The Untold Stories of (Working on) Broadway

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Jennifer Tepper’s life is full of problems. On any given day, she may be solving logistical nightmares like selling tickets for one of the 16 performances that’s happening that week, scheduling future shows around busy schedules and big personalities, and juggling a million little details to ensure this business is running profitably.

But for someone who endures hundreds of headache-inducing challenges by the hour, she seems awfully chipper. She just laughs and says, “Welcome to the theater!”

How did her life end up so chaotic? And why does she seem so unwaveringly happy about it? We caught up with Jennifer to learn more about her current role as Director of Programming at 54 Below and uncover the story behind her dramatic career.

Where did you go to school and what did you major in?

I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I majored in Dramatic Writing and graduated in 2008.

What do you currently do?

In addition to working as Director of Programming at 54 Below, I’m also the author of an ongoing book series called “The Untold Stories of Broadway.”

What is a typical day on the job like?

At 54 Below, we do about 16 shows a week! These include solo concerts by legendary Broadway stars (Patti LuPone), debut concerts by exciting up-and-coming stars (Ben Platt), musicals in concert that reunite the original cast (Taboo), evenings featuring the work of emerging musical theater writers (Nathan Tysen & Chris Miller), concerts featuring the casts of current Broadway shows (The cast of Once on St. Patrick’s Day), unique acts unlike any other (The Skivvies)… a large variety of different kinds of performers and music, most with the uniting theme of Broadway.

It’s my job to get everything onto the stage—whether that means negotiating a contract with an agent, discussing the content or song list for a show with an artist, or liaising with our other departments (marketing, front of house, tech, press, and so forth) about each particular show to make sure it is as successful as possible.

One minute you might find me reaching out to people about new show ideas (“Hey Newsies, want to do a farewell concert?” “Hey Jane Lynch, you gotta do your first solo show with us!”)… the next minute discussing show details with artists (“Hey [insert name of performer], in order to pay you X amount that you’ve requested, we’d need to charge Y for tickets. Do you think that’s a good ticket price for your audience demographic? Could we successfully do that ticket price by adding special guests? Having more advance time to promote the show together? Making sure it’s a world premiere show? Making sure you sing all your ‘hits’ and we advertise that?”)… and the next minute I could be talking to our production manager and restaurant manager about how to collaboratively manage an 18-minute stage and room turn-around of a tap-dance show with special floor into a large group show with 30 performers. There’s always a lot going on!

54 Below is owned by a group of Tony Award-winning Broadway producers, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steve Baruch, and Marc Routh, whose dream was to create a speakeasy/nightclub environment with great entertainment and food—that could be seen as “Broadway’s living room.” A lot of days I am at our office working on our shows until 6pm when I switch to the club for our 7pm, 9:30pm, and 11:30pm performances—which are often three completely different shows, filled with tons of members of the theater community, both on stage and in the audience. It’s a very exciting, busy, rewarding place to work.

I’m also currently working on the second volume of “The Untold Stories of Broadway.” “Untold Stories” is a book series that chronicles the stories of theater people within each Broadway house! I’ve interviewed around 250 theater professionals, including actors, directors, producers, writers, stagehands, musicians, door men, and so forth, about their memories of specific theaters.

With my publishers, Brisa Trinchero and Roberta Pereira of Dress Circle Publishing, I am getting ready to release a new book in November. So on any given day, you might find me doing an interview, editing a story, researching details, or writing parts of the new book, which will feature lots of really fun and fascinating stories about the Palace, Barrymore, Gershwin, Circle in the Square, Shubert, Criterion Center Stage Right, Vivian Beaumont, and Nederlander Theatres.

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

I have always LOVED theater history! Since I grew up in Florida, I was always studying Broadway from afar, through cast albums, liner notes, scripts, and any books I could get my hands on. I pieced together what the shows were in my head and taught myself about what was happening. I even got Playbill Magazine and Time Out New York in the mail, and read each issue cover to cover, although I couldn’t actually see any of the shows! I think this approach to learning about Broadway, necessitated at first by distance, gave me a theater historian brain.

What was your transition like after college? What was your job search process like?

I tell all of my interns/younger friends this: I spent years applying for dozens and dozens of jobs that I didn’t get! Who in the theater world doesn’t? You have to keep at it for awhile. I was lucky to have several great internships in college (at the York Theatre, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, and with the writers of [title of show]). There were also tons of internships I applied for that I didn’t get. And I was constantly volunteering to work as a PA on benefits or a gofer on workshops to make connections and get my foot in the door.

I was lucky in that I had a job working on [title of show] on Broadway during the summer after college, but after that short time period, I was looking for a job in theater just like every other recent graduate. Over the next two years, I had a lot of amazing experiences—some paid and some unpaid, some lasting three months and some lasting a day—in the theater world, including assisting directors, temp work for producers, and so forth.

I was constantly applying to jobs on Playbill.com and writing (snail mail!) letters and emails to professionals and offices I would want to work in. I also did a ton of tutoring and babysitting and other day jobs. AND I started creating my own work, including my concert series “If It Only Even Runs A Minute,” which celebrates under-appreciated musicals through songs, stories, and photos from original cast members and new stars.

