I Was Meant to Be Involved in Theater—in a Different Way

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It’s hard to even say the name Broadway without getting a little star-struck. The word itself conjures images of bright lights, sparkly costumes, and A-list actors. But there’s actually a whole world that goes on behind the scenes to make these productions run smoothly; a team of people who are managing the budgets, selling the tickets, and booking the theaters.

We caught up with Roberta Pereira, Producer at Bisno Productions to find out what it’s like to work as a commercial theater producer and how you can learn more about all the jobs in theater that are slightly less visible—but just as important—as being an actor or director.

roberta pereiraPhoto credit: Kristin Goehring

Where did you go to school and what was your major?

For undergrad, I went to Wesleyan, where I majored in English and Theater and for grad school I went to the Yale School of Drama, where I got an MFA in Theater Management.

What is a typical day on the job like?

One of the things that I like about being a theater producer is that there’s no such thing as a typical day, so that makes this question a little bit difficult to answer!

We have an office in Times Square in New York, so I’ll come to the office every day, but it really depends on the shows we’re working on and where they are in the development and production process, so it can vary a lot.

Some of my tasks involve all the regular kinds of office management and the financial management of our office and all our accounts, and I also handle a lot of our investor relationships. So for example this morning I had a call with an accountant from one of our investors for a show we did in London and she wanted to know how to note that in his tax return, so I went through the whole process with her.

Right now we have shows in development, but when we are in production, we send our investors regular updates so they know what’s going on with a show.

It varies a lot—it’s like part office management, part people management, and then also attending readings, reading scripts of shows we might get involved with… and when we are in production it’s completely different.

So what is your day like when you’re in production?

That would be attending rehearsals potentially, making sure that everyone’s needs are being met, going to ad and marketing meetings to think about ways to sell tickets to the shows, financial meetings to hear how tickets are selling and all of that. So that would be more of that type of work.

If we’re in previews, then I would attend shows and give notes to all the creatives.

What kinds of things would you give notes to the creatives on?

In my view, the main part is that the producer is able to give the audience view. When you’re working on a theater show when you’re a director or an actor—or even a designer—you are there so much that sometimes it’s easy to lose the perspective of somebody who’s never seen the show. Something that you might take for granted, something you think that everybody’s going to get—somebody who hasn’t seen the show 56 times might not get it.

So a producer is a valuable asset as an outside eye. A lot of times I also have a conversation with the playwright or director and ask if there’s a specific thing they want me to look out for. So maybe the director was worried about if people would understand this joke, this moment. Are they able to see this? How are the sightlines for this part?

It really depends on the project and the people you’re working with. The most important part is that you have to have a great relationship with those artists because they have to trust you. You can’t just walk in and have them feel like ‘Who are you? Why are you telling me all these things?’

A big part of our job is building relationships so when we get to that point, they ask you. I worked on a show this summer and the director turned to me and said, ‘What do you have for me? What notes do you have for me?’ So that’s what happens when you have that good relationship.

So it sounds like in the ideal world, it’s a collaboration where they want you to give input because they trust your opinion?

Absolutely. We all want the show to succeed, we all have the same goal, so it has to be a collaboration. It’s just a different point of view.

For the playwright and director, it sounds like they’re more invested creatively, whereas you can be a little more removed and have more of a big picture view.

Yeah, I think the producer always has to have that big picture view—and this is the hardest part about being a producer: you are part of the team, but you can’t be a part of the team in the same way everyone else is.

For me personally, as a producer, I don’t go to every rehearsal, because if you go to every rehearsal, you lose objectivity.

For example: there’s a moment in the show that they worked so hard on for two days and it’s amazing. But for somebody who’s never seen it before, they might look at it and say, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening here.’ And the people who were all there and worked on it for two days and saw how it was before and how it is now, they think it’s fixed. But it might not be fixed, and for me there’s always a moment, basically when you drink the Kool-Aid, even as a producer, when you lose that objectivity, but personally that’s what I’m always fighting against. Because the producer is there to provide that outside view that can only make the show better.

