Podcast Episode 70 – Leigh Silverman
Ken: Hello, everybody. This is the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport. I am super excited about my guest today. She is one of the most in-demand female directors on the planet and her name is Leigh Silverman. Welcome, Leigh!
Leigh: Thanks, Ken. That’s so nice; what a great introduction.
Ken: On Broadway, Leigh has directed Well, Chinglish, which is a show I was on, most recently Violet, which grabbed her a Tony nomination. She’s directed a whole ton of shows off-Broadway in some of the most prominent theatres around the country, including Playwrights Horizons, MTC, the Goodman, Second Stage. We were just talking off the record about her incredible relationship with the Sundance Theatre Lab – she’s off to Morocco soon, how cool is that? Now she’s sitting here, before going to Morocco, and talking to us. So, Leigh, where did you get the theatre bug?
Leigh: Oh, always. Super bossy only child and I was lucky because I had somebody tell me at a very young age that I was a terrible actor so that was a tremendous relief and I didn’t have to pursue that but I was a complete theatre nerd and loved everything about the theatre and there was nobody in my family in the arts at all so I was really just out there and I started directing because I was at this summer theatre program and I was there as an actor and the person who headed the program took me out after the first day and she said “Leigh, I just have to tell you, you’re terrible, but I think you’re really smart and I think you should assist me this summer,” and she gave me all of these plays that I had never read – she gave me Ibsen and she gave me Shaw and she gave me Chekhov – and I assisted her for the summer and so I went with her, scene to scene, and I was15 years old and it changed my life. I went to Carnegie Mellon, to a pre-college program, in between my junior and senior year of school, and I was admitted into college from that program, so I started my senior year of high school knowing that I was going off to be a theatre director and that was going to be the rest of my life. So I had a tumultuous senior year of high school because I, of course, didn’t have to do anything and then barely made it through, and then went to Carnegie Mellon and that was it. I was in that program as an undergrad director, which is one of the only places where you can get an undergraduate degree in theatre directing, and also, while I was there, I did a graduate degree in playwriting, which I did because I wanted to work on new plays and there was no other way to get into a room with a writer except to be a writer myself and I was just, I think, determined enough that they couldn’t say no, so I sat there and I learned so much about directing while I was a writer, actually, because I learned about story and structure and character and I learned how to talk to writers and I learned about the writing process and then I moved to New York. That was 20 years ago exactly.
Ken: I have so many questions already but we have to go back because you were talking about “Oh, then this woman took me out and she said I was terrible, when I was in this summer program,” I expected you to say that was during college. You were 15 years old?
Leigh: I was 15, yeah.
Ken: How did you deal with that? A 15 year old, a teenager, gets told they’re terrible at something, a lot of them would just run into their room, cry forever and never emerge again. This one told you you’re terrible at something you obviously enjoyed to some extent.
Leigh: You know, I have to say I think because she was so quick to say “You’re really smart and you have this other thing going and I can tell already,” only knowing me a day, that it sort of saved me from that feeling of “Oh God, I’ll never do this again,” kind of thing. I think actually there was a little bit of relief in it because I didn’t know that there were other opportunities for me in theatre, other than being a star, which is what I imagined, and so there were a lot of things about it that, all of a sudden, I felt like I’d been putting a round peg in a square hole, or whatever that expression is, and all of a sudden I was like “No, I can do this whole other thing!” and so it was kind of great, actually. I also felt special because I felt singled out and I got to follow her around all summer. I’m sure it was weirdly punishing and she didn’t want to have to deal with me all summer but I felt special because I felt seen, I felt like she saw something in me that was very sustaining for me. I think there are a few people in my life that have done that, they have seen some kind of potential there and I am so grateful for them. Frequently it comes on the heels of something being a terrible failure or humiliation, as all the best lessons are, but I’m so grateful for that, for being seen in that way, and understand.
Ken: Then you had the foresight to enroll in a master program in playwriting to understand the play. You obviously had to write stuff.
Leigh: I did, yes.
