You Wanna Be a Producer? CTI Will Show You How!
Seems there's a better way to learn about Broadway producing than The Nanny reruns. Since 1982 the Commercial Theater Institute has been grooming people from inside and outside the industry to enter the producer ranks. Its signature course, the Three-Day Intensive, is taking place this weekend (April 15-17) in midtown Manhattan. CTI promises "a comprehensive overview of producing for the commercial theater" during the annual intensive, with panels and seminars on budgets, public relations, finding investors, advertising, legalities, choosing properties and other topics.
Throughout the year the institute offers individual classes on those and other producing-related topics. Course titles include Who Gets What, International Producing, Exploiting Your License, The Development Process, and The Flop House. They are mostly half-day to two-day programs in Manhattan, and a more-advanced three-day intensive is held every summer in conjunction with the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.
This weekend's program in NYC is the 35th annual Three-Day Intensive for CTI. Scheduled guest speakers include Charlotte St. Martin, David Stone, Margo Lion, Rick Miramontez, Richard Winkler, Stewart Lane, Robyn Goodman and Kevin McCollum. In collaboration with the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), two new musicals will make presentations--to be followed by a panel critiquing them. The schedule of events also features a special session on "Bringing Fun Home to Broadway."
CTI executive director Tom Viertel (right)--also a co-owner of 54 Below--shared more about CTI's objectives and opportunities in a telephone chat. Visit the organization online at commercialtheaterinstitute.com.
How did CTI originate?
A man named Fred Vogel, who was a producer, had this idea that producing shouldn't be a mystery to people, that the world needed more capable producers, and that you could teach it. He ran it for 30 years. Then Jed Bernstein took it over for a little while. But Fred was really the father of this initiative and the reason it exists.
Since its inception CTI was driven by a mission to educate people who want to learn how to produce on Broadway, and off-Broadway to some extent, and to put them in a position where it wasn't a great big mystery.
Has the institute expanded since you became executive director in 2013?
The last couple of years we've added seven new programs, running either one or two days. So the offerings are broader than they used to be, and we dive into areas, in some cases, that have only arisen in the last few years in any significant way. We start new programs each year as we continue to understand what can be useful to people, and what can be fun. We innovate and look for individual areas of producing to expose and get people more knowledgeable about, along with our three-day intensive--which is an introductory course and covers a wide range of basic topics in producing--and our 14-week course, which is ongoing every Monday night from January to mid-May, where we take a deeper dive into those subjects and other more-sophisticated subjects.
So there's quite a lot going on--I would say, 16 or 17 individual offerings, which culminate in July with a three-day course up at the O'Neill Center in Connecticut, where we dive into creative producing. It's a pretty comprehensive range of topics, and a very comprehensive group of speakers that really span the entire industry and involve a vast majority of the people who are at the top of this business.
What's an example of the "hands-on" knowledge that CTI participants gain from working professionals?
We have a program in physical production we introduced last year that brings a class of about 30 to a scene shop, Hudson Scenic out in Yonkers. They give us a tour of their facility, and we get to look at whatever they're building. This year they were building the London set for Aladdin, which was quite spectacular. It was about 30 feet in the air; the deck was the part that would be the floor of the stage, and we were looking at everything under that, which is quite complicated. Then we went on a backstage tour with the production stage manager of On Your Feet, which looks like a fairly traditional Broadway show but has some pretty substantial complexities when you get into the details. And then we went to a technical rehearsal of Bright Star, so we were able to have a look at how you put all the stuff together: the scenery, the lights, the sound. That is something a lot of actual producers don't ultimately do, and it was great fun for that class.
What are some of the newer courses?
This year we started a course on producing in England. We introduced a course in touring last year--the specifics of how North American touring works. We also did a course this year on producing a long-running show. What it's like to have a Wicked or a Lion King, and what kind of challenges a producer faces when they've got a hit. It's something that not every producer gets to face, but when you do, you probably don't have a lot of experience in it, so you're dealing with challenges that are novel from the ones that you face when you join a struggling show. So that's a chance for people to hear about that side of the business.
