An Interview with CTI Graduate Aaron Sanko

This week, the CTI Blog features an interview with graduate Aaron Sanko.  Aaron has completed the 14-Week, 3-Day, and O’Neill Intensives. Join us as we discuss Aaron’s journey through the industry and how he believes theater can be used as a source of education and empowerment.

Can you tell us a bit about your career path and how you ended up where you are today?

My pathway to my current role included stops in an array of artistic and non-artistic roles.  I grew up in the Detroit area with limited exposure to theater, but was fortunate enough to have an incredibly supportive single mother and elementary school teacher to introduce me to this previously elusive world.  I began professionally as an actor at age twelve, then found my way into singing opera, conducting, teaching, and producing.  After retiring from the stage, I went back to school to study business and took a brief hiatus from theater to work in the corporate human resources world.  After a lot of self-reflection, I decided that my primary passions are people and the arts, so I decided to pursue a career as a talent representative. I spent some time with UIA Talent Agency before opening my own consulting company, The Cruxory Group, which I founded to serve the market of artists running businesses without formal business training.  Amidst this work, and after taking multiple CTI courses to sharpen my skill set, I produced and co-produced a variety of shows on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in festivals, and in international venues. Highlights from these experiences include collaborations with fellow CTI alumni; I served as Music Supervisor and General Partner for two award-winning productions written by Christian De Gré Cardenas, and as Music Director for the first musical to be staged in Liberia.  Now, several years later, I’m back with UIA as Managing Director, representing actors, singers, and creatives while overseeing company operations and HR policy. Looking forward, I have an interest in building a literary department at the company. At this point in my journey, which was definitely a winding road, I’m leveraging my strengths and experiences to advocate for artists and help guide them through the ever-changing industry landscape.

You’ve clearly had a variety of experiences and vantage points throughout your career.  Is there anything in particular that you’ve noticed that you think this industry can improve?

Although it’s beginning to be addressed in some BFA programs, I’m seeing many artists enter the marketplace with a general lack of practical business knowledge.  I would love to see more higher education programs encouraging creative entrepreneurship in ways that empower artists to identify their strengths and develop a well-rounded business-skills toolbox which will allow them to support their art while they find their place in the world.

I also think we can improve the ways we’re working on the systemic lack of diversity in theater.  We should be committing our resources to diversifying theater makers. This goes all the way back to early arts education – how can we expose students to professions within theater beyond acting? It’s our responsibility to identify both the creators AND arts business people of tomorrow.  I’m hoping we can create more funnels into a wider array of roles in the industry at an earlier point in one’s education.

You mentioned earlier that you’ve produced a show in Liberia.  Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Broadway Artists Connection and International Children’s Network recruited me to help produce and music direct the first musical to be staged in Liberia, The Wiz.  We cast the show with young locals, some of whom were war orphans, ranging from nine to twenty-five. None of the individuals we worked with there had ever experienced theater.  There were many unexpected challenges – some logistical, others theoretical. We had to consider equipment transportation, power conversion, the lack of radio space regulation, and water supply.  The actors themselves had no exposure to the source material and had never read music before. As the country is emerging from a decades-long civil war, entertainment is certainly a luxury. Because of their reality, the students were all preparing for professions in medicine, law, and civil engineering to help rebuild their fractured community.  A career in the arts was unimaginable to them, so we had to examine how to tailor the creative process in a way that they would appreciate.  

We wanted to leave the community with the resources to continue these newfound passions in support of the belief that theater and the arts can be vehicles for education and development.  We wanted to make an imprint and not just a memory.

Can you share any life lessons you’ve discovered throughout your multi-faceted career?

While I value being a well-rounded generalist, I’ve learned and observed that challenges can arise when trying to wear too many hats simultaneously. Beyond the limit of effective multi-tasking, it’s important to be sensitive to conflicts of interest, such as a producer performing in their own show.  There are hats that can be worn together with grace, and hats which need to be put away for a period of time. This can lead to a change in career trajectory, which can be panic-inducing; being fearless about it almost always pays off.  Exploring new capacities will inspire and empower you, and and you can always return to the old role.  If you embrace the risk, take the time to identify your inherent strengths, and prioritize the people involved in these decisions, you can balance loyalty and opportunity to find your path. You’ll likely be much happier, wiser, and wealthier for it than if you stood still and stayed safe.

