Podcast Episode 92 Transcript – Lynne Meadow
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport. I’m very excited to have on our podcast today one of the most important figures in non-profit theatre on the planet, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow. Welcome, Lynne!
Lynne: Thank you, Ken.
Ken: How did you get started in the theatre?
Lynne: In New York or in my life?
Ken: In your life – where did you get bit by the bug?
Lynne: I got bit in the basement of Temple Mishkan Israel when I was a little girl. In most synagogues they have a room downstairs from the main synagogue, kind of an auditorium, and my mom was very interested in the theatre and she wrote a new faces for whatever year it was when I was like four years old and I remember walking in and looking at what was going on on the stage and I thought “That is really just the most fun. That looks more fun than anything.” So I got bit by the bug very early and I grew up in New Haven where, when I was a child, there were no women undergraduates at Yale University so when shows were being done at Yale, at the Yale Drama, they would use local women to be in shows so I was cast, when I was 12 years old, in a musical that was written by David Shire and Richard Maltby and it had a great company of people in it – Austin Pendleton was in it, Sam Waterston, a woman named Carrie Nye – it was directed by a brilliant director named Bill Francisco, and Bill Francisco would go on to become very acclaimed in New Haven but then he went back to Wesleyan, where he had gone to school as an undergraduate, and he is the reason that I became a director in the theatre because he was just so talented and so charismatic and what he was doing just looked like so much fun but he continued his career at Wesleyan where he was a teacher and mentor and a person whom he mentored in the theatre is Lin-Manuel Miranda, so Lin-Manuel and I laugh to say that we had the same mentor, he certainly was the reason I decided to become a director, really as a young girl.
Ken: So you were quick to jump off the stage as an actress and say “I want to direct,” so what was it about directing that appealed to you?
Lynne: Well, I think the theatre itself, I was just a moth to the flame. I grew up in New Haven where I would see shows at Yale and every once in a while I would be taken into New York to see a play, and of course I wanted to be an actress, I knew that directing seemed fascinating and this man seemed fascinating and what he was doing, moving people around on the stage, seemed fascinating, but I think it wasn’t until I realized that I had no talent whatsoever as an actress that I knew that it was directing that was for me. That was in the eighth grade homeroom play where Mr. O’Reilly was having trouble directing the show and so I said “Mr. O’Reilly, I can help you.” How old are you in eighth grade? Eleven or something. So I guess it was then.
Ken: Well, at least you discovered it early. I know many actors who are still discovering that they should be doing something else at a much older age. How did you go about pursuing a career in directing?
Lynne: I acted in college and I acted in high school and I also directed – I went to Bryn Mawr College and there’s a freshman show that people had to write, an original show, and I gathered everybody together to do that and I directed to that. And, as I say, I refer to New Haven a lot of times but it was the presence of the Yale School of Drama that was the Emerald City, that was the place I wanted to go, so I studied French as an undergraduate and I spent some time in Paris and learned how to speak French but still the beacon called and I wanted to study directing at Yale and when I was in my senior year I applied to the Yale School of Drama as a director and I was put on the waiting list – they said I was the first person on the waiting list but I hadn’t been accepted – and I was horrified because it was really all I dreamed about. I didn’t even really dream of New York, I dreamed of going to the Yale School of Drama and I didn’t really have many plans after that, so I got on a train from Philadelphia and I had asked if I could meet the dean to talk about what had happened, I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t bene accepted, and I went up to New Haven – this is back in 1968 – and I met with Gordon Rogoff, who was the dean, and I said “I just don’t understand why I wasn’t accepted,” he said it was incredibly competitive, there were over 500 applications for four or five places, so it was very competitive, and this was 1968 so I was pretty naive, there was no women’s movement that I knew of, so I naively said “Did you accept any women?” and he paused and said “No, as a matter of fact we didn’t,” and I said “Is that the reason that you turned me down?” he said “Well, we haven’t had that much luck with a couple of the women we have accepted here.” I repeat – 1968, things were different – but my spirt and my zeal were born out of my passion to want to direct for the theatre, not out of a political sense, and after I graduated I went to work at the Center Stage in Baltimore for a wonderful man named Peter Culman who was the executive director and I worked as his executive assistant for a week and then I went into his office and said “This is just not going to work out. This is not where I want to be, I really want to be a director.” Anyway, I wrote a very long, impassioned letter to the dean at Yale explaining why I thought a woman could really do as good a job as a man could do, maybe different, but that I felt that I could really do a good job and I described what I felt my qualities were that would allow me to succeed and two days later I got a phone call, they said that I had been accepted. I was the first person on the waiting list and I guess someone had decided not to come and so I was accepted at Yale. That story is important to me because I think what I wanted to do and, as I say, what I had a passion for doing is something that women really were not doing anywhere. I didn’t really have a role model – I had heard about Zelda Fichandler in Washington and I had heard there was a woman named Nina Vance who ran a theatre and I knew Ellen Stewart’s theatre and that really was all, and I remmeber seeing, at the Schubert Theatre in New Haven, there was a repertory company run by Eva Le Gallienne and I saw a few shows that were done and I guess she had directed them. I had a little trouble with some of the quality being up to what I imagined but I didn’t have a role model and one of the things that I feel very proud of, of what my career has been, is that I think I really cut a path for so many talented women who now have come and are doing such great work in the theatre and so I feel as if I did something that was not my intention to do but I think by exemplary action one can make a difference and create social change and, in this case, artistic change, so it makes me very proud to see the kind of work that’s being done by women, women directors and women artistic directors.
