Podcast Episode 103 Transcript – Heather Hitchens
Ken: Hello everybody! Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m very excited to have today’s guest with us today. Please welcome the president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, Heather Hitchens. Welcome Heather.
Heather: Thank you.
Ken: So prior to her position at the Wing, which by the way for those of you who don’t know, the Wing is one of the industry’s most powerful and important organizations. Heather was the executive director of the New York State Council of the Arts, overseeing the distribution of over 123 million bucks in grants. She was also the president of the National Arts Service Organization to Meet The Composer and CEO of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. Prior to this research, I didn’t even know Symphony Orchestras had CEOs. So yes, she is a powerhouse of an arts administrator.
And that here, she’s also a powerhouse of a drummer. Is that true? Are you a percussionist?
Heather: Well, I don’t know if I’m a powerhouse, but it’s certainly how I think it is.
Ken: Tell me a little bit about that, about you as a musician and your positions you’ve had.
Heather: Well, I was one of the lucky people that had music in the schools as well as arts and school plays. And when it came time to start music, they started usually everybody on violin and having gone through the Suzuki method with my sister, I was actually a very shy person at that point in my life, six years old, I said, “No. I want to play the drums.” And they were very concerned and called my parents and said “Are you sure you want to do this?” And they said, “Let her play the drums.”
And that’s how that started it and then I gained my degree in music at DePaul University and the rest of it you know.
Ken: And when did you make the decision that you wanted to slide over from being a performer to the other side–the desk, if you will–and working the administrative side of the field?
Heather: It was somewhat gradual. I mean, it was influenced by–my dad was in Corporate America. My mom was a teacher who also did a lot of volunteer work. So, there was something in me that liked the business side and then—and wanted to make a difference. And as a musician, when I looked at playing freelance–you know, at that point for percussion, orchestras were the best full-time gig you can get, right? And the music, we were enjoying this time in the composition room as well as music [inaudible]. I can either move from day to day or I can try and get in the orchestra and [inaudible]. So, and I was kind of interested in the administrative side of it.
But I started after I graduated college, I worked at a local radio station in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, and there was a woman there who did culture show. I was doing the traffic. I was the traffic manager, so I was making sure [inaudible], but she was chitchatting with me in-between doing the lobby saying “You really should go to the American Music Theatre Festival in downtown Philadelphia. They have internships that they’ll pay you more than you’re making here,” and I did. And that was my first job in the arts, working an internship at the American Music Theatre Festival. And they were doing all kinds of cutting edge theatre, and it was a great experience.
Ken: So, what was it about the theater that got you even more excited about a career in the arts? Do you remember the first shows you saw down there, where you like “Oh, this is cool. I want to be a part of this”?
Heather: Well, I remember playing in the pit as a musician and just liking being part of an art form that brings it all together, right? There’s visual things that–the theatre brings music. Everything comes together, and so I liked that.
Ken: You said something about wanting to make a difference. What is the difference that you wanted to make back then and you ended up wanting to make now? What keeps you coming to the office every morning?
Heather: Well, I think initially it was just how important the arts were to my life from the beginning, and seeing over time how that had become more and more of a fight. So, wanting every kid to have that experience. And then, you know, I really have the great privilege of working with arts directly, over the years, and being close to creative artists, playwrights, composers, choreographers–especially working through my eleven years being a composer–and I realized, you know, the risk that they’re taking and how hard it is to do what they do, and how rewarding it is for us to receive what they do. And I wanted to be part of making that happened.
Ken: So, tell me about The Wing. What, in a nutshell–I always say to people “Imagine you’re in a bar in Omaha, Nebraska. You’re sitting there and some guy cozies up next to you and says ‘Hey, Heather, what do you do?'” What do you say to that guy who may have never seen a Broadway show, never been to a play? What do you tell him?
Heather: Well, the Wing’s Board is really focused in two areas. One is finding and rewarding excellence where it lives. So, it lives on Broadway. It lives off Broadway. It lives in the regionals. So, we reward excellence through the Tony Awards, the Obie Awards, and our National Theatre Company event, which helps emerging companies all over the country that are the cutting edge that we are the vehicle of the theater world. So, that’s one area.