How did you become interested in theater in general and more specifically in producing?

I always had an interest in theater and when I really got involved was in high school. And you [Melissa], got to witness some of that firsthand, because our high school, TASIS, had an amazing program where you could go see a lot of good theater in London on the weekends and also their theater program for students was strong. So I got the chance to act in a lot of shows from Shakespeare to modern shows and I got a view of that side of theater, of performing, and I really enjoyed it, but I wanted more out of it.

So my senior year of high school I developed a piece called Phenomenal Women, which was a bunch of scenes written by and for women, and I did a night of scenes that I put together and directed, so that was my experience with directing.

And then when I went to college at Wesleyan, Wesleyan also has a thriving theater scene, so I continued directing. I loved acting and directing but always felt like I could do more.

My senior year of college I was an assistant director of a faculty play Lady of the Drowned  by Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues. Once we put the play on at Wesleyan, we decided to take it to a festival in Canada and I ended up being responsible for all the logistics of taking the show to the festival, from figuring out the transportation, to everybody’s schedule, to figuring out how much money we would need, and even writing a letter to the president of Wesleyan asking him to give us the money to do that.

I didn’t even know that was producing, I just was doing all this stuff, and I thought it was great—I’m involved in all parts of it. I’m involved in the creative part, but also the managerial side, and seeing both sides of it was my first experience producing.

So how did you realize that what you were doing was producing and how did you go about pointing your career in that direction?

Well, when I graduated from Wesleyan, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to work on, but I knew I wanted to do something in theater. So I looked for something that would allow me to see what the different job options were in a theater.

I just moved to New Haven because I had free housing there, and somebody from the career office at Wesleyan introduced me to Josh Borenstein, the general manager of Long Wharf Theater, a regional theater in New Haven. Josh had gone to Wesleyan and he actually did his Master’s at Yale, and we had a great meeting. He said they didn’t really have an internship program, but he said, ‘If you come, and you’re around here, I’ll let you shadow me. I’ll give you access and introduce you to people.’

And I needed to make a living; I couldn’t just work for free, and he was able to get me a job at the box office. I started working at the box office and whenever I wasn’t working there, I would hang out with Josh at the office. He would introduce me to people like Mike Stotts, the managing director of the theater at the time, and they started mentoring me and giving me little projects.

I ended up becoming assistant box office manager, and Josh started telling me about Yale, like ‘I think this is something you should consider.’ And Mike had gotten his Master’s at Columbia, so he said, ‘You should also apply to Columbia,’ so then after a year of doing that, my work visa ran out [because I’m from Brazil], so I had to go back to Brazil and when I was back there, just doing some translating work, I started looking into grad school, and I said, ‘Wow, I think this could be a really great opportunity for me,’ and I ended up applying to both Yale and Columbia.

What was your job search like after you completed your MFA? How did you get to your current position?

The Theater Management program at Yale is mostly geared towards non-profit theater management and now I work in commercial theater, which is for-profit. So a lot of the contacts, a lot of the classes we did were connected to non-profit theaters.

I started applying to jobs after school and I started working as an associate producer at SITI Company, an avant garde theater company where the co-artistic director is a well-known theater director named Anne Bogart. I worked there for three years.

But the way I found my current role was through a connection I had made at Yale, because Debbie Bisno—who is my boss right now—was on the board of the Yale Summer Cabaret, which is a theater that I ran in 2007. We kept in touch and I wanted to learn more about commercial theater and what it takes to produce on Broadway, so I reached out to Debbie and got an opportunity to be a producer for a show called A Life in the Theatre with Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight. That was the first show we worked on together and after that show Debbie offered me a full-time job. And that was three years ago.

What are your favorite parts about your job?

I really enjoy both sides of it—working with artists and making sure the show reflects their vision as best as it can, but I love the other side: putting together the budgets, organizing systems, tracking ticket sales, and finding patterns. And in non-profit theater sometimes you have to choose whether you’re going to the artistic side or the managerial side, but in commercial theater you get to do a little bit of both.