Ken: Any of it good? I mean do you like it? Did you ever get it produced?
Leigh: I did write one play that has been produced. In 1998 I wrote a play that was in a fringe festival and did well in the fringe festival and had a second production, but not since then. I actually feel, now that I’ve had the great privilege of being around really good writers, I’m like “Oh, no, I’m not a good writer, I’m not a good writer,” but I know what good writing is and I have felt confident in my ability to talk about writing and talk to writers about their writing in a way that I think has served me to do those other jobs. I think always in theatre it serves us to be reminded of how terrifying it is to act or to write or to be a designer and come in and have to make magic or whatever it is, to say “This is how to make a whole process happen, to really understand what the pieces are to have to come together.”
Ken: What does a director do? What is a director’s job? Sum it up in a sentence or two for me.
Leigh: It’s interesting, directing is such a mystery to so many people because it’s so different every single time. Every single process is widely different. I believe that the director is the captain, is the great manager of all personalities and all creativity and it is the director’s job to pull it together, shape it and then bring it forth to an audience in a way they can see, appreciate and understand, and it requires a huge amount of vision, tenacity, flexibility, you have to know what to say when and to who and I feel that directing, ultimately, can be the most collaborative and rewarding for its collaboration and the most punishing because, in a way, so much of what a director does can be attributed to other people, it can also be a place where it’s very often that a director can get blamed for things they have done nothing but try to rally against. It’s a tricky spot and it’s also the place where you have to take full responsibility – you just have to say “Yeah, I stand behind this and I’m doing this.” I joke around sometimes, like I really wish there was an insert you could put in a program to say “This is what I did,” or “This is what I wish I hadn’t done,” or whatever, but it’s the greatest, I mean it’s the greatest, and for me so much of that is about the collaborations that I have with writers.
Ken: How early do you like to come into the process of working on a new play?
Leigh: Sometimes I just get scraps. I get a few lines from maybe one scene or a little bit of a monologue or a collaborator that I’ve worked with a lot will say “Oh, I have this idea – can I take you out to dinner and talk to you about it? Do you think it’s viable?” so sometimes it’s that early and sometimes it’s a play that’s fully baked and gets handed to me and I read it and I think “Oh yeah, that’s something that I would be really interested in working on,” so it really varies.
Ken: That’s fascinating because I’ve actually never heard it described to me in that way – so a playwright takes you to dinner and pitches you an idea and asks “Is it viable?” What ticks the boxes for you that makes a paly viable?
Leigh: I think if it feels to me, in particular with writers I have had deep and long collaborations with, where I’ve worked on three or more plays with them, if it feels like an idea that has depth, that has stylistic challenge, that has interesting characters, where they can say “I have this idea for one line,” when they can see it clearly, they can see the forest and the trees at the same time even though it’s not written yet, I always feel like “Yes, write it, do that, that sounds amazing,” and it always feels, for me, a great honor when writers come to me again and again to say that they want to continue our collaboration because I think the collaboration gets deeper – the more you do with somebody the greater the shorthand is – and you frequently go through the trenches and there are all kinds of things that you feel really great about and all kinds of things you wish were different and to get to the other side and then a writer says “Hey, I have this new idea. Can we talk about this next thing?” I feel like that’s, for me, the greatest success. That is what I live for and that’s what I want from my collaborations, is to feel like they just continue and that I am someone that somebody likes to say “She’s mine. I work with her.”
Ken: And the other example – someone hands you a fully baked play – what’s your process like? You get that play, you go away and you’re working on it. You’ve already decided “I’m doing this, we go into rehearsals in three months,” what’s your process for getting ready to go into rehearsals?
