Industry Interview: Inside the Mind of Jujamcyn Theaters' Jordan Roth!
What do "Frozen," "Angels in America," "Mean Girls," "Springsteen on Broadway," "The Book of Mormon," and "Kinky Boots" have in common? Two words: Jordan Roth.
As President of Jujamcyn Theaters, with care and expertise, Jordan aims to create a nurturing environment for both theatergoers and theater-makers during their times in Jujamcyn Theaters, so that they truly feel that they belong and are compelled to come back.
Jordan is currently producing "Angels in America" with the National Theatre starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. He produced "Present Laughter" starring Kevin Kline in his Tony Award-winning performance, and the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Best Play "Clybourne Park."
Jordan founded givenik.com where theatergoers can buy tickets and five percent of the purchase will go to the charity of their choice.
He has also recently launched a new web-series (we're obsessed with) called "The Birds and the B.S." in which he talks with special animated guests about how to deal with the specific difficulties of our modern world.
Read on to find out how Roth fills his average day, stays creatively fulfilled, and so much more!
What's your average day like?
One of the things I love about what I do is I really don't have an average day. The thing that is consistent, which is my joy, is I start my day with my baby and we end the day together as well. Everything in-between/after that is up for grabs in exciting ways.
Was it like that when you started, or did you make it that way?
It was like that when I started, but it has become exponentially more like that as I expand my canvas, and as I pursue and explore many more parts of myself and the things that excite me, and interest me, and intrigue me. It's funny- it's not a job of routine, and I'm a person who thrives on routine.
Some parts I would imagine are routine like if you have long-running shows in theatres, I guess you're doing more maintenance and other things?
Yeah, so that's true of us as a company, but not necessarily me as an individual. Certainly the core of our business is theater operations. Yes, the sort of "daily people were here last night, people are coming tonight." Things have to be done for the people who were here, and things have to be done for the people who are coming, and all the while keeping our show partners at all levels of their organization able to do what they do best.
Operationally, as a company, that is where we shine-when our run gets into its rhythm, and our operations teams can really oil that machine expertly. When we're bringing the show in, that's when everything's sort of new and different. And there's a certain amount of routine to that; in bringing a show is there are predictable unpredictables, right?
Everything's always unpredictable, and yet they can fall in a bucket of: "we've seen this before."
Of course, in every show there's things we've never seen before and that's what makes it exciting.
Taking down the back wall of a theatre...
For instance, something like that! Though that's like a sort of major, unique project, a once-in-our-lifetime kind of project.
Was that done for "Frozen"?
No, No. That was done because the St. James is a perfect musical house except for its stage depth. That was not a problem in the Golden Age when sets were flat - literally. Even what we would imagine as extravagant musicals - the original "King and I," the original "Oklahoma!," the original "Carousel," the originally "Dolly!"... they were all able to fit on this stage quite happily. But, sets have become much more dimensional, much more technological, depth for projections, and lighting, and video. Space for the equipment to operate the sets is all growing, growing, growing.
And we think it's all getting smaller...
Well, you think. But no, they aren't in this very isolated case. Some of it we were able to do along the way. So the whole stage-left side of the wing used to be wing space and then offices and dressing rooms above. That got completely demolished in advance of "Bullets Over Broadway," because where are you going to store the train? That went there.
The big fix was knocking out the back wall of the stage wall for depth. That could only go into the alley between the St. James and the Helen Hayes. The alley was an integral part of how the Hayes operated as a major means of egress for everyone in the building as well as several floors of offices above. You can't just chop it off. We knew that making the alley as part of our stage would only work as part of a total renovation and rethink of the Hayes.
When it became clear that Second Stage was going to be buying the Hayes, I went over to Carol and said, "Here's a moment."
We made this deal that we could buy the alley and that we would do this construction together, at the same time.
How much more difficult was it than your summary as far as the Second Stage conversations?