We get evaluation sheets from participants whenever they come to a class, and we urge them to comment about what they'd like to do that we haven't offered, and on three separate evaluations the issue of vocabulary came up. Producing has its own vocabulary, as any business does. Nobody has ever done a dictionary or a glossary. We put together a class that lasted all day, and could have lasted a second day, on the vocabulary of producing...of the different aspects of producing--so, one from the general manager's point of view, one from the lawyer's point of view, one from the technical people's point of view.
How has theater producing changed since CTI was established?
Oh, radically, in so many ways. The changes are driven by the increases in production expenses--there's just a lot more money that you have to raise than you had to raise in the mid '80s. One of the most significant changes is that commercial off-Broadway has become much less of a factor than it used to be. When I started, which was in the mid '80s, my partners and I produced essentially nothing but off-Broadway commercial shows for eight years before we ever produced a Broadway show. We were able to in effect learn on the job with pretty low stakes. In those days you could produce a full-size off-Broadway show for 200, 400 thousand dollars. Because off-Broadway was very vibrant, you could get a show on tour the same as if it had been on Broadway, or a London production or an Australian production, so not only could you learn how to produce a show here in New York by producing it off-Broadway but you could learn about all of the things that flowed from that--tours and London and all of that. Over time that's become less and less viable, and in fact commercial off-Broadway is a rarity these days. As a result the only way to learn is to produce on Broadway--but with rising costs, it's a daunting task.
When Fred started CTI, you could make a case that there was another way to learn producing, which was to produce off-Broadway. Today it's much harder to make that case. CTI is in some ways the only way to learn how to produce commercially. Off-Broadway these days has lots and lots of great theater, but not-for-profit theater is the driving force. From my perspective that's the biggest single change that's taken place relative to why CTI is significant.
CTI is a joint venture of the Broadway League and TDF, and the Shubert Organization, Jujamcyn Theatres, the Nederlander Organization and Davenport Theatrical Enterprises are major sponsors. Does it take a village to raise a producer?
One of the great strengths of this is, the Broadway community in general is very committed to CTI. All our speakers are volunteers, and I think they see it as an opportunity rather than an obligation. I've noticed over the years that Broadway is a very generous community in lots and lots of ways, and one of the ways it's generous is that people like to give back. They like to talk about what they know and organize it in such a way that other people can benefit from it. I've been incredibly impressed by that. It's not difficult to get people to come and speak, and they enjoy it when they do. Almost all of them are open to questions, so that people who come with specific things that puzzle them can get answers to those questions. It really is a community effort, and one that I think is pretty remarkable--and maybe not common to every business.
Who are CTI's "students," demographically?
There's two distinct groups of people: people who have decided that they really want to follow their passion after a career in something else, and people [for whom] this is all they ever wanted to do. I'm always struck by how many people are coming in in mid-career. Producing is one of those things where, with rare exceptions, it's not necessarily a lifetime, so new people are coming into the business all the time. People who have done well in other businesses, who feel that they've accomplished what they set out to accomplish in their own field, and have maintained this burning passion for theater and really want to be a part of it. They never really grabbed hold of that opportunity and now they're motivated to go where their passions are. That's a big constituency for us.
But there's a meaningful number of young people as well...younger people who this is all they ever wanted to do. Perhaps they thought they would start as actors, but they realized that wasn't where they were best suited to fit into the theater, [though] their passion for theater is as full as it ever was. A lot of the younger people who are involved in CTI actually have jobs in theater--they work in producing offices, they work in general management offices or advertising agencies. But they want a broader knowledge of the business than they can get from working in those places. Those jobs are way short of making them able to produce, so they come to broaden their horizons in theater.
Is it strictly education that people seek from CTI?