Leigh: Well one of the great challenges of directing new plays is that even plays that are fully baked, as I like to say, still get to change all the time and so there’s always a design process in which I try to design the play that I see on the page but also design the play that might exist by the time we open – and sometimes those are two very different kinds of plays – and I try to assess from the writer how much work they’re planning on doing, what they’re thinking about, what things they want to change, I try to incorporate that as much as I can into a vision for what the future life of this play might look like. A writer might say to me “I really love the structure of the play but I’m very confused about this character,” so how that actor is picked, what kind of actor we look for, because in a new play process anything can happen so there’s always a chance that we’re going to need more or less from that particular person, so I try to incorporate really what the writer feels the trajectory of the play is into my grand scheme and I try to enter into a very rigorous dramaturgical conversation with my designers about how we’re telling to tell the story – how we’re going to tell the story visually, what’s our way in, what’s the first image, what’s the climax, what’s the end, how are people supposed to feel, what’s going to make them go “Oh, that’s so surprising!”, what are the stylistic challenges of the play, what’s the tone of the play and how do we communicate that tone through design? And I like to meet with my designers a lot, I like to ask them a lot of questions about the play, what they think. I like to sometimes read the play out loud with designers and make them read the parts because that’s hilarious and also I find that actually it gets us all on the same page, literally.
Ken: Who’s the worst designer/actor out there?
Leigh: Oh, that’s so funny.
Ken: You don’t have to answer that.
Leigh: Everyone is sort of horrified and then they get into it, let me put it that way.
Ken: I love the idea of Robert Wagner reading.
Leigh: Totally! You have everybody over, you have a glass of wine, it’s great, and literally it just lets you get on the same page about “Oh, that’s funny, I didn’t know that was funny,” and that kind of thing, because when everybody reads a play they’re having their own experience of it, so to actually read the play together, if they haven’t had the opportunity to come to a reading or see a workshop or something like that. Then the next part of the process, usually, is the audition process and that is also a great tool for learning about the play, because even if you’ve developed a play for two, three, four years, frequently you’ve heard the same actors do it and sometimes when you have auditions and you have different people coming in to hear it, sometimes I think “Oh, that scene, that’s the wrong choice but that could totally work that way,” and you get all kinds of ideas about the play and just to hear it over and over again, certain parts of it, I always find the audition process incredibly useful for learning about the play and what people respond to in the play, how they receive it, and traps – audition time is a really good time to be like “Oh yeah, that’s a total pitfall of this scene or this character,” and then we start the rehearsal process and I am a big fan of rewrites, I’m a big fan of keeping going until you can’t go anymore, which is generally five minutes before you open. I’ve worked with lots of writers who like to work that way and just keep going. David Wong always says his plays aren’t finished, they just open, and I really appreciate that about him. Lisa Kron is exactly the same – there are actually three different published copies of Lisa’s play Well that I did on Broadway because one was published after we did the run at the Public and then there was a version that was published and had to go to print while we were in rehearsal for Broadway and we changed the ending from the time we were in rehearsal to the time the show opened on Broadway and then there was another published version, so you can actually see the new play process in published form, which is simultaneously horrifying to Lisa but also it’s amazing because you can see how regular she was with herself all through that process, right up through the opening on Broadway.
Ken: How much can an actor change the scope of a play? What’s the greatest percentage change you’ve seen in a play because, all of a sudden, you’ve cast the right actors and you’re like “Oh my gosh, these guys are taking it in a totally different direction and it’s fantastic,”? Can it affect it that much?
Leigh: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s the great thing about actors, is they come together with you and they show you something that you never thought was there and it is that kind of collaboration, where they’re showing you all sides of something that you can only see a few sides of. It’s an extraordinary moment because, frequently, if you have an actor who you really trust, I mean I think the key element is that everyone has a general idea of the target that they’re trying to hit, that I think is the director’s job, if there’s a sense of the vision of how the show is going to work then an actor can show you all kinds of things that you had no idea was there and bring to life so many possibilities that I think can be so delightful and so startling and the revelation that can come with a great actor is incredible, it’s just incredible, and I think I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot of actors who have shown me things about the shows that I thought I knew so much about and then somebody comes in and you’re like “Oh, oh, oh, oh. No, no, now I see how that can go,” and then you start the process of building a performance. When you trust an actor and you have someone who’s so on board with what you want to do and showing you all of these things, with that creativity and skill, you feel so comfortable, I think, in the job that way.
