Broadway producing has historically been the realm of a largely homogenous group of people: white men. But four young producers have a mission to change that status quo. Enter Business of Broadway, a new educational organization aimed at pulling back the “iron curtain” between “those who identify first and foremost as artists, and those who make the business decisions.” To achieve this goal, the groups founders host in-depth master classes offering insight into the economics of theatre and demystifying the world theatrical producing.
Below, the groups founders—Erica Rothstein, Dana M. Lerner, Rachel Sussman, and Heather Shields—discuss how their individual missions came together to form this empowering new organization.
How did the four of you originally connect?
Erica Rotstein: I had the good fortune of befriending each of these incredible women through the natural course of our careers. Heather and I met first, at a time when we were each working as an associate producer to one of lead producers of Hands on a Hardbody (me at Broadway Across America and Heather at Dede Harris Productions). Our mutual adoration was sealed with a whirlwind 48-hour girls trip to London. Very few people know just how much work Heather has her hand in day-to-day, and I’m always inspired.
I met Dana when she joined the Broadway Across America family. Though our departments at BAA did not really overlap, we began to find opportunities to collaborate outside of the office in our independent work. She wound up serving as both a co-producer and the social media manager for my first lead producing project, Hundred Days, and has since been one of those special friends who constantly encourages and buoys me and my work.
And truth is, I can’t pinpoint a singular moment that Rachel and I became friends. I suspect we first met through our mutual friend and fellow theatremaker, Robb Nanus, as a part of an emerging producer network. But I’d admired Rachel and her work from afar for
as long as I can remember. Her artistic vision, her commitment to activism, and her kindness preceded her.
What is the story behind the creation of Business of Broadway?
Rotstein: I’ve always loved teaching, and in my work collaborating with writers as both a producer and talent manager, I knew that there was a need for greater transparency and candor about how the business side of the theatre business operates. After two smart, inquisitive writers separately asked me “How exactly do I get paid from this gig?!” the mandate for BoB felt clear to me. But then I sat on the idea. And it was Dana who turned to me over dinner one night and said, “You have to build this business. I will help you make it happen.”
In the following weeks I had a catch-up dinner with each of Heather (involving burrata) and Rachel (involving tacos), and when I told them about this idea I was incubating, they each looked at me and said, “YES. I am so passionate about this and would love to do it with you.” And thus BoB was formed!
What are one or two moments when you've been able to see the work of Business of Broadway making a difference in the industry?
Dana M. Lerner: For the majority of the time BoB has been in operation, we’ve been in quarantine! So while we haven’t yet had an opportunity to see the impact of our work live and in action, we are really inspired by the learning that is happening with the 400 plus
students who’ve taken our classes. We have some exciting partnerships with universities and colleges and are eager to continue to reach young artists before they leave school. By equipping the next generation of writers, actors, directors, designers, and producers with foundational knowledge of the business, we hope it will lead to a tangible change in the way the industry operates in the future.
What is something that readers would be surprised to know about the actual business of Broadway?
Heather Shields: My favorite part of any Producing 101 class is the Q&A section, because we get that “woah I had no idea about that” feedback. Theatremakers come in expecting to learn some nuts and bolts financial structures that were never a part of their training, and we want them to leave our class with real knowledge that can help them in their careers today. A great example of this is the fact that, in theatre, writers always own their work. Even if someone produces it. Even if it was commissioned. We can actually see eyes widen over Zoom when we get to that part of class.
How have you been able to use your own privilege to help make the industry more inclusive?
Rachel Sussman: As four young white producers, I know I speak for all of us when I say that we recognize our whiteness has granted us access to opportunities and information about how the industry operates, an industry that perpetuates white supremacy. We also have to acknowledge the intersection of race and class here as each of us had the economic privilege to intern for little or no pay when we started out. Through BoB, our aim is to intentionally use our privilege to promote systemic change by firstly democratizing the commercial knowledge and resources we have been afforded, and then engaging in meaningful conversations about how we can apply this knowledge to deeply interrogate the existing commercial model and explore more equitable, inclusive structures that serve everyone.
What do you predict for the future of Broadway?
Shields: From a practical standpoint, it is really hard to imagine a new financial model being created in a vacuum. The pessimistic part of me says that until our country values the arts and artists and funds them accordingly, we will not be able to move the needle to make it more affordable to produce. On the other side of the equation, it is important to close the wealth gap and build an economy in which a ticket to a live performance is not outside the realm of possibility for the average person. So that’s the pessimistic part. The good news is that I do not think this hope is a pipe dream. It is a guiding principle of BoB that there is a more equitable and viable theatrical ecosystem out there, and that it will take a collective to find it, mold it, and activate it. We are committed to working towards that future.
Sussman: From a creative perspective, I think we can anticipate an artistic renaissance—dynamic, bold, and boundary-pushing work that might not fit the traditional definition of what we consider “commercially viable” making its way to more visible platforms like Broadway. I think, or rather hope, we will be seeing more plays and musicals centering BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ experiences on our commercial stages with more non-white leaders at the helm. I believe audiences are genuinely craving more challenging and relevant work, especially stories that haven’t had the chance to be told on Broadway yet.