And the other big area that we work on is insuring we have the next generation on stage, behind the scenes, within the audience. And that would be all of our professional training programs, The Jonathan Larson grants to Theatre Intern Network, [inaudible].
Ken: Of all those programs, which one is your favorite?
Heather: Wow. That’s a hard one. I mean, I think my new favorite is the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative, which is really filling a gap of identifying talent because of the lack of arts in the schools and the lack of opportunities, really helping schools have resources, and then identifying young talent that couldn’t afford to go to college, or couldn’t afford to do summer study and identifying that young talent and provide some of those resources. So, that’s the one I’m most excited about as an upcoming project because it’s such a need, and we’re really going to be able to make a difference in the lives of these young people, but it’s also really important in terms of the pipeline for our industry.
Ken: Yeah, I think that’s–one of the challenges as a commercial theatre producer I face is I tend to think show by show by show. It’s very hard for me to think 20 years in the future, even though I should be, right? Because I should be thinking about “If I’m going to have a show and produce in 20 years, I need to think about that author who’s now 8 years old,” and that’s primarily what a lot of these programs do.
Heather: Absolutely. And I think when you think about the future–and you even think about the present–you want to make sure that the theatre reflects the world that we’re living in. And that’s one of the major sort of roles of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative and some of our other initiatives is to really make sure that we have that diversity on the stage, behind the scenes, and in the audience.
Ken: So, if you could get all of us commercial theatre producers in a room–which you actually could if you wanted to–
Heather: And sometimes we do.
Ken: You could make a few phone calls and that would happen. So, what would be one thing you would say to them that we could do as an industry to try to make sure that the arts were best served 20, 30 years from now? If there was one thing I could do today, what would it be?
Heather: Well, I mean, you know–in talking to you, you do it. I mean, it’s taking those risks not only on material that seems challenging, but it’s important to get out there because theatre is such an important messenger, right? Take risks on talent and to be really cognizant of all the writers that are out there, whether it be to make sure that we do better in terms of diversity, in terms of women writers–to really make sure that we look at that. So that when we look up in those 20 years, we’re hearing from all the voices that represent who we are.
Ken: You mentioned diversity and so–this is a subject near and dear to my heart, of course and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it. In the last year, we had an incredible, diverse season on Broadway, but from your perspective, really how are we doing? Like, are we doing–especially compared to the Oscars last year. I mean, everyone–all the press was even saying, “Look at Broadway! It’s so amazing compared to anywhere else.” Do you think we’re doing A plus, A minus? Where do you think we are?
Heather: I don’t want to grade it because, you know, my A plus is somebody else’s F, right? You know, but I think–well, last year was tremendously exciting, and it was also an amazing coincidence, and we were somewhat lucky that it all happened at once. It doesn’t happen that way every season, and what I would say is that’s the result of a lot of hard work, because we wouldn’t have gotten there if people weren’t conscious of it. So, I think there is a greater level of consciousness of it–of diversity and the importance of diversity. And I don’t want to say importance of sake of medicine. It’s what made last season so strong. It’s what made it so vital. It’s what made it so exciting. And, I think that, you know, it’s like now we–it’s the moment to double down. To say, “Look what happened. Look how exciting it was,” and it was not only exciting from all the ways it would have been, but it was also a financially successful year. It was the best Tony’s we’ve had for in 15 years. So, to say, “Okay. Let’s look at our own houses. Let’s look. Do we have diverse staff? Do we have a diverse board? Are we producing diverse content? Are we making sure all voices are heard?” And I think right now, in particular, this is more important.
Ken: You gave a lot of money away in grants here at The Wing. Then, you gave a lot of money away for New York State. What does someone have to do out there in the regions to get those grants? Like, what was appealing? The state organizations to The Wing, what kind of work–what was that they did to be attractive to you?