Ken: What do you look for when an actor walks in the room, in the first minute of their audition? What are you looking for, for someone that you know will at least get a callback or might be considered for this?
Leigh: I’m looking for strong choices. They don’t have to be the right choices, they don’t have to be the choices that are ultimately going to be the ones that we make for production, but I’m really looking for someone to come in with a point of view, know how to plan action, know what the scene is about, has read the play, has some general knowledge about the writer, if possible, they understand something about where this play might fit in the work of this writer, what this play is about, what the writer is trying to say and do with it, to have an opinion but also to be then open for me to be like “Okay, that was great, but can we try it this way?” and also be able to do that. I think the hardest time as a director, when you’re sitting in auditions, is when people are sort of just coming in and they’re trying to simply perform it for you without really having a point of view or a strong sense of action or a strong sense of what the character they’re playing is trying to do. It’s very hard to cast someone that way, even when they’re fantastic, and I think actors who are good auditioners are not always great in long running shows and actors who are great in long running shows are often terrible auditioners – they’re very different skills – and I think it’s really important, as an actor, to be able to practice both things because you actually have to get the job and so learning to be a good auditoner, learning how to walk into a room not panicking, managing your anxiety, being able to talk to a director, being able to read a play, talk about it, understand what’s happening in a scene, play an action, those are all very important, they’re as important as they are being in a room, present, ready to rehearse every day, ready to run a show, and they’re different skills and it’s hard to find an actor who can really do both and excel at both.
Ken: Most of the new plays, if not all, frankly, in this country seem to be developed at non-profit theatres. Now, I’m a producer and I like a new play – should the commercial world develop more new plays or should we just leave it to the non-profits? They do it best, that’s the way it’s done, it’s been very successful most recently. Should commercial producers like me just leave it alone and let the non-profits do it or do you think there’s a way that commercial producers could…?
Leigh: Oh, absolutely. I mean I feel like we’re in this ecosystem and I feel like the writers need the support and the directors need the support of all kinds of people. We need dramaturgs, we need the not for profits, we need commercial producers, we need people to say “This is a great thing of beauty and it should live downtown. This is a great thing of beauty, we should sell tickets to tourists,” like there are people who need to make those decisions, those are generally not the artists – we need everybody – and I think there have been a lot of really great comings together of commercial producers who want to work with artists that they trust and believe in and they can use an opportunity at a not for profit, out of town, in town, wherever, to explore what the possibilities of those shows might be and I also think that, in a way, when it works best it’s helpful to everybody. I think the danger of it, of course, is this idea that sloths are for sale at not for profit theatres and I think that’s dangerous but what I believe is that we can have it all and that that is how we best thrive, when all things are possible, when there can be, in a season, a show or two that has help from a commercial enhancer, when they’re taking a risk on some new writer and no commercial producer is involved and then there’s this kind of thing and this kind of thing. I really feel like the not for profit world, both in New York and regionally, benefits from all kinds of interest from all kinds of people, as long as it’s not at the exclusion of anything else, and I think that’s where we get into a little bit of trouble.
Ken: Obviously you love plays – and then you directed Violet, which was incredible, and then I saw your Wild Party at City Center, which was also fantastic. Do you like musicals?
Leigh: I love musicals.
Ken: Do you want to do more of them?
Leigh: I’m doing like two musicals in the next year, which I’m so excited about. For me, musicals, they’re like plays but just much more complicated because there are so many more people to manage. I mean doing Wild Party felt like being in the Olympics, getting the very best people who are very good at their jobs and giving them three days to perform at the highest level with altitude sickness or something. You know, it just felt like running marathons or something, it was just so great and so hard, I mean we staged that whole play in five days, that whole giant dance musical. I think the thing about musicals, when you’re not in the encore situation but when you’re actually working on them, is the storytelling possibilities just grow exponentially because you have the music and you have the lyrics and the way that you tell that story and the rigor that’s required to tell that story well is exponentially increased, as opposed to a play where you can have music and you can have other elements that help you tell that story but not where you have a book writer, a lyricist, a composer and sometimes that’s all one person, like in the case of Wild Party, but when you have a number of people plus you have a musical director you have all kinds of additional creative members of the team who have opinions and points of view and require all kinds of managing and handling and getting everybody pointed in that one direction towards that target and that challenge, which feels sometimes unendingly hard on a play, is then multiplied by a thousand on a musical. I love it.