A Word from a Sponsor – The Vocabulary of Producing

CTI Sponsor Michael Sinder is an entertainment attorney who has worked with Tom Viertel on a number of theatrical productions.  He joins the blog this week to discuss “Joint Venture Agreements,” one of the most fundamental aspects of producing.  Have a term that you’d like defined in a future blog post?  Shoot us an email at commercialtheaterinstituteinfo@gmail.com!

Joint Venture Agreement” refers to the agreement among the lead producers (or managing members) of a production.  The key deal terms that are generally covered by this agreement include the following:  (i) the amount of the capitalization, and the portion to be raised by each managing member; (ii) the portion of any out-of-pocket pre-production expenses and losses to be covered by each managing member; (iii) the split of producer compensation among the managing members, including the producer’s weekly royalty, the weekly office charge, the executive producer fees and the producer’s share of adjusted net profits; (iv) the amount of “torchbearer points,” if any, to be afforded to any managing members; (v) terms to be offered to any non-managing member co-producers; (vi) voting rights and the manner in which decisions will be made; and (vii) the form of producer billing credits.

The Nuts and Bolts of Capitalizing a Show

Couldn’t make it to today’s Investor Relations/How to Pitch seminar?  That’s okay!  One of our speakers (and CTI Program Manager) Amanda Harper joins the blog this week to provide insight on the nuts and bolts of capitalizing your show.  In addition to supervising all things CTI, Amanda has raised money for over a dozen productions as the Scorpio Producing Associate.  Read on to learn the tips and tricks from an industry professional!

The Mechanics of Raising Money

You have a project and investors!  That’s great; now what?

Production Entities

A production entity is the company formed for a production of a show in which investors invest.  This will be formed by the show’s lead producer.  There are multiple types of production entities.  The most common type is called a Limited Liability Company (LLC).  With this kind of entity, investors are given an Operating Agreement and either an Investor Questionnaire or a Subscription Agreement.  Another is called a Limited Partnership (LP).  For this type of entity, investors are given a Limited Partnership Agreement, Private Placement Memorandum, and Investor Questionnaire.

Most production entities (but not all) require investors to be accredited.  An investor is considered accredited if they meet one of the following requirements:

  • Individual or couple with a net worth exceeding $1,000,000, excluding the value of the primary residence
  • Individual whose annual income is more than $200,000 or a couple whose joint income exceeds $300,000
  • Entity where the owner meets one of the above items (and therefore is an accredited investor)

The SEC regulations are designed to ensure that investors are “financially sophisticated.” If the entity does allow unaccredited investors, they can accept up to thirty-five.

Tracking Investors

Part of producing is keeping track of all the details and helping your investors navigate the paperwork.  So, how do you do this?

Be organized!  You’ll need a way to organize your potential investors’ contact information, especially if you plan to have many investors.  When Tom and his partners produced Hairspray and The Producers, each show had over two-hundred investors.  Both entities are still active.  You’ll need to track things like investment name (is it an entity, individual, or spouses?), accreditation status, investment amount, and contact information.  Keep in mind that the information will be used by not only you as a producer, but also accountants and your general manager.  I highly recommend using Excel, as it’s easy to organize and manipulate the information.  You can sort the data by last name, first show, state, etc.  Ultimately, you need to choose whatever system works for you.  However, it’s essential that you have a secure place to keep the sensitive information that you’ve collected about your investors.

The Paperwork

The format of the Operating Agreement will vary depending on the production attorney.  However, the content of the agreement is more or less the same.

It is vital that you review the paperwork.  Legalese is hard to read but there’s no way around it.  As part of your due diligence, you should carefully review the entire agreement.  It’s important that you understand what your investors need to complete and/or sign so that you can walk them through the paperwork.

During the Run

Congratulations, your show has opened! Maintaining your relationships with investors after a production has opened is just as important as finding them.  You should keep your investors updated on the progress of the show so that they feel like insiders.  There’s a variety of ways to do that!  You can email your investors, either by sending personalized messages or using a service like MailChimp or Constant Contact.  You can also call your investors.  Make sure all phone numbers are current and create a script for yourself so that you tell all your investors the same information.  Alternatively, you can go old-school and send a letter.