It was very clear this was a sort of win/win/win/win. Win for both our companies and win for both those theaters, because they both would end up being better off. Being better able to serve their artists and their audiences.
That's what we did, and we made this plan. The plan was that we would create this box, we called it "The Box," which was outlining the new back of stage. But we would create that while they were beginning their construction, while our back wall was still up. "Present Laughter" was performing on this side of the wall while this void was being created on that side of the wall. "Present Laughter" closes on July 2nd, then on July 3rd, the wall starts coming down.
Were you there with a sledge hammer or did they not let you?
We kept a lot of bricks.
Were you interested in construction before this?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I'm from a real estate family. I love it. I do. I love it professionally, and I love it personally in our homes. Imagining space and what space can become is, I think, a deeply creative -
That sounds like theatre.
It is theatre, absolutely. You walk into a blank space; blank canvas and you can create a world. I actually think architecture and construction and design is that for real worlds that we make and live in.
Once we knew that space was coming, that's when "Frozen" could really look at the St. James as a real possibility, because we knew that this stage would be big enough to accommodate them.
Even though everybody likes to say, "They blew out the back wall for 'Frozen'," actually, we just made this plan and then - really, it was just a bet that at some time in my lifetime, I would want a show to be here that wanted to be here, but couldn't because of the stage limitations.
Were there shows that have said no?
Oh yeah. There were absolutely, in my tenure, shows that just knew they couldn't look at the St. James, because they had a depth problem. That's usually on shows that are already designed or exist somewhere else and are not able to totally re-depth configure how they work. I didn't know it would be the very next show.
How important is the Jujamcyn brand name for consumers? Do you want people to think, "I had a great experience in this theatre?" or "I had a great experience in a Jujamcyn theatre?"
I don't believe that tons and tons of audiences are going to come to one of our theaters if they don't want to see the show. The show is the main driver of what's bringing you here. But, I do believe that the experience we create at the theater for our audiences is part of the reason why they want to come back. That's the driver.
The driver is: "We want you to truly feel you belong here, and want nothing more than to come back to the theater. If that means come back to our theater, that is great; if it means come back to the theatre broadly, that's also great."
The next piece is: "Let us tell you that this experience that you enjoyed was created by a company, and you can have it at lots of different theaters." That's where the brand part of our life comes in.
Are there specific initiatives? Are there things you think you do differently or better than other theater companies do?
I think our point of view of theatre as hospitality is what we have built our company on. The idea that the theatre is a curb-to-curb experience, not a curtain-to-curtain experience. That is created for you, both theatergoer and theater-maker- by a team of people in each house at every point.
It's how you approach the theater and what you feel when you see it... the energy under the marquee; how you are greeted; how you get your ticket; how you line up; how you come to know where you're supposed to be; what the lobby feels like, looks like, smells like, sounds like as you enter it; how you find your way to the bars, bathrooms, wherever you want to be.
This is all before the show and 15 different people have guided you and interacted with you along that way. How do they make you feel? Do the people and the space make you feel like you are here for the most extraordinary experience of your life that is going to open you and change you, and that you belong here, you are part of this? Or do they not?
How do you quantify that? Do you have happy faces coming out? Do you think if they're happy, it's because of the show or the theater?
I think that's what makes this hard. Feelings are not deeply quantifiable, and so you have to invest in them and care about them in a new way.
I wouldn't disagree with that as metric-based as I am.
I do believe though that we clock as much as we can of everything. We collect all feedback anecdotally; every person who works here, is funneling whatever bits of information you are giving them and funneling it into our management team.
So that we... can begin to put a picture together of all of these mosaics of tidbits of information, of exchanges, of observations, of what's happening.
Part of creating that feeling is knowing that not every person is going to be 100 percent happy about 100 percent everything, 100 percent of the time. But, when that is not true, how we deal with that next step determines who we are. Right?
We can turn a difficult situation into a very happy ending. Staying focused on that, and making that a part of who we are, is really important.