Ken: So that was 1968. How are we doing today in including women in what was, what still is seen by many, the boys club of both directors and writers? Take our temperature today.
Lynne: I think it’s not a boys’ club anymore. I think there are powerful women who have made an incredible different in so many aspects of the theatre – directing, producing, writing – so I feel like we always need to get better and we certainly rest on our laurels and I think we see, as social change happens, sometimes there’s a setback and so there’s no reason to be complacent, by any means. I think sexism still exists, just as racism still exists, we’re seeing that in our world, but we’ve made tremendous progress and in my tenure at Manhattan Theatre Club the landscape is completely different, and the landscape around America. I mean, when I was the artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club back in 1974 there were no other women artistic directors to have a conversation with, I was talking to Gordon Davidson and Arvin Brown and Jon Jory – all the people were men, and that certainly has really changed.
Ken: Tell me, what’s a day in the life of an artistic director today? What do you find you’re spending most of your time on?
Lynne: I’m heaving a sigh. There are so many things. I have, with my partner, Barry Grove, who I hired a few years into my tenure as artistic director, with him we’ve created a large institution that produces, on a large scale, just in terms of the number of shows that we do on as small a budget as we can do it on, because we have to raise the money every year to do the shows that we do, but the combination of the demands of producing, of reading material, choosing material, casting material, putting shows on, along with everything else that’s attached to an institution, one of the things that I felt strongly about many years ago was that we needed to have an educational outreach program and I asked a friend of mine who had been a director of the Yale School of Drama if he would head up our program – his name is David Shookhoff and he has just been a genius, he’s the dean of education in New York and has created so many programs for outreach, so there’s that program and there’s raising money for that program and we’re constantly doing benefits – we do two benefits a year so we have to put on shows to do the benefits – and there’s meetings with boards of directors and there’s conversations with artists and attending run throughs of shows that you’re not directing and working on designs for shows – I’m directing a new show starting after the first of the year, there’s pre-production meetings on that. There’s a trend – and I know you’ve spoken to Andre Bishop and Todd Haimes in your other podcasts – I think there is a trend that has emerged where people who are running theatres, artistic directors, are not necessarily stage directors and I have tremendous esteem and regard and respect for my colleagues Todd Haimes and Andre Bishop and Oskar Eustis and all of the artistic directors in New York, there is just so much talent in this city, but I’m wary of trends emerging where boards of directors feel that non-profit institutions, artistic institutions, should be run by business people – and I have a great partnership with Barry Grove who, as I say, has been my partner for many years now, but I think the heart of an artistic institution is the art and the mandate, the mission, what the theatre is about, is about art and everything else is in support of that and I think we just have to keep our eye on that and make sure that, particularly when we’re holding out our hats and saying “Support these institutions,” there’s something going on here that’s different from what’s going on in other parts of the theatre. We work very closely with the commercial theatre and there are co-productions with the commercial theatre but our mission is to use the money that we make from a show, or money that we raise, our mission is to take that money and use it to produce the next thing that we’re doing. Our mission and our goal is not to make our shows financially successful and, at the end of the day, if you’re producing in the commercial theatre your obligation is to create a success – that doesn’t mean there isn’t incredible artistic excellence and great success, but success or failure is based on ‘Did the show recoup? Did the show make money?’ and our measure of success in a not-for-profit setting is a different metric system, so a show at the Manhattan Theatre Club can be not financially successful but successful in many other ways. A playwright is discovered who, two plays from now, is going to write a really successful play, actors are discovered who are going to have major careers – we are going to be instrumental in helping those careers. So there are a lot of other measurements of what constitutes success in a not-for-profit theatre and we have to make sure that the art stays at the center of that and not just the idea of business and survival. Again, not to denigrate in any way the need for sound business practices and really being buttoned up and responsible, responsible to a board of directors and responsible to people who are giving you money, to spend the money very carefully and frugally, frankly, but it’s definitely a difference and I guess I’m waving the flag for making sure that the art and our raison d’etre, which is producing work for the theatre, whether it’s going to be successful financially or not, that’s what our job is, that’s why we’re doing benefits and saying “Please contribute to us,” because the playwright that you choose today, who may have a flop, maybe will turn around and write something brilliant two plays from now, and I have seen it happen, I have made it happen, I have stood by so many artists over the years, so many careers that I have stood behind and I have seen what happens when success is not based on a certain kind of metric.