Ken: So imagine that all those people you just described – the book writer, the composer, the lyricist, the choreographer, the musical director – are all at a bar, hanging out, and I go in and talk to them and I say “Hey, describe Leigh Silverman’s rehearsal process for me,” how would they describe it?
Leigh: I think they would say that I really like to work hard, that I never give up a minute, that I challenge them to be better than they thought and, let’s see, I would like to believe that they would say that I’m also a lot of fun. I cannot say that with full confidence but I feel that that’s also part of the potential thing that people might say about me. But mostly I think the experience that people have working with me is that I just ask a lot of questions and I don’t give up and I hold myself to a high standard and I make everybody else do that too. I only run into problems with people who are lazy.
Ken: Can you tell us what the musicals that you’re working on are?
Leigh: I’m doing a musical with Sutton Foster that I’m very excited about.
Ken: Never heard of her.
Leigh: I know, yeah.
Ken: No talent and very short legs.
Leigh: Yeah, unattractive, weird, mean, terrible. Sutton is one of the few actors that I feel like I would follow her to the ends of the earth. There is nothing that I wouldn’t do for her. So I’m very excited about that and I’m working on a musical – two musicals, actually – with a collaborator of mine named Ethan Lipton – I did a play of his three years ago at the Public called No Place to Go and he has two musicals, one that he is in with his band and the other that we’re doing this summer for Clubbed Thumb Summerworks with Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Conlee and Kristine Nielsen and Jeremy Shamos – we just have a cast of all-stars in this awesome downtown summer theatre kind of way so I’m really looking forward to that. That’s called Too Macho and it’s a western apocalyptical musical.
Ken: Do you read reviews?
Ken: Not at all?
Leigh: I’m just one of those people – I’m not on Facebook, I work very hard to tune out the noise. I find that, in terms of long term sustainability in the theatre, you know, you always end up knowing, you always end up seeing the pull quotes, you figure it out, you don’t need to read it. I think I read a review once – I’m trying to think, maybe eight years ago – and the review was so mean about the show and super mean about me and it said – because of course it’s burned in my brain, every director has one of these burned in their brain, and mine was – “Why would you hire Leigh Silverman to direct this show? She has zero visual sense.”
Ken: That’s just ridiculous.
Leigh: You know, I carry that with me always and I have found that I am not interested in putting myself in a constant state of… I have enough anxiety and I have enough ambition and things that I want to do and I don’t need the added benefit of feeling like every morning I’m scanning the paper trying to see what the reviews are. And, that being said, I feel very confident that I know exactly what everybody’s reviews are for every show in the city. There’s a way that you just know, and I feel as a theatre artist that it’s also my job to turn down the noise on the things that get in my way so I can focus on the other stuff. So that’s kind of how I roll.
Ken: How do you think the new American play is doing right now? Do you think it’s a very healthy patient?
Leigh: I think right now the new American play has been thriving because every writer that I work with is also writing for television. So for the first time ever writers have a way to support themselves and have a sustainable career and there’s tons of TV being shot in New York so actors are able to make more a living. I mean it’s super annoying because I frequently feel like I’m the only person who’s not working on a television show and then I’m like “Wait a minute, why am I buying you a drink? You guys take me out!” but I feel like actually the boom of television and the sort of renaissance that’s happening right now in the world of TV and cable and internet and everything has done great, great service to plays, because now writers are actually able to make a living, they can work on a TV show and they can also be writing their plays and they have the whole rest of the year to write and, although I do feel like it’s draining some of our resources, I also feel like it’s giving back in undeniable ways. I mean some of the greatest shows that are on right now are written by playwrights.
