BWW Interview: Jim Vagias, Producing Artistic Director of American Theater Group
The American Theater Group (ATG) is well known for staging successful productions in the Garden State. ATG is proud to present metro area audiences with new plays and new voices with an emphasis on American Playwrights.
We continue our series with theatre professionals by interviewing ATG's Producing Artistic Director, Jim Vagias about the company and the future.
Vagias has been involved in the entertainment industry since 1983 and has had the pleasure of working with some of the industry's leading professionals, as well as discovering and nurturing up-and-coming talent who later have gone on to great success (e.g. Thomas Kail, Tony Award-winning director of Hamilton; Joe DiPietro, Tony Award-winning author of Memphis.) A former attorney, Vagias founded American Theater Group in 2012 with industry professionals Joe Mancuso and Rick Sordelet. Prior to American Theater Group, Vagias produced over 40 new and classic plays and musicals, including 14 world premieres, 6 of which successfully transferred to Off-Broadway (such as I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, and Swingtime Canteen). Jim has also worked for commercial producers such as NAMCO (Chicago, Seussical, Waitress) and Timothy Childs (Annie revival). He has worked with Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) to inaugurate the New American Musical Reading Series, a program designed to help emerging writers of theatrical musicals to develop their work. In addition to having served on several panels of the ASCAP Musical Theater Workshops, he has also served as the magic consultant for Broadway productions. Vagias has taught courses on Theatre Management and Entertainment Law at Montclair State University, and has also been a guest lecturer at Rutgers, Kean University and the New School.
We were delighted to have Jim Vagias answer our questions and learn more about ATG.
When did you first realize you were destined to work in theatre arts?
I have loved the theater since before I can remember. In retrospect, I was always meant to do what I am now doing, even though the journey took a large number of detours. In a prior life I was an attorney, and I remember representing a client who was producing a new musical. During my lunch hour I went to watch a rehearsal, and on my way back to "work" I realized that the people I just watched were at their "work". It was a pretty powerful realization, and prompted me to start thinking about ways to make that kind of "work" what I did for a living.
ATG has a unique mission in NJ. Why do you think your work is so distinctive?
American Theater Group's mission is to produce new works and undeservedly neglected classics, as well as ensure theater's future by educating the artists and audiences of tomorrow. All aspects of that mission are fulfilling and inspiring to me. I love helping playwrights, especially those in the early part of their career, see their new work realized on stage. I love being in the audience during a matinee full of students, many of whom are seeing a live play for the first time, and watching their reactions to the performance and to the post-show Q&A with the actors. I love working with student playwrights and seeing their faces when their plays are performed by professional actors in our New Works/New Voices mentorship program. And I love taking a piece that may not have had the success it deserved when first produced and reimagining it.
We know that your productions have been very successful. Tell us about a few of your standouts.
It's hard to single out any one production - each one was special for different reasons. We are pleased that a number of our productions have subsequently moved to New York: Himself and Nora, Bubble Boy, Small Town Story and Marry Harry (which is also about to be released as a film.) We were also delighted by having Emmy Award Winning Actor Andre Braugher and Tony Award Winning Actress Michele Pawk appear together in our world premiere production of Tell Them I'm Still Young last season. We were enormously gratified by the audiences' overwhelmingly positive (and frequently emotional) reactions to our re-conceived production of Bridges of Madison County. We were inspired by the passionate feelings that A Good Farmer evoked from audiences. During our most recent production Till, we were truly honored to have Emmet Till's cousin the Reverend Wheeler Parker in attendance. Reverend Parker is the last living witness to the events surrounding Emmet Till's death, which helped galvanize the civil rights movement, and his Q&As following one of our performances and the student matinee were genuinely inspiring.
Tell us a little bit about the team that founded ATG.
ATG was co-founded by Joe Mancuso, Rick Sordelet and me. Joe had been working with Jim Kennedy, Rahway's Mayor at the time, to utilize the arts to help revitalize the Rahway's downtown. Part of that plan involved the construction of the beautiful Hamilton Stage. Jim Kennedy gave us a tour of the site even before construction began, and after a few more conversations, invited ATG to be the resident professional theater company, with himself as the Board President. Since then, we've been incredibly lucky to have attracted a wealth of talent from the community to join our Board of Directors. Our current president Michele Pawk leads a group of individuals who are smart, dedicated and passionate about the work we do.
Many arts organizations are now in the process of planning for their futures. What has ATG been doing?
As with all arts organizations, we've had to make adjustments due to the current stay-at-home orders. After we closed Till in early March, all programming for the remainder of the season had to be cancelled. Our Spring Gala, which has sold out the last two seasons and is a big part of our fundraising profile, is now being re-conceived. This year we are assembling remote performances and interviews with artists from ATG's past productions (isn't Zoom great?) for a Stay-a-Home Gala. On the evening of June 14th, supporters of ATG and theater-lovers everywhere can get a 'backstage look' at what goes into mounting one of our productions and learn how experts from various phases of theater create the magic audiences see onstage-all from the comfort of their own homes! We'll also be holding our annual Gala Silent Auction online this year, and are working on some great packages! All of this content will be available on AmericanTheaterGroup.org. It promises to be an evening that's both entertaining and enlightening. And we are planning on gearing up with productions starting in February of 2021. So stay tuned.
Anything else, absolutely anything you want BWW readers to know!
Just that we hope everyone is staying healthy, and that we can't wait to be able to return to bringing live performances to our audiences when it is safe to do so. Until then, we hope people will keep in touch with us online at AmericanTheaterGroup.org and on social media-- www.facebook.com/AmericanTheaterGroup, and www.instagram.com/americantheatergroup .
Photo Credit: Courtesy of James Vagias