Ken: That is one of the things I so admire about non-profits but especially MTC, because I have seen this over my 20+ years in the city, where I see a show that doesn’t work but I can tell it’s about the writer. Talk to me about how you pick a season in general, about what goes into that process.
Lynne: It’s interesting because I often bristle at this word, when my partner says “Have you ‘picked’ the season yet?” A season is actually created. It’s created, because it’s not like an apple on a tree out there and you’re looking at which apple and which pear and you say “Oh, I think I’ll do that one.” There are so many elements to producing a season, starting with what the material is, who’s going to be in it, who’s going to direct it, who’s going to design it, all of those elements that you put together is what’s called producing. Then, of course, there’s the issue of raising money, that’s a portion and it’s a big portion but it’s not the only portion of producing a show and it takes a long time and I use many criteria for making selections. One of them is to create a diverse season. The first thing on my mind is always quality and excellence. I’m looking for voices in the writers and the directors who I hire in addition to myself, I’m looking for artists who have great talent and I’m looking for writers who have a voice and I’m looking for work that, in some way, is going to speak to us now, something that I respond to and that hopefully other people will respond to. So it takes a long time to do it and sometimes I wish it were like an assembly line, where you could say “I’ll take that one, that one and that one,” the way we look at those cupcakes in the Magnolia store and say “That one looks good and that one looks good,” and I think when you’re not producing premieres – American premieres, world premieres or New York premieres – it’s probably a little bit difference because I think if you’re doing new work and you’re doing that outside New York City, in another city, I don’t think it’s easier to be an artistic director but I think it’s different because you can look at some of the work that’s been created and endorsed and that you’ve seen in New York and say “Well, I think I’d like to do a production of that.” That feels to me like picking. I think, when you’re putting it together for the first time, that, to me, feels like creating.
Ken: So you’ve obviously been at MTC for several decades now.
Ken: Hundreds of decades! What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your role as an artistic director over those decades? What are you doing today that, back when you first started, you never imagined you’d be spending your time on?
Lynne: I think over the history of my career there have been things that I’ve gotten involved in that I never would have believed I would have to understand or deal with, starting with the complicated financial statements that we prepare for our board, just even understanding that. There’s a story when I was interviewed, I had directed a play at what was incorporated as the Manhattan Theatre Club – this is back in the early ’70s when I’m on a leave of absence from Yale, I left after two years for a leave of absence – so I was in New York and I went to this place, Manhattan Theatre Club, and I put on a play and some members of the board of directors saw it and I was asked if I wanted to be the artistic executive director and I had a tough decision to make because I had been walking by the cheese department at Zabar’s – I lived on the upper west side – and I kept stopping in, saying “Don’t you need someone to work in the cheese department?”, I need a job badly. Then the Manhattan Theatre Club came along and they wanted to interview me as artistic director and I thought “Well, Zabar’s or Manhattan Theatre Club…” Anyway, so I was interviewed by the board of directors and I had been a French major, I think I mentioned that, and I graduated with honors, my French was good, they didn’t have a math course when I was there, they now have a major, and so the board, during this interview, showed me what the budget was at the time and I think I maybe even knew that I should ask to see it, that seemed like it would be a prudent thing to do because it was artistic and executive, so I said “Gentlemen, can I see your financial statement?” I looked at it, I looked down the page and I said “This is very interesting.” I saw words that I didn’t even know what they were. I knew what ComEd was but I didn’t know what cartage was – and I learned afterwards that was how they got rid of the garbage. Then I got to the bottom of the page and I said “This is a very interesting budget. I see you have $75,000 but when do you have parentheses around the number?” So they hired me anyway. I had no idea what a deficit was – I had a checking account and I did manage to pay my rent but they went ahead and hired me. So this is the story of where I was then and where I am now. I can’t tell you that I am sophisticated in our accounting – I hear about when we’re having audits and I try not to nod off during that time – but I understand a lot about managing and making choices that are actually prudent, financially. But that’s one thing I didn’t imagine I’d ever do, I mean after that $75,000 number they looked at me in a very strange way, they did have to explain “That’s money we don’t have, Lynne,” so I explained to them that I thought it was not a good idea to do a benefit and lose money, that seemed to me conceptually misguided, so that was one of my first executive decisions – “Let’s do a benefit and make some money, let’s not do a benefit and lose money.”