Ken: So in your introduction for this podcast I said you’re one of the greatest female directors, the most in-demand female directors – has it been harder to become an A-list director in this business being a woman? Is the old boys club of directors true?
Leigh: I get asked this question fairly frequently and I will say when I directed Lisa’s play Well on Broadway in 2006 I was only the seventh woman to ever direct a straight play on Broadway – in 2006 – and that was appalling. That number has increased exponentially since then. I feel very lucky that I was part of that chance and that so many of my enormously talented peers have also been able to come up in a next generation of women that are being taken seriously as theatre directors. I will say that off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway and regionally, in places where there’s not a huge amount of money involved, I feel like there’s much more gender parity in terms of women directing and I feel like the closer you get to the money the less women there are and so when you talk about big commercial shows, when you talk about giant expensive musicals, fewer and fewer women, and when you’re talking about the season of playwrights, the season at New York Theatre Workshop, the season at other places, more women, and that is just true and even though last year there was something like 17% or 16% of the plays or shows on Broadway were directed by women, there are just more shows now, so even though there are more women the percentage has stayed the same, it’s just undeniable. I feel that there’s more work to be done and it’s incredible to me the way that I felt as I was sort of coming up and the women I looked up to, I feel like everything about the culture is changing and continues to change but we’re kind of not there yet, is my assessment. I think there are women who are thriving in the off-Broadway community who have never been given the opportunity to do a Broadway show and I think that’s just a crime. I will also say that, as a younger person, it’s very hard to get hired to direct anything in your 20s, whether you’re a guy or a girl. Jill Solloway has this incredible quote about how men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience and that feels very true to me, I feel like that is absolutely right – you hire a man because you feel like “Oh, he has all this potential ahead of him,” as opposed to, with a woman, it feels like “Well what has she done?”
Ken: Anything we can do, anything I can do, to start to see a change in this? Besides just simply hiring some more women.
Leigh: You know, it’s so interesting, I don’t know what will change it but I do feel like even just talking about it, even asking the question, is a big part of the change and I think making sure that, on your creative teams, when you’re looking at lists of directors, when you’re looking at lists of designers, all of that, that that is actually a consideration, I think is a really big deal. I don’t think it ever used to be and hopefully the famous list of the top people, someday, will include more women than it does right now and I believe that it’s possible and that we’re moving in that direction, but for right now I look around sometimes and I think “Yeah, it’s still the same five guys. Still the same, still the same.”
Ken: You said it was hard for someone in their 20s to get hired to direct anything, it doesn’t matter what sex they are.
Ken: What should a young director do to start off on their career path?
Leigh: Well I think the hardest thing about directing is that it’s very hard to practice because you really need the job in order to practice doing the job but you can’t get the job until you’ve had the practice so it’s this weird chicken and the egg thing. I think there are three things – one is sustainability. There’s financial sustainability because you will never get hired to direct if you’re working in a bank, so figuring out how to make enough money to live wherever it is that you’re living, whether it’s in New York or someplace else, so that you’re able to actually do the work when the work can happen. Also emotional sustainability, like who are your people and how are you going to stay in it? because the business is hard and the vicissitudes of life in the theatre are insane and it’s random and unpredictable so I think emotional sustainability as well as financial sustainability is a big factor and then I think there’s the learning factor which is who are the people that you admire, how do you get in a room with them, how do you assist them, how do you be their intern, how do you see all of their work, how do you learn your craft from a distance, so that when it’s your time to do it you feel like you’ve gotten some knowledge. For me, I did a ton of assisting – I loved it, I loved being in a room and learning from people that I admired and I felt like those were really important opportunities for me, and then I feel like the third component really has to do with how do you practice your craft – how do you do both of those first two things – make enough money to live and learn from the people who inspire you – and then also practice, and that’s about getting people over to your apartment and trying to stage a scene or agreeing to do a reading at eleven o’clock at night in the basement of some church or doing a fringe festival or doing a ten minute play festival or going back and doing a play at your high school or doing something at your college or digging up the opportunities, and people say “Well how do you get those opportunities?” and I feel like if you’re asking that question you’re already in trouble because so much about directing is about creating worlds and convincing people to go with you to that world, so if you cannot figure out how to create your own opportunities, that is the number one job of a director, is to figure out how to be proactive and create the environments that you want and the worlds that you want, to practice it, to get good at it, to be able to advocate for yourself, to be able to talk about the work in a way that people get excited and they want to follow you anywhere, and that’s about yourself and your own career and it’s also about when you walk into a rehearsal room and you’re like “Hey, guys, we’re going to work on this new play, there’s no act two and we’re not really sure about that character and maybe it takes place in this place but we’re not really sure – let’s go!” and get everybody on board with that. That’s a huge part of what directing is about and so I feel like you have to be able to do that for yourself and your career in the same way that you do it in a rehearsal room.