After Closing

Just because a production has closed doesn’t mean your job is complete with investors!  Assuming the show is any sort of success, there will be subsidiary income after the production closes (see the blog post from March 29th for the definition of Subsidiary Rights Income).  You will need to maintain up-to-date investor records so that they can continue to receive distributions and tax documents.  It is your responsibility to relay any changes to the show’s general manager and/or accountant.    This kind of maintenance can last longer than you’d expect.  For example, the production company for the original production of Smokey Joe’s Café opened in March 1995 and the entity was active until 2014.

 

 

A Q&A with Robert Whitehead Award-Winner Tom Kirdahy Part Two

The CTI chat with producer Tom Kirdahy continues.  Read on for exclusive insight into trends on Broadway right now, how to develop a brand new musical, and more!

As the lead producer of Anastasia, did you find it difficult to recreate such a beloved and popular story for the stage?

Anastasia was a great experience.  One of the challenges was to honor the animated film while making sure that we made the production our own.  We had to walk that line carefully.  We didn’t want to just put the animated film on stage, but we also knew that we had to keep our superfans happy; that meant incorporating some of the original score and honoring the spirit of the movie.  I think we did well at keeping a single voice at the helm.  The songs from the movie were written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and they were able to add music to the Broadway show that was completely consistent with the animated feature.  The Broadway production remained one writing team.  I think that was enormously helpful in ensuring that the fans felt like they could recognize the voices behind the musical.  Additionally, we wanted to make sure that the storytelling was sophisticated and honored the intelligence of the audience.  Those that loved the animated film were now in their 20s and 30s.  Because the fans grew up with the film, we had to make sure that Anastasia grew up with its fans.

I’m noticing a trend on Broadway right now that audiences seem to be gravitating toward darker shows – especially musicals – such as Oklahoma! and Hadestown.  Why do you think that is?  Was The Visit perhaps a little ahead of its time?

I do think The Visit was ahead of its time.  I am drawn to darkness.  This sounds like a cliché, but I think it’s only in confronting darkness that we can see the light. As someone who was on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, I know that we as a community lived through hell, and now, not only do we have the federal right to marry, but we even have a viable, openly gay candidate for president.  I often say that we used to only look at the obituaries, and now we go to the Styles section to see who got hitched.  I believe that in surviving that darkness (which is not over, by the way), we found our sources of light and pursued them.  Many of us feel we are living in a dark time again under this administration.  I believe that using theater to place a mirror on ourselves is essential right now.  By allowing ourselves to explore dark themes onstage, we are providing a path toward healing and hope.  We leave the theater lighter because ultimately, the arts provide a forum for connection, healing, and mobilizing.  For two-and-a-half hours, one thousand people breathe as one and become a community.  There’s power in that.  Now, people are recognizing the need for collective experience and connection.

What was the development process like for Hadestown?

It’s a falsely held belief that Hadestown originated as a concept album.  Anaïs Mitchell wrote it as a DIY community theater project, and it was always intended for the stage.  It became so popular that it then became a concept album.  It’s been an interesting evolution.  Anaïs and Rachel Chavkin connected and began working on reconceiving and theatricalizing it in a very different way from the back of a truck in a community theater to the beautiful production that appeared at New York Theatre Workshop under the guidance of Mara Isaacs, Dale Franzen and Jim Nicola.  As producers, we believed in the show and wanted the production to find its path to Broadway, so it needed to be able to be presented in a proscenium.  We took the show to Edmonton, then had the great opportunity to go to The National in London for further development.  That production in particular unlocked much of what is now at the Walter Kerr; we learned a ton about the musical from that experience in terms of its dramaturgy, physical production, etc.  The road for Hadestown to the Walter Kerr has been fortuitous and glorious.  I’m proud to be a part of this producing team, and I’m glad we took our time to get it right.

You’re also producing a revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune.  What are the challenges of doing a revival? What are the benefits?

The biggest challenge is determining whether the material is still relevant and still works.  We did private readings and we knew instantly that it was still timely, particularly in the age of social media, where people are less connected than ever before.  It’s easier to have a relationship on a computer by yourself than to take a leap across the void and fall in love and make human contact.  Audiences are hungry for a story of two people searching for love and connection.  We’re the first Broadway show in history to use an intimacy director, which we felt was essential in order to provide everyone a safe space in which to do their best work.  Casting a revival right is another challenge.  We had been working on getting Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald together for a few years and it was worth the wait. One of the biggest mistakes a producer can make is to settle for the wrong cast.  Having the patience and faith that this was the right constellation of stars to bring to Broadway in this production proved invaluable.   Audra and Mike are dynamite – though it was admittedly trying to wait for their schedules to align!  As for the benefits of producing a revival – you know that the play works.  There aren’t any rewrites to worry about (assuming it’s a true revival), so you can focus your energy elsewhere.