I also began working with emerging writers, and especially with my favorite new writer Joe Iconis, on several of his musicals and concerts. Eventually, it was my work on one of Joe’s musicals that got me my first full-time job in theater, working for Broadway producer Ken Davenport as his Director of Marketing & Promotions—and it was my work on my own projects as well as Joe’s shows that got me my next job, at 54 Below. My writing for my own concerts was also a big part of what led to my book offer as well. If you persist at doing what you love, you can turn it into your job(s). Go for it.

What are your favorite parts about your job?

The best part by far is being able to say: Here is a really awesome artist who I think should be seen and heard. How can we make that happen in a successful way? There are so many performers and writers who are just starting out who I’ve been so excited to show to a new audience, because of how terrific they are. And there are lots of established people who have never done a solo act before, or have developed a new one for us, that it’s just been thrilling to present.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Our challenges are very unique! Because I’ve worked in different capacities on several Broadway and off-Broadway shows, I can say that we essentially have to handle every aspect of production that a show does PLUS run a restaurant concurrently, PLUS have new shows every night.

How do we fully capitalize on a rave in the New York Times when that performer will be gone in four days, and is not available to return?

Can we maximize check averages by taking X item off the menu for 7pm shows only?

This one-performance engagement only has 30 tickets sold, one week out. Do we expand the number and level of discounts, and if so, to which outlets? Or is this show just a late seller due to any number of factors, and we’re better off waiting?

This really high-level performer wants to return to the venue but doesn’t have time to create a new show—are there enough audience members who will buy tickets to see the same show again?

This great show has little kids in it, so they say that they need a 7pm performance time in order for their young friends and families to come—but there’s an older-aged, higher-ticket-level headliner who will bring in more money that specific night in that slot. Do we lose the first show entirely to schedule the second one strategically? Or do we put the older headliner at 9:30? If we lose the young show entirely, will the new 9:30pm show we’ll need to book for that night be likely to make the total sales for the night more or less than the show we’re giving up? (These start to sound a lot like SAT questions, don’t they?!)

We have 1 minute to brief the house staff about the VIPs that just got tickets to a show happening in 15 minutes—how exactly should we change the seating based on the VIPs already on the list? How should this be released to press for maximum press coverage?

This show ran 10 minutes over their allotted time, so we lost X dollars in income from the next show that night, AND the next show’s 100 patrons all had to wait outside for an extra 10 minutes—should we have them back at the venue again? And more immediately important, should we start this second show 10 minutes late so that patrons can make up the 10 minutes in food/beverage sales, and will it be worth it if it means starting the THIRD show late, too, by domino effect?

We can do this musical in concert that I’ve always wanted to do but only if we get at least X number of high-caliber performers and have at least Y months to sell it and can hire everyone for Z dollars—is now the right time for that specific project?

This performer who was supposed to play a headliner run next month just landed a pilot—how do we book 8 successful performances in the next 24 hours to make up for their cancelled performances?

We want to make 54 Below a thrilling place for audiences, a great environment for artists, and a sustainable business at the same time. Welcome to the theater!

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

I am lucky in that I do feel creatively fulfilled with all of my work. I also put together shows at 54 Below myself, so there are some evenings I have a more creative hand in. There are a bajillion ideas I’m excited about that are evenings I want to create and have others create in the future, too—just have to make sure to leave some time for sleep!

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

Diversify your talents and interests. If you’re an actor, try your hand at costume design. If you’re a designer, do an internship in house management. Apply for everything. You’ll learn a lot about theater as a whole and you’ll gain new assets that you have to offer. You might even find a new passion, but at the very least you’ll understand more about someone else’s job the next time you’re doing yours.

Write to people who you’d want to work for. Reach out to them even if there’s not a job on the table at the moment. Offer to help them with a project. Invite them to something you’re doing on your own. Network by making yourself helpful and showing how essential you could be on a long-term basis.

Make stuff you think is great, that you care about. Do it because you think it’s worthy. But tell people about it. If you’re a playwright, write the play you want to write. Do it in a basement. But invite your favorite director. Mail a copy to your writer role model. If you want to be a producer, produce something. Ask the actors you want to work with to be part of it. Come up with your own ideas and do them, no matter what size the production is.

Go see tons of theater. Join a papering service (subscription service to get tickets at very low prices) and see stuff you’re not sure you’d like. See student productions. Check out rush and lottery policies. Buy cast recordings. Take a kid to the theater. Volunteer to help out with benefits. Go to Shakespeare in the Park. Go to the library and watch shows on tape. Read theater books. Start with Act One. Stand in Times Square and listen to people at TKTS. Observe people walking in and out of theaters. Go to Sardi’s. Ask strangers about their jobs. Look in stage doors.

You’re writing a series about the history of different theaters in New York. What advice would you give to would-be writers out there?

Write what you’re passionate about, and surround yourself by people who encourage you and challenge you.

Homework time! Follow Jennifer’s advice—diversify your talents, reach out to people you’d like to work with, create your own masterpiece, go see as many performances as you can. To put it simply: Just get out there and make it happen!

Jennifer TepperThis photo is a selfie that I took with “Untold Stories of Broadway” interviewees Brian Yorkey, Annie Golden and Caissie Levy at an event we did at the Tony Awards store. One of my favorite “on-the-job” photos ever!

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