GUEST BLOG: The Art of Business: Or, How Real Estate Helped Me Put Up A Broadway Show By Sarah Saltzberg.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably know all about Gettin’ The Band Back Together, the new musical comedy in its first week of previews at the Belasco Theater. You know that it took nine years to get it to Broadway, and you also know that the engine behind the show is Ken Davenport, who is not only the writer but also the show’s producer. I could easily make this a post about how much I admire Ken as an entrepreneur, disruptor, and trendsetter in the current theatrical landscape, which you probably know all about, too – and I’ll get to that. But first, like any self-respecting person in the theater, I will find a way to make this about myself.
I first met Ken when I auditioned to be one of the improvisers that helped create Gettin’ The Band Back Together. I knew Ken was the visionary behind The Awesome ’80s Prom, My First Time, and Altar Boyz, and I admired his commitment to creating new work. I was particularly interested in collaborating with him because it seemed his process was very similar to mine. As we started working together, I found that Ken and I shared not only a love of the theater, particularly new musicals, but also a love of business and how it relates to the arts. Creating new shows takes not only passion and dedication, but also lots of problem-solving. . . . and money. This was a lesson I learned when working on one of my first shows in New York, and it led me on a path that unexpectedly thrust me into the business world.
Like many actors that go to a conservatory for training, I came out of college with an incredible Irish accent, a killer drop down, and absolutely no idea on how to manage the business side of show business. I became involved in C-R-E-P-E-S-C-U-L-E (the precursor to The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, which was developed through improvisation) as a creator and then as a producer, and quickly realized that if I wanted to fund my own art I would need something more lucrative than waiting tables. I got my real estate license with the intention of using it only for a summer and reached out to my landlord about renting the units in my building. He hung up on me. Undeterred, I called him back, and I kept calling him back until he gave me a green light.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my landlord owned a portfolio of over a hundred buildings in Harlem, which eventually became my exclusive listings over the course of a year. Let me stress that I had no real idea what I had gotten into, but using the tools I had as an actor I was able to find solutions to problems that might otherwise have been insurmountable. Trying to open an apartment door that had accidentally been dead-bolted? Sure, I could have just walked away. Or I could improvise . . . . by climbing up the fire escape, jimmying open the window, and then opening the door for the clients from the inside. Walking clients through a building while a very obvious drug deal is taking place, through a haze of marijuana smoke? No problem. Just tell the clients they won’t have to go very far if they want to get stoned. I was joking . . . kind of.
I started not only enjoying the challenges of real estate, but also looking forward to them. It was thrilling to watch a deal come together, to advise on the renovation plans of an apartment, and to meet and help clients. Most importantly though, I felt I was in control of my own destiny; being a full-time actor is a life of uncertainty, and I knew I was not cut out for that. I loved that things were black and white in real estate; you were either closing a deal, or you weren’t. It was a great balance to the creative world that I also loved.
Within three years, Spelling Bee was on Broadway, and I was playing Logainne, the character I created. At this point, I no longer had to work in real estate; for the first time, I was making enough money as an actor to not have another job. But I knew that Spelling Bee wouldn’t be forever and more than that, I really LOVED working in real estate. I found it empowering, and with the money I was making I started to think of other shows I wanted to bring to life.
I had started recruiting my friends to become real estate agents, and we became a team that specialized in Upper Manhattan. One of my clients, Jon Goodell, got his license and we shortly thereafter became partners, managing a team of almost twenty agents. In 2012, we decided to open our own Harlem firm, Bohemia Realty Group – branding ourselves as uptown specialists with a creative edge. In 2016, we opened a second office in Washington Heights and now have over 120 agents and 18 staff members. Almost all of our agents have a background in the arts and are attracted by the flexible schedule and autonomy the job offers. They also like that they are surrounded by others like themselves – one of our agents calls Bohemia “the green room of real estate.”
Performers are empathetic, good listeners, take rejection well, and are creative problem solvers; these skills translate very well into the real estate world. Like me, though, most have never taken a business class – and so for actors that become sales agents, real estate becomes that education, teaching us everything from how to negotiate, how to communicate effectively, and most importantly, how to become financially empowered. Many of our agents have followed my trajectory and have self produced albums and shows of their own, which in turn inspires me to continue to do what I do.
This past week, we started previews for Gettin’ The Band Back Together. During the day, I’m at the Bohemia offices; in the evenings, I go to the theater to watch the show and work with Ken on changes during this crucial time. These are long days, but there is no one who understands this balancing act this quite like Ken – someone with a hand in both business and art, who uses his incredible talents in these areas to achieve the nearly impossible (like getting a brand new show to Broadway.) Working with him has made me a better artist, a better business person, and a better friend. And while I’m so excited that Gettin’ The Band Back Together is on the final leg of its journey, it’s also bittersweet to let it go. I suppose I could enjoy the free time.
Or, I can think about another idea for a show and start all over . . . and maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get to work with Ken again.
Sarah Saltzberg was part of the original creative cast for Gettin’ the Band Back Together, and is thrilled that the show has made it to Broadway. Career highlights include: a creator and original cast member of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a creator/actor of off-Broadway’s Don’t Quit Your Night Job; and a writer of off-Broadway’s Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage (also with Ken Davenport.) Sarah is also the co-owner of Bohemia Realty Group, a boutique firm specializing in properties north of 96th Street, where the majority of agents have a background in the performing arts.
Bohemia Realty Group is a dynamic team of dedicated real estate professionals that focus on residential rentals and sales in Upper Manhattan. Our mission is a three-pronged approach to improving quality of life: to service clients in an efficient, friendly way; to create a positive work environment for our agents and employees; and to enrich the community above 96th Street. From pre-war walk up rentals to new development condos, we firmly believe that it’s possible for all New Yorkers to have light, space, and a renovated bathroom. . . and not have to give up dinner in order to afford it.