You’ve produced a wide variety of work.  Is there something in particular that you look for in potential projects?

I’d love to give you an easy answer.  I’m searching for that common denominator.  A project somehow has to move and excite me, but I can’t quite predict or define what causes that.  It starts with great writing, but it has to really pierce my heart; that can include making me laugh, cry, think, re-examine, question, etc.  I can’t find a pattern, but I think that’s a good thing.  I am constantly surprised by what draws me into a story.

As our 2019 Robert Whitehead Award Winner, what advice do you have for aspiring producers?

Trust your instincts.  Don’t act out of desperation.  Immerse yourself in the community.  Be humble.  Show up.  Aim high.  Take all the CTI courses that are available to you because they are truly fantastic.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’m thrilled to receive the Whitehead Award.  I had the good fortune of getting to share a meal with Robert and his wife and they have always been sources of great inspiration for me.  To get a phone call from Tom Viertel, who I think is the embodiment of a great professional with integrity, means the world to me because he is a true role model – both as a producer and as a member of our community.

A Q&A with Robert Whitehead Award-Winner Tom Kirdahy Part One

The esteemed lawyer, producer, humanitarian, and Whitehead Award-winner Tom Kirdahy shares his remarkable past with the CTI blog.  Tom’s passion and commitment has made him an irreplaceable member of the theatrical community.  Read on for this exclusive two-part interview about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the importance of storytelling, and the challenges of creating a Broadway hit.

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to be a Broadway producer?

I’ve always loved the theater.  I grew up on Long Island.  When I was young, I begged my parents to take me to see a Broadway show.  The first show I ever saw was The Magic Show, followed quickly by Pippin and Chicago.  By then, I had completely fallen in love with theater.   I studied politics and dramatic literature in college and went to law school with the thought that I might become an entertainment lawyer.  However, when I graduated law school, AIDS was ravaging the city.  I switched my focus and spent two decades providing free legal services to individuals living with HIV/AIDS.  I felt a deep need to be on the front lines fighting for LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS/Human rights.  After twenty years, I returned to my original dream of working in theater, but rather than use my law degree to be an entertainment lawyer, I felt I had the skill set required to become a producer.   I took the CTI Three-Day Intensive which helped me profoundly, as Tom Viertel is truly one of the greats – and then it was off to the races!

What was your experience like advocating for those living with HIV/AIDS, and what inspired you to dedicate so much of your life to this issue?

I’ve always been interested in social justice.  I was President of the statewide student government in high school, President of the student government during my undergraduate years at New York University, and Chair of the university-wide student government during law school.  I’ve always had a deep belief in the importance of community, giving back, and intersectionality.  I wasn’t interested in second-class citizenship for myself as a gay man.  All our rights are intertwined – none of us are free unless we are all free.  I saw my community being decimated by AIDS.  My friends were sick, and the government was indifferent to our needs.  The truth is, I thought I would provide these legal services for a few years; I never imagined that the height of the epidemic would last as long as it did and that the need for advocacy would be as great as it was.  Once I started, I didn’t feel I could stop.  As the demographic of the epidemic shifted, so did my focus.  I worked for a decade in the Bronx.  It just felt like the natural extension of everything I believed in.  I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and be a bystander – I wanted to be deep in it and give the fight everything I had.

You also serve as Chairperson of the Broadway League Government Relations Committee.  Can you talk about the work of that committee?

I love working in the Broadway sphere because we get to tell stories that can change lives.  My interest in politics extends to my interest in helping us as a producing community tell these stories.  I believe that theater has tremendous worth.  I love being a member of the Broadway League and I love representing producers on the city, state, and federal level because I think what we do matters. We as an industry were not well-enough organized in the past, so we had to work hard to catch up with film and television.  Charlotte St. Martin has done a great job of strengthening the League.  The world has finally started to notice not only the entertainment value of theater, but also its impact on communities, the economy, and job opportunities, all of which have been severely underappreciated.  Attention must be paid!  We are now taking ourselves more seriously as an industry, and my job is to ensure that the government does as well.