Ken: In a way that’s the best answer they ever could have asked for, interviewing an artistic director who doesn’t know what a deficit is – you only work with a surplus.
Ken: How has having the Biltmore changed MTC?
Lynne: I think that was huge. This is now our thirteenth season but when I started I was on 73rd Street between First and Second and we had a home year for about the first ten years, then we moved, through a crazy series of legal things – we need three more podcasts to go into what happened when we tried to buy the building and we lost the building – anyway, we ended up at midtown, 55th Street where we still have a theatre at City Center, we built two theatres there, and we were already breaking ground by early 2000 so, as I say, it’s our thirteenth season now, in 2016. When we were off-Broadway only we were doing a tremendous amount of work, plays and playwrights whom I supported, from Terrence McNally to John Patrick Shanley to Dave Auburn to Charles Bush, Donald Margulies, so many of the writers with whom I chose to work and whose work I chose to director and/or produce were having plays that were moving either off-Broadway, we were moving them off-Broadway, and occasionally they would move to Broadway – we moved Terrence McNally’s play Love, Valor, Compassion to Broadway in 1995 – so we were working in the Broadway arena slightly and working off-Broadway and there was a very strong feeling that we should have our own Broadway home and so we looked for a number of years and Barry was tireless in the search and I joined him on this and when we embarked on this I had trepidation about how could we stay who we were. The reason I had become the artistic leader of this institution, could I continue to do the work that interested me the most and be on Broadway? So the last thirteen years have been an incredible learning curve where I think we’ve been able to sustain an identity as a company that is a risk taking company, a company that is supportive of writers, I think it’s been a real learning curve for me in how to do that and create work that’s at a level that it should be on Broadway in the sense of being able to draw a large enough audience. It’s definitely been a challenge but I think Barry’s efforts in terms of finding a new audience and galvanizing that audience and obviously starting my own efforts of making choices about what we would do and who we would support and keeping in mind that we had to be prudent, financially, that we couldn’t go out of business doing this. What was shocking was how much money we could lose really quickly on a show on Broadway as opposed to a show Off Broadway so, yeah, it’s been fascinating. I don’t think I ever would have imagined that this is what I would do. I really was stage-struck, I fell in love with the theatre and I wanted to direct shows and I think the rest has been a way that I can do that – how can I go and work in the theatre every day? And sometimes I have to pinch myself because I think, as arduous as it can be to be at this seven days a week for so many years, I’ve gotten to do it and I’ve gotten to be around theatre people, who are the people I love being around the most, other than my immediate friends and my husband and my son. There’s just nothing like being with actors and other directors and designers. I feel very blessed – I’ve gotten very sentimental now – I feel incredibly blessed, particularly in the world we’re living in now, of what all of us who work in the theatre feel, which is we have the opportunity, I feel that I have the opportunity, to say something and a platform to do something and I think maybe one of my real talents has been to discover talent and to give people a chance and how rewarding that is and what a blessing that is just to be able to do that. I feel bad for all the no’s that I’ve said but I feel very, very grateful for the yeses that I’ve been able to say, the number of people who have walked through rehearsal halls here and been on our stages and the careers that they have had. I sound as if I’ve gotten sentimental and looking back but I’m doing that for two minutes while I’m talking to you and the minute I stop talking to you I’m going to go upstairs and say “Okay, what are we doing now?” because I actually don’t like to look back too much, I’m much more interested in what we’re doing tomorrow and what’s going on and how are we going to cast this and let’s try to get the rights to that.
Ken: In that spirit, I was going to ask you to look back upon your many productions here and ask you one of my James Lipton questions – if the Smithsonian could put of your shows, MTC shows, in the institute, which would you choose? But I’m not going to ask you that. You can answer it if you want but you don’t like to look back.
Lynne: Well, I can’t choose. I think if you look at the history of the Manhattan Theatre Club, over the over forty years that I’ve been here, there has been an amazing amount of really fine work that has come from this institution and has come as a result of great people wanting to work here and my being awake enough to say “Yes” the number of times that I have, so I can’t choose. There are so many writers with whom I’ve worked with as a director who I love and so many terrific writers. How can I begin to choose?
