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A Springboard for Theater Hopefuls

Filichia talks to Randy Ellen Lutterman about Springboard NYC, a program to help aspiring actors. logo
Randy Ellen Lutterman
Some years ago, I went to a low-profile reading of a musical solely because I knew that it would feature a super-talented actress whom I admired from her college productions. When she stopped the show, I expressed no surprise, for I'd come to expect that from her. She did so well that when I went backstage afterwards and saw her glum expression and noticed a tear slowly making its way down her cheek, I figured she was sad because she knew the reading hadn't been attended by anyone important and that nothing would come of the dim show, in which she was the only spark.

While that was true, there was something else that bothered her. "We learned a lot of great things in college, and I'm a better performer for it," she said. "But I wish there'd been a course telling us that I'd be in a show like this, how tough the business is -- not to mention New York City -- and what we could do to make it easier."

I thought of this when I recently met with Randy Ellen Lutterman, the executive director of Musical Theatre Works. She's a dynamo who speaks so rapidly that if they gave speeding tickets for talking at an accelerated clip, she would have had her tongue revoked long ago. Luckily, she's just as fast a thinker as she is a talker; hence, she conceived Springboard NYC, a two-week program that helps fledgling theater artists when they arrive in New York City. Hold onto your hats, friends, as I relate what Lutterman said to me.

"I looked at the landscape and saw that there are places to take class, study dance, and improv, but not life skills," she began. "What happens after you drop out of the sky into New York City and someone shoots a starter gun? Lawyers get to clerk, doctors have residencies. They have manageable steps until they become what they become. In the theater world, you come here, you don't know how to get an apartment, and your parents are weeping. You've learned how to audition for Shakespeare but you're coming in to read for an under-five on a soap opera. Schools teach you how to act but often don't tell you about 50 other jobs you could have just in case -- not as a consolation prize but ones that might better serve who you really are. Some people need someone to say 'I think you might be an interesting story editor' or 'Have you ever thought about producing? or 'Could you be a dramaturge?'

"So I said, 'Let's create a program that's sort of like a theater arts boot camp, a New York City life-skills coping program. Here's the library system; this is how you get a roommate and how you don't; this is how you usher and see free theater; this is how you get a money job; this is what one résumé looks like and what the other one you'll need looks like, too. We want you to know how you can be the best version of yourself when you walk into a room.

Rob Ashford talking with Springboard 2003 students
"We introduce you to people, too. Here's who's working in the city: directors and actors who have been here six months, three years, five years. Here's a team of producers who'll tell you how they put a show together. Here's a press person to tell you why you need that. Here's a general manager and a company manager, because you don't know what those two jobs are. Here's a workshop where you sing a song and, afterwards, someone tells you how to be better but also sits you down and says, 'Here's who I see you as. Do you see yourself the same way?' We find ways to open the vocabulary of the New York theater so you can make better choices and can launch yourself -- not from a place of fear and total ignorance but with resources and confidence. And we don't just throw you into the street afterwards. If you need a piano or a place to rehearse or even a suggestion on a showcase, we'll try to be there with time or space for you."

Lutterman had the idea for Springboard NYC in the fall of 2001. The following May, she launched the pilot program for a week. "We had Hal Prince, Bernie Gersten, and commercial casting agents. Even when the kids heard an agent and walked out saying, 'Oy, how can that be how things work?' they came back the next day with questions that showed us how clearly they were thinking. Soon, they were bringing in new pictures and résumés. We gave them Q&A's with working actors. Rob Ashford brought them to a Thoroughly Modern Millie tour rehearsal. We talked about open calls and encouraged them to go. We kept them so busy that they said, 'We need a break!' So we gave them Thursday morning off but some took the opportunity to go to open calls. And guess what? Two got cast -- one in the tour of Seussical and one in the tour of Oklahoma!.

"The program is open to recent graduates but several took the program between their junior and senior years. Some came not sure if they wanted to be in this industry or in this city. Afterwards, some said, 'I'm not afraid! This is where I'm going to be!' Some even volunteered to help in 2003 and did, doing a panel to tell the newcomers what they'd learned."

Lutterman sure knows about reinventing oneself for she set out to be a performer after she saw a tour of A Chorus Line in her native Montreal when she was 12: "My head blew off! I said to everyone, 'I want that! Right now!'" So that summer, and for years afterwards, she went to a Massachusetts performing arts summer school before attending Brown as a theater major. She graduated in 1986 and then moved to Toronto "because there was only one English language theater in Montreal. I was in a lot of bad Toronto TV shows. Then after five years, in 1992, I won my green card in a lottery. I came to New York and was looking for anything to pay the rent, including walking dogs. I'd meet people and hear what they wanted. You need a translator? Yeah, I can translate. You need a researcher? Sure, I can research! I did research for Marty Bell's book, Broadway Stories and was stunned when he thanked me in print. I met Lonny Price and told him, 'I'll do anything. I'll read auditions for you.' So whenever he was auditioning and a reader dropped out, he called me."

2003 Springboard NYC participants
Like just about every other actor who has set foot in New York, Lutterman appeared on Law & Order, but didn't do much else of note. "And then one day," she relates, "I had two phone calls, one to do a female lead in a terrible play, the other to look at a videotape of a British monologist with the prospect of producing him here. He was Eddie Izzard. I thought, should I spend three months upstairs from a fire station doing this stinky play or have this adventure with this brilliant man?" She chose the latter and helped bring Izzard to P.S. 122, then to Westbeth. Lonny Price, the artistic director of Musical Theatre Works at the time, was impressed and asked her to join his organization in 1999.

He has since left but she has stayed. "Musical Theatre Works is in its 20th year, which is a sort of a shocking thing," Lutterman remarks, "because it feels to me like we're a start-up company. And, in many ways, we are -- maybe because we've reinvented ourselves so many times. When we write the memoir of this place, we're going to call it Begging and Thanking because we are held together by masking tape and interns -- yes, we are! But we're passionate and energetic and focused and trying desperately to create opportunities for artists, performers, and writers. We're a service organization for this community. I think the reality of running a small, not-for-profit organization can invade whatever your mission is, to a greater or lesser extent. At some point, someone comes to you and says 'I have $100,000 and a musical,' and you have a choice to make. I think that resulted in MTW doing a lot of bad shows. We made what I consider a brave -- some would call it foolish -- decision not to do that anymore. We're going to find other ways of making that money come in."

Springboard NYC is just one of those ways. For further information on Musical Theatre Works, call 212-677-0040 or visit


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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