As a producer, what kind of work are you drawn to and what gives you the most satisfaction?

I am drawn to stories of human triumph that can move and inspire us (though of course I also believe in the importance of entertaining).  Right now, I have Hadestown on Broadway, which is a glorious retelling of the Orpheus myth, and I think it’s about the resilience of the human spirit.   I also think it moves the theatrical form forward.  I believe that everybody can see themselves in the cast that’s on the stage at the Kerr and that, to me, is important.  I also have a show that just won the Olivier Award in London, called The Inheritance, which bridges generations of LGBTQ people and tells a story of perseverance and strength.  It implores us to look back and remember our past so that we can forge a better future for ourselves.  I love stories that allow us to heal and leave us with hope.

What’s been the biggest mistake you’ve ever made as a producer, and what did you learn from it?

I think the most important thing that I have learned is to choose projects that I’m passionate about.  I don’t get involved in a project simply for the sake of doing so. I need to feel a deep connection to the material.   Selecting partners well is also key because your team is only as strong as its weakest member.  I think it’s important to surround yourself with the best and the brightest.  When I’ve made sentimental decisions, I’ve been less successful than when I’ve allowed myself to be stretched.  I now feel comfortable enough to surround myself with people who have skills that I lack.  Rather than make me feel insecure, it makes me feel empowered and protected.

Tom’s Tidbits – Why are Recoupment Charts Essential to Producers?

Our avid blog readers may recall one of our previous Vocabulary of Producing posts in which we defined the term “recoupment chart.”  For today’s Tidbits, Tom provides a refresher on the basic elements of a recoupment chart, and explains why these documents are vital to the financial success of a show.  Whether you’re the lead producer or an investor, knowing not only how to navigate and create a recoupment chart, but also understanding its importance will have you ten steps ahead of the curve.  Read on to learn the tricks and tips of the trade.

Recoupment charts are key tools for producers both as a way of evaluating the economics of a production and to inform potential investors.  The chart shows how quickly a production would recoup its initial investment at different percentages of financial capacity.  The chart starts with the gross income at levels of financial capacity of the producer’s choosing.  Although there are a variety of ways of presenting this information, recoupment charts typically consist of several columns, each indicating a different level of financial capacity.  A typical chart would start with 100% of financial capacity (a sellout at stated box office prices) and work downward through columns labeled 90%, 80%, 70% and so forth.  It might be more or less detailed than that and the last column might indicate the level of financial capacity needed to produce a break-even result – the amount of gross that would keep the show running without incurring a loss but providing no funds toward recoupment.

The expenses of running the show would appear below the gross in each column.  Deductions from gross, “fixed” running expenses and the theater percentage rent would all be deducted from gross to produce an amount available for royalties and recoupment.  Royalties to the author, director, underlying rights holder and others would then be deducted, calculated either as a percentage of gross or in a royalty pool, depending on the producer’s choice of compensation.  If features like amortization are used, those would be taken into account as well.  After all the aspects of royalty payments are calculated and deducted the amount left over is available for recoupment of the initial capitalization.  That amount would be divided into the capitalization and the result is the number of weeks it would take to recoup the capitalization at each level of financial capacity.

Several things to think about:

The theater chosen for this exercise might or might not be the one the production finally gets and since all of the calculations depend on financial capacity, the choice of theater can vary results dramatically.  A 1,500-seat theater will produce quicker recoupment (on the chart, at least) than a 1,000-seater.  Unless the theater has already been actually chosen, it’s worth being a bit cautious about taking the results too much to heart. 

These days, there are a lot of ways to affect financial capacity.  In the real world, premium tickets, discounts and dynamically changing ticket prices can all have significant impact.  Its certainly worth understanding whether the producer has assumed the sale of premium tickets in the calculation.

I put quotes around the word “fixed” in describing fixed operating costs.  These costs include everything the production spends except deductions from gross and royalties and they are not, of course, literally “fixed” from week to week.  Lots of costs vary weekly, from advertising to having understudies performing to the cost of repairing costumes.  The idea behind these “fixed” weekly costs is a reasonable estimate over time.

No one has a crystal ball about any show that’s ever been produced.  But in looking at a recoupment chart and seeing how many weeks it will take to recoup, it’s worth thinking about your opinion of the sustainability of grosses over many weeks at any particular level to achieve recoupment.

