Susan Dietz, Broadway Theater Producer
Direct, warm, and not afraid to tell it like it is, Susan Dietz was delightful to chat with. Dietz has been producing theater for over thirty years, including six Broadway shows such as the Pulitzer-Prize winner, "Topdog/Underdog," by Suzan-Lori Parks and Douglas Carter Beane's, "The Little Dog Laughed." Prior to that, she ran the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills for twenty-one years, served as the Artistic Director of both the LA Stage Company and Pasadena Playhouse. The fact that she is the recipient of four Tony Awards and of a Drama-Logue Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding contribution to Los Angeles Theater is pretty fantastic.
What advice do you give to graduating students?
I usually tell actors--because they're the ones who have it the roughest--that if they don't get up every single morning with an intense desire to be on stage, they should just walk away. Because the rejection that an actor receives on a daily basis is so profound, he or she really needs to NEED to do it. You know what I mean? It has to be so much a part of their being and the fibers of their being that they absolutely cannot exist without doing it. That is my advice to actors. In terms of the other people in theater--producers, the directors, the designers--it takes some extraordinary talent to excel and be successful. [And I tell them] not to expect to make a lot of money. Because that's just the way it is (she chuckles.) They have to do it for the love of it.
If you could go back in time and speak to your "college self", what would you say?
Well, my college self was not in theater. My college self was English major. My college self had a love of theater, but didn't think that she could ever be part of it. I would just say to her: "Soldier on. Your time will come."
What was your biggest mistake in your career?
Not knowing when to give up on a project. I did a play called, "Passed Around," that I was directing in the early eighties. I was pregnant at the time. I lost like three different actors and ultimately, I lost the baby that I was carrying and I just kept going and going and going and it was not a success. It probably was one of my least successful ventures. It was one of the things actually that caused me to leave directing and go into producing, which ultimately wasn't such a bad thing. But you know what? We grow from our failures. We become better because we fail.
I love Wendy Wasserstein. I've been studying Isn't It Romantic?
Which I also produced! And may I just say I miss Wendy every day. When we were doing, Uncommon Women And Others,she came and lived with me for two weeks and helped me cast and help me direct. I miss her writing. She spoke to my generation. Every time I go through something that I feel is archetypal that I know other women are sharing the experience, I think, "Wendy could have written a great play about this." Unfortunately, her voice was silenced [Wendy died of lymphoma in 2006 at age fifty-five.]
What are three habits that contributed to your success?
1) I think I'm very stubborn. And so when I get an idea, I really want it to happen and I do everything I can to make it happen. And I'm also very result-oriented. If I get an idea, I want it to happen right away.
2) I am not a religious person, but I taught my kids the Golden Rule when they were growing up; that is the creed to which I live. I treat people with respect. I think when you respect people; they create more freely and more successfully.
3) I'm a good listener. I love to hear people's stories, and I think that's a very good quality to have.
How did you get your first job?
The first job I got in professional theater was by doing it myself. I wanted to direct, and no one would hire me. So, I decided to produce [for] myself. And I basically, you know, begged my friends and family to put the money together so I was able to direct, "Uncommon Women And Others." From then on, it was not smooth sailing, but a lot easier once the first success was under my belt. But I have always made my own work. My first real job-job was being the Artistic Director at the Pasadena Playhouse and that was in 1986.
I love what you said about creating your own work. In this industry, I feel like that's so crucial.
In this particular field, it really is crucial. Because if you sit around and wait for someone to hire you, very often it's not going to happen.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a new play that Billy Porter is writing about his family, which we're going to read in New York, and I'm working on a concert that Itzhak Perlman [one of the preeminent violinists] wants to give called, The Soul of Jewish Music. It's a little bit of a hybrid, it's mostly a classical concert but we're trying to inject a little bit of theatricality into it.
And I have been approached by UCLA to create, design and run a masters program in theater producing.
I commissioned a play by Terrence McNally called, Some Men. We did it in Philly and New York, and last year we read it in Los Angeles for the Courage Campaign, a progressive political organization dealing with a lot of progressive issues, specifically in this case with Prop 8. And we're now going to read it in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 10th. It's a play about the history of gay life in the 20th century as seen through the prism of marriage and commitment. It's a one-night reading, we're going to try to do it all over the country as it raises awareness of the struggle that gay men have had to try and find commitment and be recognized in committed relationships.
It's been a rich full life, and I love my life in the theater. I'm not always saying, "Yeah! You can do it! It's really easy!" It's not easy. It's really hard. But it's very fulfilling.
My Silly Sum-Up
1. Need To Need It: Make sure you are 100% fully invested in what you're pursuing.
2. Give It Up: Try and get a feel whether a project is working from the get-go, and if it's not, don't be afraid to give it up and move on to something else.
3. Follow The Golden Rule: Treat others how you would like to be treated. Plain and simple.
4. Create Your Own Work: Create your own opportunities with friends who are also looking to break into the business. This shows your dedication to what you're pursuing and will look great on a resume.
5. Know It Isn't Easy: Seeing as the majority of you reading this are probably theater majors, I say ask yourself, "Why am I pursuing a career in theater?" If your answer is, "Because I couldn't imagine a life spent doing anything else," pat yourself on the back and go buy yourself a drink - if you are of legal age of course. You might need it ?.