Heather: Well, I think do good work, manage your finance as well because it’s hard to–first of all, the work has to be really good and the finance–you have to manage your finances well. Otherwise, we can’t give you money, right? That doesn’t mean you have to have a lot of–you can manage a little bit of money–but just, you know, do that well. And, you know, take risks. Be innovative. It depends on what program you’re looking at. I mean, at the State, it was a whole different kind of thing, and you know, it’s just really looking at how these organizations serve the entire state because you have–you know, the city is a cultural mecca–but it was amazing how the state is seeing how these cultural organizations form the center, the town center, and were an economic driver, and so often we’re fighting not to get cut. But what’s so interesting is anytime they want to bring, revitalize a town, they bring the arts in because, you know that–well, that works. And how will we–you have to take the next step is like and figure out once artists have the by-laws of town, you have to make it legal for them to stay there. So, that was a very different strategy. That was about strengthening the state’s, really, arts, and not a lot of the same things apply here. What we’re trying to do–I mean, what makes the American Theatre Wing unique is under one tent we have commercial theatre–you know, from the commercial theatre to the most avant-garde. And we say, “This is one big theatre.” Well, guess what? It’s interdependent, and when the small guys are strong, it helps the commercial guys. And when the commercial guys have success, it helps the small guys. And, you know, the Tony Awards in my mind are of the biggest art advocacy school we have left in America. It’s like the place where 7 to 10 millions of people, depending on the year, see a live, performing arts–have a live performing arts experience. And because they don’t get these experiences in schools and other places, say, “Oh, I might want to do that” or, “I might one day want to support that.”
But back to your question, we’re looking at the Wing, in terms of a theatre company, we’re looking for theatre companies with interesting work, who are pushing the envelope in some way, and really contributing to the R&D of the overall theatre economy. We’re talking about Jonathon Larson grants. We’re looking for that next writer, composer, that is going to change the way we think about musical theatre. So, it depends on the program, but I think in those two programs. You know, with the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative, we’re looking for these really talented kids that need a leg up in order to make it, so they can make it all the way in our business. And they can really make a difference and being on the stage.
Ken: Fascinated by your question–they have to have their finances in order, of course, right? Actually, that was an “of course right” to me. I’d never really even thought of–if you think about these non-profits that are doing great work, but of course if they don’t have their–for an organization like yourself. I’m sure that’s where a lot of them screw up.
Heather: Yeah, some of them do. I mean, look, it’s–first of all, our organizations who are, you know–it is–it’s harder to do it, but it’s something that like–I mean, maybe it’s because my dad was a business person, so I brought those ideas of drummer with this business person father, and you know, I bring those two things together. A mistake is really important because you’re asking to invest the people’s money. And so, the first thing we want to be able to say to them is “We’re making X of invest in here,” you know? And we can talk about how the arts contribute 135–the non-profit arts–contribute 135 billion to the economy. And we want to be able to say that–we want to be able to say, “Yes, we make great art and underneath great art is this business infrastructure,” and even if it’s small–you know, it could be small. You can make good business decisions as a small organization. In fact, smaller organizations are the most–in some ways–courageous, visual, and you see it all the time. But yeah, it’s really important as part of–you know, that the art is good and that the business is solid. That’s really important.
Ken: Ok another thing about what you just said, that’s exactly what I do. Like, I’m a commercial theatre producer. People think there’s such a chasm between non-profits and commercial, and that’s what I do–try to produce great art with a great business structure underneath. And make a profit.
Heather: Right, and you know. From where you sit to the smallest not-for-profit, we’re just talking about scale. It’s the same thing. And this is actually one of my passions because I think we have too many silos in this business–commercial versus not-for-profit versus theatre versus, you know, opera, musical theatre–and it’s like, it’s all one big ecology, and commercial theatre has a really strong role to play. As does the most avant-garde to the most not-for-profit. But the principles underlying it are the same. And, you know, commercial producers, they want to have a hit, but they want it to be good. And look what’s being successful on Broadway. It’s so exciting–the quality of work that is also becoming commercially tolerable. That’s good.
Ken: What do you think about the silo between Broadway and off-Broadway? You think those should be blended together?