To have an informed opinion, read the chart that the Broadway League puts out every week for each show running on Broadway.  There’s a lot of information in the chart, including average ticket prices, the percentage of seating and financial capacity that each show has achieved for that week and whether the show’s grosses are up or down from the prior week.  You can put the recoupment chart in the context of what’s actually happening on Broadway and perhaps have a less cloudy crystal ball – which is the most any of us can hope for.

Vocabulary of Producing – Wrap

Perhaps one of the most frequent terms you’ll hear as a producer, the wrap is essential in determining the health of a show.  Understanding the lingo of show business is key to a successful career on Broadway.  Take advantage of the long weekend by checking out some of our other Vocabulary of Producing posts!     

Wrap – The “wrap” is the total ticket sales for a given period.  Wraps are mostly reported either daily or weekly, so producers often talk about “yesterday’s wrap” or “last week’s wrap.”  The wrap includes all ticket sales for the day (or week) whether they are for performances within the period or beyond.  All price points are included in the wrap (premium sales, regularly priced sales and discounts) as well as group sales.

 

Vocabulary of Producing – Deductions from Gross

The CTI Blog returns to arm you with the vocabulary terms you’ll need to understand as an aspiring producer.  This week, we feature “Deductions from Gross.”

Deductions from Gross

Each week that a show performs, the box office treasurer, the theater manager, and the company manager reconcile gross income and the deductions from gross income for that week.  Deductions are for specific items that the theater incurs on behalf of the show.  The show also has its own expenses that it pays directly, such as salaries of actors and crew, royalties, and marketing costs.

Gross income before deductions is generally referred to as “gross gross.”  Income after taking into account deductions is called “net gross.”  When compensation is based on a percentage of gross income, such as the theater’s percentage rent or compensation to a star or to a royalty holder, net gross is used rather than gross gross.

The deductions include four categories:

  • A contribution to the pension plans of several unions.  The contribution amounts to 4.5% of gross gross for musicals and slightly less for plays.  It is split between the unions that enjoy this benefit based on a long-standing formula.
  • Credit card commissions.  This is a charge to cover the fees of credit card companies when ticket buyers use credit cards.
  • Group sales commissions paid to licensed group sales agents who work with group buyers.  These transactions are often more complex than the purchase of individual seats and group agents work with the treasurer of the theater to manage each purchase.  The commission is 10% of each sale.
  • Commissions to third party sellers.  These are ticket vendors like Broadway.com, TodayTix, Goldstar, Groupon and others.  Each vendor has their own commission structure.
  • A ticketing fee paid to the theater.  This is a charge that the producer agrees to in the license agreement with the theater and covers the cost of printing tickets.

Broadway Profiles – A Serial Interview with Jack Viertel – Part Four

The CTI blog is proud to present the final segment of our serial interview with industry veteran, Jack Viertel.

Content has been edited for brevity and clarity 

Part Four

I’ve come across many people at CTI events who are specifically interested in the creative aspects of producing.  What advice do you have for them?

I can only tell you what happened to me, which was that those seven years that I spent as a theater critic were the most important part of my career. I saw many shows and had to analyze them in a conversational way.  In the process, without really meaning to, I learned a lot about what makes a show work.  I then learned a whole other chunk of essential information about production once I came over to the theater-making side. But I understood the fundamental elements of a story from being a theater critic more than anything else.

One of the things that really surprises me is when people become producers of flop after flop and never seem to learn anything from the experience.  They don’t appear to stop and analyze the reasons why a show didn’t work.  The worst thing you can say is that a show did work, the audience just didn’t understand it.  If the audience doesn’t understand the show, then it doesn’t work.  You have to try to learn something from that.  You can’t let your ego become so involved in the show that you refuse to learn what the audience and the financials have told you; you have to accept that that show is a failure.  Then, you have to try to figure out why and not make those mistakes again.  You can make new mistakes, but you shouldn’t be making the same mistakes repeatedly.  A shocking number of people seem to be more and more militantly defensive about the shows that they’ve done that don’t work rather than try to use them as a tool. There isn’t much reflection done by a lot of people.  On the other hand, I think successful producers do a lot of reflecting.  They ask what went wrong.  Was it in the conception; the carrying out; the elements of the story that were either not appealing or that were not well-told enough to be clear?  What did we fail to do that others around us were doing?  I think you can learn.  I believe you can be taught a little bit – that’s what my book is for – but that you learn much more from the painful experience of having done something that didn’t work.