Ken: I won’t make you.
Lynne: Okay, thank you.
Ken: Let’s look ahead – what are you most excited about, coming up, for MTC? Is there something you’re really “Oh my gosh, I can feel it in my bones, this is it.”?
Lynne: It’s what we’re doing tomorrow – we’re opening Heisenberg, Simon Stephens’ play, that we commissioned and we open in our small 150 seat theatre, that opens Tuesday September 20th at the Fremont Theatre, it starts previews.
Ken: It will be in previews by the time this podcast goes live.
Lynne: Great, so that’s starting. A play by Qui Nguyen is starting, Vietgone, at City Center. A new play by Sarah Jones is starting at City Center. So that’s my reality right now, and I’m really excited about the play I’m directing by Penny Skinner, called Linda, that I start after the first of the year, so I guess I’m just in a state of excitement most of the time, looking at what’s coming next. It’s always different.
Ken: How do new writers get in front of somebody like you? What’s your advice to writers out there that are like “Oh my gosh, if only Lynne Meadow would just read my script!”?
Lynne: Well, we have a process here, and an artistic office, so we read scripts and we do a lot of readings and we’re seeing plays that are being done around New York, we see plays that are being done around the country and I have great advisors who are saying “Let’s take a look at this.”
Ken: What if a young listener out there said “I want to start a theatre company.”? What would you advise them to do in 2016?
Lynne: I would say get a lot of sleep before your first day because you won’t sleep again and I would say don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it or that it’s too hard or that you shouldn’t or that it exists or that it isn’t a prudent thing to do because you really have to ignore all the reasons not to do it and follow your heart. If you want to do it, you must go ahead. Every day you face the challenges and you try to look ahead and plan and make a five-year plan of where you think you’d like to be and then throw that out because it probably won’t turn out to be that way. I think you have to have the kind of determination and will and willingness to fold in the face of a bad notice, financial challenges, I think you just have to preserve – what is it the I Ching says? Perseverance furthers. You just can’t give up because if it’s something you have to do then you have to do it, and I think we’ve seen examples of that. Anybody getting any sort of show on, it’s such a triumph just, to get to opening night of one show is a triumph, but in my worldview nothing seems better than watching the curtain go up the first night and, on Broadway, every time we have an opening night and those people with the cameras go running down the aisle to snap pictures it’s like I’m that 12-year-old girl again, in Richard Maltby’s musical, singing my heart out and being so excited that this is what I get to do. So you really have to just have a lot of determination and not be willing to take no for an answer. That’s what my mother used to say to me when I was a kid, she would yell at me and say “Why can’t you take no for an answer?” I thought if I ever wanted to write a book or a pamphlet about my life I think I would call it “She didn’t like to take no for an answer.”
Ken: Okay, my last question – I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you and knocks on your door and says “Lynne, I want to thank you for your incredible contributions to the theatre. You have built an incredible institution that has changed theatre all over the world, without a doubt,” and this is Ken talking as well as the genie now, but the genie has the power to grant you one wish to say thank you. What’s the one thing that drives you crazy about Broadway or about New York theatre in general that gets you so mad? You’re so passionate, you love what you do, but there’s got to be something that drives you to pounding the tables, keeps you up at night, that you would ask this genie to wish away.
Lynne: I’m not sure it keeps me up at night because it’s a more sustained concern, if you will, it’s not an emotional rage about anything because I’ve kind of let those go but I do feel concerned about making sure that ticket prices are such that people have access to the theatre because I do think that theatre is transformative and changes lives – and this is about Broadway only, the genie would change something having to do with Broadway?
Ken: The New York theatre environment in general.
Lynne: I think my concern is to make sure that we’re reaching the next generation and that we’re providing for a theatre audience that is willing to come in to the theatre and turn off cellphones and sit for a period of time and listen to the spoken word and also see material that’s exciting and that represents concerns and issues and ideas and fun that the next generation wants, but I think the audience has to be there. We exist, we’re an art form that’s popular, we exist with an audience in the present moment and I would like the genie to just make sure that we’re bringing people in to see all the incredible work that’s going on in the theatre now, all over New York – on Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway – there’s great work happening here in New York City and certainly all over the country, right now we’re talking about New York City, so I just hope we can provide access to people who will then grow up and have kids and bring their kids and let somebody fall in love with the theatre just the way I did.
Ken: It’s a fantastic answer and I want to thank you for your contributions to the theatre. I definitely want to put a plug in for that book – please write that book, I will read it and I will push it to everyone out there as well. Thanks you so much. Thanks to all of you for listening and we will see you next time!