The Theater Industry Isn't Lacking in Visionary Leaders. They Just Aren't Given Seats at the Table.
But the time has come to change that.
A couple of weeks ago, the Hollywood Reporter published a story about theater and film giant Scott Rudin and the decades of alleged mistreatment that employees suffered at his hands. This past weekend, the Washington Post broke the news that Rudin, in a moment of contrition, is planning to "step back" (whatever that means) from his role as lead producer on shows like The Music Man and To Kill a Mockingbird, so as not to disrupt Broadway's long-awaited return.
Rudin's career on Broadway is unparalleled. Tainted now as these shows are by the allegations (which range from the physical violence of throwing objects to verbal and emotional abuse), he's responsible for some of my favorite productions of the past 20 years, Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Skylight with Carey Mulligan, Ivo van Hove's brilliant View from the Bridge, Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler, George C. Wolfe's astonishing Shuffle Along. He's led deserving playwrights like Stephen Karam and Annie Baker to mainstream success, and used the publicity machine to help Laurie Metcalf, Lindsay Mendez, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Denzel Washington, and Viola Davis win Tonys. Over the course of a decade, the John Golden Theatre has basically become his own personal Manhattan Theatre Club.
One sentence in the Washington Post story, penned by critic/pundit Peter Marks, stuck in my craw. I've come to realize that it's gotten stuck in a lot of craws since Saturday morning. It read "An exit by Rudin has potentially immense consequences for an industry that is short on visionary leaders." I chewed on that for a day until I read a similar statement by fellow critic/pundit Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times a day later. "In truth," he says, "I fear what Broadway will revert to without his visionary zeal. Other producers can spot a promising new play, but Rudin, with his Hollywood cachet and theatrical know-how, brought clout that impressed the Shubert chieftains. He could sell what others would get laughed out of the room for considering."
That is, if others could actually get in the room, which they often cannot. As we all know — and as has been made even clearer over the past year — Broadway is a club for the old guard. Deals are made on handshakes at the Sardi's Restaurant bar. Theaters are promised to the generally white men who have track records. It's difficult, near impossible, to gain a foothold if you're not part of the "establishment." It's an all-around problem, not one that's just limited to producing.
But lacking in visionary leaders? Absolutely not. They're just blocked from the table by their status as a young person, or as a queer person, or as an artist of color. Producer Brian Moreland is a visionary. When he was not afforded a Broadway house for his upcoming production of Blue by Charles Randolph-Wright, which was to star Lynn Whitfield and Leslie Uggams, with Phylicia Rashad directing, they booked the Apollo Theatre. "It was very challenging to think that a show of this caliber, with the history that every single person in this cast has," Moreland told Deadline last April, "Usually that would trigger a house, but it didn't for us. It was heartbreaking, and of course you ask yourself 'Why?'" (While the Blue run was jeopardized by Covid, Moreland secured the Golden Theatre for an upcoming run of Keenan Scott II's Thoughts of a Colored Man.)
I look at Paula Vogel as a visionary. Vogel had three productions shut down by Covid — one on Broadway, two in London — and immediately after grieving, she created the Bard at the Gate online play reading series, featuring works that were either rarely seen or virtually unproduced. "There's a frustration that I think literary managers share with people who run MFA programs," she told me last August, "which is, we see extraordinary things and can't convince our bosses to produce them. I've taken all of these scripts around from theater company to theater company, and Oskar Eustis or whoever I brought it to would pat me on the head and go 'Oh, that's nice.' They think that students are students, whereas I think of students as the next generation of my colleagues."
How can you look at a Tina Landau show or an Alex Timbers production and not think "visionary" when they've figured out how to basically blow the theater up? How can you look at a journalist colleague of mine like Jose Solís and not think "visionary" when you read about the development and mentorship program he created for rising BIPOC critics? Mia Katigbak cofounded the National Asian-American Theatre Company as a way to allow for greater Asian representation in the theater industry. Is NAATCO, which has created jobs for thousands of theater artists, not a visionary organization? And Jeremy O. Harris is certainly a visionary leader for the future, not only calling for federal ticket subsidies, but including a discretionary fund in his HBO development deal expressly for producing or commissioning new theater projects.
That's just off the top of my head and for the sake of brevity. There are countless visionary theater leaders — young people, older people, trans people, Indigenous people, women — who we've never been given the opportunity to get to know because they don't get given the opportunity to show us. The theater industry is filled with extraordinarily creative thinkers who aren't allowed to sit at the red-checkered Sardi's booth.
But they do exist. They can sell a play to the powers that be just as well as anyone, their taste is just as good, and their reputation is much more humane. And anyone who doesn't think that is being willfully ignorant. As the reopening process becomes clearer and clearer, it's time to tear down the walls that block the next generation of visionary leaders and acknowledge their existence. It's irresponsible not to.