What would you classify as the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

Dramaturgically, the biggest mistake I ever made was trying to produce a show with a passive hero.  The best example of this was in Time and Again, which is a novel that has many attractive things about it.  It’s a wonderful book that is not meant to be a musical for the most basic reason, which is that it has a passive hero.  We could never get it off the ground.  Of course, there were other design-related issues, but the fundamental problem was that I couldn’t devise a way to get an audience interested in the protagonist.  That was the most important dramaturgical mistake that I ever made.

The most important business mistake that we ever made collectively at Jujcamcyn was that we had Chicago from Encores! booked in the Martin Beck (now the Hirschfeld), and Andrew Lloyd Webber showed up at our office and asked for the theater for Whistle Down the Wind.  I was ambivalent about all of this because I was loyal to Encores!, but I was also somewhat timid because I didn’t want to be disloyal to Jujamcyn, and here was Andrew Lloyd Webber, commercially the most important artist of our time, knocking on the door.  We kicked Chicago out and took Whistle Down the Wind, which then closed out of town in Washington.  Chicago would still be at the Martin Beck if we had booked it twenty-seven years ago.  It was our one shot at a show that would run more than twenty years! But what can you do?  You go on.  And lots of great shows have played the Hirschfeld, but it was a bad moment.

That segues nicely into my next question.  Especially when you were just starting out in your career, did you ever worry about passing on a show that would go on to be a great commercial success, given the multitude of projects you’ve had to scout and evaluate throughout your lifetime?

It’s happened to me a couple of times.  You have to assume that anyone would make an equal number of mistakes – except if you make enough mistakes, it turns out you’re not very good at that job and predicting what will actually be successful.

Much of it really seems to boil down to taste.

Yes. There’s no right or wrong, per se, but I think you can become skilled at reading a script and citing why a story falls apart or why it works.  That’s a learned skill to some degree, but whether something appeals to you is totally a matter of taste.

It seems essential to be able to understand and communicate the difference.  

Right.

When I look at something for Jujamcyn – which is different than for Encores!, where I’m really looking at the score and the history of the piece – I’m always examining the story.  Is this story told all the way through to the end?  Is it a compelling story that I want to tell?  Is there a great role in which an actor can clear hurdles in a way that an audience will want to see, like a Madame Rose, Harold Hill, Alexander Hamilton, or Evan Hansen?  Unlike film, where there are many takes and months of editing, in theater, audiences are hungry to watch a live person like themselves live through an entire story in front of their eyes.  This is not only magical, it is a marketable commodity.  I also ask whether the story interacts with the world we are already engaged in today, or whether an audience will be indifferent to the topic.  Pieces like Angels in America, August Wilson’s plays, and Dear Evan Hansen had the advantage of already being in sync with current society and events.  That’s important.  Jordan Roth added an interesting component to consider when analyzing potential projects for Jujamcyn, which is whether a show is necessary.  Is it something that people will feel that they must partake of, or is it just good?  Various things can make a production necessary, but competition is so fierce in the marketplace that without this necessity it won’t survive.  It can be heartbreaking.  Every now and then, one sneaks by that feels unnecessary and becomes a hit, but never a mega-hit.

Broadway Profiles – A Serial Interview with Jack Viertel Part Three

CTI is delighted to present another in-depth conversation with Jack Viertel, this time discussing the evolution of theater criticism, the overlap between the commercial and non-profit worlds, and the various duties of a dramaturg.

Content has been edited for brevity and clarity 

PART THREE

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, as you’ve had experience as both a commercial producer and a theater critic.  I’ve noticed that more and more, the reviews are not always in line with popular opinion and have heard that the world of theater criticism is shrinking.  Why do you think that is?

I think there are a few answers to that.  Probably the most important reason that theater criticism isn’t as powerful as it once was isn’t that the theater critics are less good – which is a debatable point that one could have any number of opinions about – but that the audience is now so broad and from so many different places that they’re not buying tickets based on reviews anymore.  Someone planning a trip from across the country – or the world – decides what shows to see based on various kinds of marketing, including social media and advertising, and they don’t really know whether the critics liked the show.