Ken: So you mentioned that you have things you want to do throughout your career – you’re still very young for the career of a director with as much success as you’ve already had. I want you to imagine 40 years into the future, you’re getting a lifetime achievement award – what do they say about your career? What would you want them to say you’ve done?
Leigh: Wow, that is a really hard question. Nobody has ever asked that question before.
Ken: I’ve never asked anybody else that question before. I just came up with it today just for you.
Leigh: Oh my God, my mind is blown.
Ken: It’s the James Lipton Lifetime Achievement Award question.
Leigh: Oh my God, I just have no idea. I will say that it has felt, for the last twenty years, that the goal has just been to work, to get the work, to do as much work as possible. The element of choice has not been a big part of my life, you just do the work, and I would like to feel like, whatever this next chapter of my life is, that there’s a little bit more flexibility in terms of choice and part of that is potentially working on shows where I make a little bit more money and potentially I don’t have to do seven plays a year, which is mostly what I have to do to live in New York and have the life that I want. I just feel like that’s, at some point, going to be unsustainable – and sometimes I’m like “Today’s that day, I can’t do it!” Seven plays a year is a lot, it’s a lot, and I would like whatever this next chapter is to look like, or the next three chapters that gets me through another forty years looks like, to feel like I have been able to bring projects to people, get excited about things that also I am, I’m not just trying to generate excitement for the writers that I’m working with or agreeing to do projects that come to me, but where I can bring something to somebody and say “I have a really good idea about this, let me do it.” I feel like that is just starting to happen and I feel like that is what I want, to feel like there is more of that in my future.
Ken: Okay, last question. This is one of those James Lipton questions.
Leigh: I love it.
Ken: It’s called my Genie Question. It’s now famous all over this podcast – that’s about it! I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to see you and says “Leigh, you’ve already made such amazing contributions to the theatre and helped so many playwrights get their stuff on and get it done well. I want to thank you for that by granting you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway? That really makes you angry, that keeps you up at night, that makes you pound your desk? I do think you’re a really fun person so what makes you angry? What makes you mad about Broadway that you’d ask this genie to wish away?
Leigh: Wow, that is such a good question. I think, for the shows that are artful, that may or may not include celebrities – so for me it’s not an issue of celebrity, it’s an issue of letting the shows that are careful and not cynical and not there just to make a buck but that are there because actually the people that put them there care about Broadway as a place of culture and not just commerce, I want those shows to succeed and I feel like those are the shows that I’ve been a part of that have been on Broadway and they didn’t make a penny and I think that I believe, as I think you do because of the shows that you’ve produced, that Broadway is a place that is big enough for all of it and that it all should be able to be sustainable there, and sometimes there’s the unicorn that breaks through – Fun Home, Spring Awakening – that are successful, that are lauded, that people go and see and they love, but I think generally commerce wins and I would love for it to be more of a place where the art is recognized and celebrated in the same way as those shows where there’s so much profit.
Ken: That’s a fantastic answer. I agree with you 101% and thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Leigh: Thank you – those are such good questions!
Ken: Oh good, I’m glad. I liked the Lifetime Achievement, it was a test run. Thanks so much for listening, everybody. We will see you next time!
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.