Heather: I don’t know what you mean “blended together”. I mean, I think they are blended together by the very nature of how the theatre works. But, blended together, as in recognized together in the Tony’s? No. In terms of recognize that each one of these sectors of silos–or whatever you want to call them–plays a critical role in the overall health of the theatre ecology? Yeah, but I think we have more in common between these two areas than there are differences–like many things in [inaudible].
Ken: For sure. Is there anything at the State that you ever wanted to do? Or even here at the Wing, a dream project that you want to do that you haven’t been able to do yet? Do you want to throw it out into the universe and maybe it will happen?
Heather: I’ll have to think about that. I’ve usually been able to figure out how to get things done. I think as you get older you realize you have to belong and you know–and in my younger years I [inaudible] yesterday, and I still have that impatience, but I think now you can see how you’re putting building blocks in place and it takes time or things happen sequentially. For example, from the day I got to The Wing, I really wanted to find a way to address this pipeline issue of young talent getting the leg up, and so we had been talking about it for a number of years. And then this just set the right moment that Andrew Lloyd Webber was thinking about this. So, it’s those kinds of things that create that beautiful moment where we’ve been thinking about this. So, I’m feeling pretty satisfied with that, at the moment.
Ken: Yeah, it’s a good one. I will tell you. Whenever I’m at an ad meeting for shows nowadays, one of the things some of the producers bangs their hand on the table and says, “We gotta get more young people to the theatre! We gotta get more young people in the audiences!” Anything you think that we can do more of as an industry on a day to day basis to get more young folks here?
Heather: Well, one of the great things I think the industry does is when they have tickets available, they make sure to get to organizations like us that get it to students to get them to see it. And I think that’s really important, but I think the main thing that the industry can do is to support arts education in the school. Because if they don’t have it at school, the amount of–4% (I think it is) of elementary schools that have theatre education. 25% of secondary schools. And that’s mostly in black theatre areas where it’s a real quality issue. So, they’re not getting exposed to it in schools. Those kids whose parents were exposed to it and have resources are exposing them to it–but we’ve got to find ways to get them, because it’s a habit. I mean, if you don’t know that it’s something great–if it’s never been introduced to you or if it’s intimidating–so, I think it’s really supporting those arts education efforts, to expose them to it. And getting them in the theatre for the first time. And I’m a huge believer because I know–I’ve never met somebody–so far–we’ve gotten in the theatre that doesn’t want to go there.
Ken: You obviously work with a lot of great Broadway producers on a day to day basis. Who’s your favorite?
Just kidding. But in all seriousness. As you look at all–
Heather: Why don’t you ask me who my least favorites and I can just end my career?
Ken: I will ask–I will press pause.
Heather: I have no–they’re all my favorite artists.
Ken: Of course. So, without naming names–but what are the characteristics of the great producers that you see working today? What are the ones that you’re like, “Yeah, that–I love that producer–what they’re doing” What makes a great producer today?
Heather: Well, it’s not much different than what we were just talking about. You have to have the financial infrastructure under it, and then you have to seek out something special and different and take an artistic risk, or do something different. You know what I mean? So, I think those are the most successful producers. I mean, first of all, it has to be said the risk is taken and the amount of work that’s taken to put the show on Broadway is unbelievable and I bow down to the producers and just the wall that you have to go through to make sure a show comes on–and it might be a beautiful show and for whatever reason at that moment doesn’t land you audiences. And we’ve seen that in recent revivals where a first revival didn’t work, but the second revival went really well. So, it’s a tenacity. It’s a deep belief in what they’re producing and the content. It’s like having courage in their convictions about their content. Having a point of view, really being passionate about what they’re putting on the stage, and then obviously having the financial infrastructure underneath that.
Ken: Obviously one of the Wing’s biggest endeavors every year is the Tony Awards, of course. And you talked a little on last year’s being very successful. What do you think makes a great show for the people? It’s so important, obviously, to get the–just advertise the theatre, in general. What do you think makes a great telecast? What do you think the audience will want to see at that?