When I was young, back in the early 60s, the audience was still largely based in New York and its suburbs.  Everyone read the reviews and cared about what the critics said because there was no alternative information. There was no social media or ads on television, for example; the critics were kind of it.  Even the advertising that was done marketed the show through quotes from the critics.  They were the only real taste-makers. Now, theater criticism has to compete with an ever-broadening audience and an ever-broadening way of distributing information.  It remains powerful for certain kinds of theater where there’s still a New York-centric audience, but that’s no longer the lion’s share of theater-goers on Broadway, so Broadway primarily produces for international and national audiences.  And this isn’t just an issue for theater criticism, of course, it’s a problem for journalism everywhere.  Newspapers are disappearing – my old alma mater, the Herald Examiner, hasn’t been around for a long time.  We don’t expect the paper to hit the driveway in the morning — we turn on our phones and can check out a half-dozen news sources on the same screen at the same time.

I think as a result, many theater critics feel empowered to write in a way that is less about reporting what they saw on stage last night (and having an opinion about what was good and what was bad about that) than it is about trying to push the art form in one direction or another depending on their own aesthetics.  I’m not saying that’s an invalid thing to do, but it’s different than what Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson were doing, which was essentially a reporting job with opinion added.  There isn’t as much reporting in today’s theater criticism, but there’s a lot of opinion.  A lot of the opinion is about the show but just as much is also often about what the production represents in terms of where the theater is going.  I think that becomes a slightly inside baseball argument among people who want to talk about the aesthetics of an art form and much less a general interest piece of writing about whether to attend a show.  It seems that many critics have taken on the responsibility of helping establish where the art form goes.

And of course, politics have always been relevant in theater and art, but it seems that we are seeing an extreme increase in the infiltration of politics both in productions and within theater criticism.  

Yes.  It’s geopolitics, but it’s also sexual politics and racial politics and I think it works in both directions.  Critics can be, to me, overly critical of shows that are not involved in politics or revivals of older shows whose sexual or racial politics feel outdated, but they can also give a pass to some shows that are not particularly well done but are passionately making a contemporary point.  Now, this is only my opinion and not necessarily the next person’s opinion, but that’s what I sense; many critics are driven toward or away from certain pieces based on things other than “I had a good time” or “I didn’t have a good time.”

Would you say that this evolution of theater criticism is having an impact on the industry and the kind of work that is being produced?

I think it may be having an impact on the non-profit part of the industry more than the commercial.  In my opinion, the commercial part of the industry is heat seeking toward an audience and they’re not worrying too much about the critics.  When you look at the evidence of shows like Wicked, which was not well-reviewed for the most part and has run for decades anyway, (or shows that got wonderful reviews and didn’t run because there was no real commercial audience for them) I think most Broadway producers view critics as an adjunctive entity that comes with opening a show.  The critics are smart, so it’s nice to get good reviews, but from a marketing point of view, it’s less essential than it once was.

You have extensive experience in both the non-profit and commercial world.  Is there any overlap between the two, or have they become polar opposite worlds?

I think they’ve become partners in a way.  It’s like a Venn Diagram; there is a big chunk of work in which only non-profit or commercial producers would be interested, but there’s a certain amount in which both would be interested.   In that overlapping portion, the worlds can work together.  For example, many commercial producers will give enhancements to non-profit theaters to try out their shows.  The non-profit and commercial producers can talk to each other about where the theater’s going, where it’s been, what’s good, and what’s bad.  But each also has their own work that they’re doing for their own mission and interests.

I’m changing topics a bit here.  When looking through your bio, I noticed that you credit yourself as both a dramaturg and a creative consultant.  Is there a difference between them?

There is in the sense that as a creative consultant, you might be called upon to help a producer refine a list of directors or composers, for example, to hire for a project.  I don’t consider that dramaturgy.  But once a project is started, I think creative consultant is just an American way of saying dramaturg.  So, I don’t particularly distinguish between them once that process has begun.

Would you say that dramaturgs are more prevalent in the non-profit arena than the commercial?  I rarely see a dramaturg credit in a Broadway playbill. 

Yes, and also in European theater (which is largely non-profit).  In these worlds, it’s actually a defined job, rather than just associate to the producer.  Dramaturgs do research for the cast and director and write program notes; they’re involved in the semi-academic side of surrounding the production with knowledge.  They aren’t necessarily tasked with helping a production creatively or working on the script, as a lot of the shows are classics, but they provide research and facts which help the audience appreciate whatever they’re seeing. In commercial theater, I think, we use the term more to mean someone who’s working to help the creators make a better show.