It is a thing that we measure constantly in lots of different ways, but aware that it's not necessarily spreadsheet-able. Often the things that are most important to real growth, real change, are not.
For you personally, you've managed to add all these creative pursuits on to the business side of things. How have you carved out time for your web series?
I used to think about my work as emails and meetings and phone calls. My creative expression as later. That's what you do when you're not in the office. That's what you do on the weekends. Then I realized that's not my work at all, my work is all of it. So, just reframing that was a big piece.
Also, I think, continuing to build our team such that I can set the operational vision, but not be the operational engine of everything, is... something that any leader of any organization or group of any size has to start to work towards.
That became really important for me in the last couple of years, and we have an extraordinary team of leaders here. I think for me, it is expanding the canvas and not seeing everything as "ors" but more "ands".
I was thinking "boat oars."
No - o-r-s. And that's who I am, and who I want to be, and how I want to live. To be totally honest, making it reality is not always easy. I think it's where the best work is, on all pieces of it.
I also very much reject the distinction between creative and business. It's everywhere. When you think about it what do we call the director, choreographer, writers, designers on the show?
The creative team.
The creative team. Implying that everybody else is what? Not creative?
In advertising, there's the creative and the account. I don't buy that. I think there is creativity in business and business in creativity. For those of us who have both in our hearts and in our heads, holding them together is part of being true to who we are.
At the same time, I think we are a business of creativity, but many of us may not feel very creative through our day on any given day. I think, fighting for that feeling, for that feeling that I am creating, I am generating, I am expressing who I am, how I think, what I see, that is what I want my days to be.
Do you think it makes it better at the other sides? Like being able to exercise the creative part of your brain on a web series, or artistically with the show, makes you more creative in a concession stand meeting?
Yes, I think everything we do that is an expression of ourselves makes you better at everything else. Because, it's a muscle, right? I also think that a lot of this is about identity; who do you see yourself as and how do others see you?
I stopped worrying how others see me in the late 90s.
Amen, to you. But that's really important, because even in our business of creativity and multihyphenates, it's not so easy. Whether it's perceived or real, you will very often feel as though people want you to do that thing that they know you as, whether it's you are a web entrepreneur, so you couldn't possibly also write, until you write.
And then you are a web entrepreneur/writer. Even more specifically, you are a comedic actress, so you couldn't possibly be in this drama. You can only surprise yourself if you allow for the possibility that you are bigger.
Barbra Streisand just taught us you can never have too many hyphens.
There you go. You are bigger than you may know. Just open yourself to that possibility and take steps towards it. That's what I'm doing.
What's coming up on the web series or other things I should be asking about?
We've got lots of episodes brewing, and lots of exciting animated guests for you to learn from and laugh with. Look, I am so blown away, thrilled, moved by how people have reacted to it so quickly, and how much everybody has really understood what we're trying to do with this piece, having this outlet and character and format to talk about this world that we are living in that is complicated.
On a good day.
On a good day. For me, I think also, though writing and performing is something that's always been a part of my life, it has for many people been the first piece of that that they have experienced from me. That's been really gratifying. People who I respect and love starting to imagine what else, that becomes talking about collaborations.
So, we might see you on one of your stages?
You might! Or somebody else's.
That, I think, also is connected to our conversation about professional identity. Creativity, creating, is a collective act... it is an exciting, fascinating, and very moving thing to put out, "This is what I am interested in saying; this is what I am interested in doing and these are the parts of myself that I will put forward for that."
And then having other people say, "Yes, and here's me. What can we make together? What can we think about together, when we put our brains and our hearts and our voices together? What else can we make, and what else can we say?"
That really is what the theatre is. When you think about the shows that have really changed the theatre and changed us, it is because a group of people have come together and said, "We need to say this now in this way."
Those moments of creative collision when you say, "I see you, I see you anew, and I want to dig deeper into that," that is the moment of creation.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Broski