Heather: Well, I think it’s a combination of you know showing the season. And I think it’s really hard to do, right? Find the right moment in the show, and I think we really do that really well. And then, it’s like a host of people want to see doing fantastic special material that really excites them and looks entertaining. You know, it’s interesting because–and you know, the Broadway League are our great partners in this and Charlotte and I often talk about the fact that our particular challenge is the Tony’s are the beginning of a conversation with a national audience, where the Grammy’s and the Oscars are the end of a conversation because the albums are out, the movies are out, everybody’s familiar with our content. So, this is the time where we introduce ourselves to the national audience and say, “This is what’s on Broadway, and maybe you want to see a show.” So, it’s both a challenge, but it’s also very exciting. And, unlike [inaudible] the advantage that we have [inaudible] directing the other shows is we have this amazing talent. Nobody has talent like Broadway–this is it. This is where everybody comes. Whether it’s music talent–you know, you see major music talent come through Broadway if you go [inaudible] to the right shows that have never been shown before. It’s where the TV, movie and film people, they want to be on Broadway. They do the movie and film stuff, but they want to be on Broadway. And we even had Mike Tyson on Broadway. It is really where stars align and that’s what makes Broadway exciting is that we’re the one place to bring all this together.
Ken: Any advice for producers out there that debate over and over about what number they should do on the Tony Awards? This is like, as a group, we all scream “Do this number, this number!” What do you think comes off the best like you did?
Heather: Well, it just depends on the show, you know. The sad part of my job is that I sit in shows and go “Oh, that’s the number,” and “That’s the number,” but then, you know, I think this is why Ricky and Glenn and Sherry are so talented because they really help look at a show–and I’m not going to say which show–but when I heard that was the number, I thought to myself, “Oh, okay,” and they were absolutely right that that was the number and it was incredibly successful. And it’s a stressful thing, but I think they’re also looking at the number in a show and how it looks against the other numbers.
Really interesting. I would stress out too. I find myself–as I say–in the show going “Is it this number? Oh, wait. Maybe it’s that number,” and I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision, but they certainly have opinions–as we all do.
Ken: Is The Wing involved in global Broadway efforts and spreading the word about the theatre and Broadway all over the world?
Heather: Well, you know, some of our “Working in the Theatre” documentary series, which is available online, we have a decent size international audience, and I think, frankly, we live in a global world, and theatre is growing all over the world and we move particularly between the two communities between London and here, but also China and other places. And so, I think just by the shear nature that we’re involved in the commercial theatre business means that we’re part of the global commercial theatre business.
Ken: What do you think Broadway looks like in 20 years?
Heather: Well, you know, I hope–the best thing is that we tell these stories–and we tell the diversity of stories that we tell. I hope it just looks like an evolution.
Ken: Okay, but my last question, which is my genie question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to pay a visit at the American Theatre Wing, knocks on your door, wants to thank you for all the grants you’ve given to organizations all over the country and all the work you’ve done throughout your career–wants to thank you by granting you one wish. What’s the one thing that makes you the most angry about Broadway in general? What gets you frustrated? You know, what makes you bang the desk, slam the phone down, slap the laptop closed, makes you want to give it all up that you would ask this genie to wish away?
Ken: There are lots of things, probably. I’m sure.
Heather: What frustrates me because I’ve been working many years in the arts and fighting for resources for the arts–well, with that is a tax break like the Broadway League just achieved or whether that’s funding the arts and arts education. And very few artists who make it have ended up supporting the arts as their charity. And that’s what’s so phenomenal about Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, you know, Alec Baldwin was also another. And there are people that have done that. But that–a big challenge of our business is the audience, is the next generation. What does the stage look like? Do we have an audience? We want younger people. And so, I guess what I–it doesn’t make me angry, but it makes me anxious, that as people make it in this field to remember to put the money back into arts education, because that’s really–it’s a good thing to do, it saves lives, but it’s also good business, for the industry.
Ken: Don’t forget where you came from, everybody! Thank you so much for that answer for this podcast. Thanks to all of you for listening in. We’ll see you next time!