What are the challenges?

Well, specifically commercial theater is very tough because a lot of shows don’t make money back, so you’re always having to find new money for shows.

But I think the thing that’s most frustrating is that a lot of things are not up to us, so for example you can have an amazing script, but you might need an amazing celebrity name so it can really sell. So you send it to a celebrity and you’re waiting for months to hear if they can do it. A lot of it is out of your hands because of the timing, and then even if you have everybody on board, you have to find the theater.

How do you balance your creativity/artistic inclinations with making a living?

What I like about this job is that it’s a good mix, but I do a bunch of other stuff. I just love working in the theater so much, so I’m on the board of a non-profit theater called Studio 42 and I do a bunch of stuff with them. I produce a yearly event for them, called The Unproducible Smackdown, which is a lot of fun.

I also co-founded a theater-themed publishing company, Dress Circle Publishing. What I like about being a commercial producer is that I get to do a lot of different things and I also have the flexibility to pursue some of my other interests.

Do you have the impulse to act or direct anymore?

No. I feel like even though I did a lot of acting and directing in high school and college, I knew it wasn’t the thing that I was meant to do. I knew I was meant to be involved in theater in a different way.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing a career in theater?

You need to be sure that you can’t do anything else. The thing about a career in theater—especially being an actor or a director—is that there’s so much competition, that you have to be willing to sacrifice so many things in your life.

I have friends who were waiters until they got a TV show and now they live in Hollywood and then I have friends who are still waiters and they’re waiting for that thing. And then I have friends who have been on Broadway and then their show closes and they go back to being waiters. You have to understand that it’s not easy, and there’s an amount of luck—there are a lot of things you can’t control.

The most important part is that I would really encourage people to find out about other careers in theater. There are some careers that we all know what they are, but there are others that we’ve never even heard about like being a dresser, or a general manager, a company manager, a merchandising manager, and this is where the shameless plug of our book, The Untold Stories of Broadway, comes in. [Editor’s note: Check out our interview with author Jennifer Tepper to learn more about this book series and her personal history with Broadway.]

My favorite part about the book it is that the author interviewed a bunch of people who work in theater, so you get to hear these amazing stories—like one I just read about the merchandising manager from the Shubert Theater and how he became friends with Bernadette Peters. She treated him so well and he still remembers her so fondly! So what’s cool about this book is that you can read all about these other careers that you’ve never heard of and then you can research them on your own. There are many ways to become involved in theater—it’s not just about being a writer or an actor or a director.

Okay, so tell us a little more about your publishing company. How did you decide to do that?

I was having a cocktail with a friend who’s also a producer—we’re both really big readers—and we were just discussing that we wished there were more books about theater. And we researched it and there really weren’t a lot of them, so we decided to do something about it.

So we decided to create our own company, called Dress Circle Publishing, specifically to put out theater-themed fiction and non-fiction books—they’re not plays. They’re all written by theater professionals.

Our fiction books are so fun and they’re realistic, sort of in the vein of The Devil Wears Prada, so you get some of what it’s really like to work in theater and our non-fiction gives you a backstage look, and you get the stories about the fun celebrities we all love but also from the people who don’t usually have the spotlight shined on them.

How do you fit this in with your regular work duties?

It dovetails very nicely because it’s the same group of people and a lot of my skills as a producer are my skills as a publisher. Interestingly enough, before starting DCP, I’d never professionally edited anything, and now I’ve been a professional editor for two years. And honestly, a lot of the skills I use in theater—especially being a dramaturg—are the same, and I really enjoy doing that. So that was a nice, interesting thing for me to learn about myself. I really love working with my authors, and it is not that different from working with an actor or director, but instead of doing it visually, you’re doing it on the page.

Homework time! Roberta mentions that she knew she loved being involved in theater from a young age, but she always felt like she could do more. Do you feel the same way about theater (or some other thing you’re interested in)? Take some time to talk with people who are involved with it professionally, and ask them about some of the different career options. Remember that there are probably untold stories behind every industry!

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