to pay back their investors so that they can invest in the next project. There have been efforts made to increase diversity by the non-profits in their administrative offices and some shows have had success using “color conscious” casting.
What can be improved?
Producers need to work harder on developing new creators and new properties. Invest in creators of color. Find the next Lin-Manuel, the next John Leguizamo, and don’t forget about the talented writers of color who have been under-represented on Broadway – the Lynne Nottages and Nilo Cruzs of the world.
How can we attract more young people from all walks of life to the theater?
Create work where they can see themselves represented. It all starts with the art that’s being produced.
We’re in the fascinating and short time between Tony nominations and the awards themselves as I write this. It’s a period when there are interesting things to learn about how shows are looking at their nominations. You’ll only be able to get a personal view, since you won’t be in on the overall strategy each show is using but if you’re sensitive to what you’re seeing, you can learn something. Producers and their marketing teams spend a lot of time talking about who their main audience is and how to reach them. Are they dedicated theater-goers who look at the New York Times or theater websites? Are they predominantly TV watchers? Are they tourists who are looking for a show to see and spending time in Times Square? Are they millennials who are focused on social media on their phones?
These producers have suddenly been presented with a new “asset” – Tony nominations – and armed with that news, they are making choices within (and often exceeding) their budgets about how to reach their specific audience. So, pay attention to how much of that information you’re getting and where you’re getting it from, and you might begin to get a glimmering of a show’s overall strategy. Are you seeing paid advertising or social posts on Facebook? Dominating ads in the Sunday New York Times or in a strip banner across the Arts page? On a billboard or a trash can in Times Square? On TV? There’s only this short time for producers to make the most of this opportunity because once the awards have been given the value of nominations quickly fades. Producers are trying to make the most of it, and so should you.