They come to CTI for a grounding in theater, but they also come to meet each other and to meet the people who speak. Producing is incredibly collaborative; there's virtually no project where [just] one person is above the title. So there's a need to know the community that is almost as great as the need to know the subject matter, and people come because they understand that CTI provides that. One of the ways we've made networking a more explicit aspect of CTI is we now do three networking events that have no subject matter involved at all, they're just a chance for people to meet each other and expand the people that they know in the business. Opportunities that are solely for networking hadn't existed before I came on board. An enormous amount of networking takes place also at the breaks and lunch hours for all of our classes, and partnerships have arisen from that. People have actually gone on to produce together out of chance meetings at CTI.
You mentioned that some key producer issues have only arisen in recent years. What are they?
Dynamic ticket pricing. The ability to respond to market forces and ticket pricing is a hot-button topic these days in theater. Like airlines and other industries that have lots of seats to sell, the theater--through technological advances--is in a position to better respond both upward and downward to those forces, more quickly and more nimbly. It's a very data-driven business, as you might imagine, and people have come into the business with analytic backgrounds to help us with that aspect. It's a big part of what every show does these days, so we're able to ask those people to come to CTI to explain what they do and how they do it.
Another example is mobile ticketing. The younger generation, the millennials, do a lot more on their mobile phones than my generation does--including ordering tickets--and the business wasn't really set up to optimize mobile ticketing. That has given rise to several initiatives. Disney has done an enormous amount with mobile ticketing; an organization called TodayTix has started because there was a gap in this area. We were able to present both of those organizations recently at a marketing seminar to talk about those brand-new aspects of ticketing.
Are there common misconceptions about producing?
Hundreds of them, I think. We teach a lot of stuff about producing, but I think the sense that it's a mystery is a big misconception, that there's some alchemy that you have to have to be a producer. I think there are things you have to have to be a good producer, and not everyone has them, but the notion that you can demystify the process and the skill set and the knowledge that you need is really at the heart of the CTI mission. Because the business has such glamour attached to it, people think that it's something they couldn't possibly do, and we try to teach that in fact they can do it and they can do it by contributing in lots of different ways. And the more they stick with it, the more they'll know and the more capable they'll be at spreading their wings.
We definitely teach that it's a business where "you can't make a living but you can make a killing." 'Cause that is so often the case, and it's very good to have another job, whether it's in theater or out, so that you can actually eat three square meals a day whether you have a hit or you don't. And we teach that there is nothing quite like being the producer of a show: It's an experience that isn't replicable in most of the rest of the world. It's thrilling, it's agonizing, and it's all-consuming.
What's your personal story of becoming a producer?
I'm one of those midlife people. I was in the real estate business. My family has always had a toe in the theater. My grandfather was a general contractor who built theaters back in the '20s and teens of the last century. My father had written a play that was produced on Broadway and ran for two weeks, and then had become a novelist. So we always had an association with theater, we went to a lot of theater, but I hadn't thought of it as a career. I was in the family real estate business, which proceeded from my grandfather's general contracting business.
I went out to Los Angeles in 1984 to go to the Olympics and fell in love with a pair of magicians who were very funny and very unusual, and asked them if they'd be interested in coming to New York. They put me in touch with a guy who actually held an option to bring them to New York, and I explained to him that I didn't know anything about producing, but I could raise the money from all the people I knew in real estate, along with my partner in the real estate business, and he could produce the show. My real estate partner and I raised the money, and this fellow produced the show, and that's how we got started. The show was a magic/comedy act called Penn & Teller, which went on to be very, very popular. In fact, we just did a comeback of them last summer at the Marquis. And the three of us stayed together--and we are still together. The guy who held the option was Richard Frankel; my partner, Steve Baruch; and the three of us and Marc Routh, who at the time was Richard's assistant, have been a producing team for the last 30 years.
Photos courtesy of the Commercial Theater Institute