The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

Michael S. Rosenberg's Headshot.

Taking a Look at COVID-19’s Impact on Theatre

An Interview with Michael S. Rosenberg

Michael S. Rosenberg is the Managing Director of McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. He has previously worked at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and was a co-founder and Executive Director of the New York theatre collective, Drama Dept. Michael is one of the newest members of MMIAM’s International Advisory Board.

What is your current professional position? What has your career trajectory been like that led you to this role?

I am the Managing Director of the McCarter Theatre Center, an independent performing arts center on the Princeton University campus. I was originally drawn to McCarter because they were embarking on a number of important transitions with leadership and their relationships with other community organizations. I was excited to join the team and help change the organization to better support new leadership, artistic visions, and collaborations.

I have worked here now for three years and the progress has been extraordinary.  We have a new Artistic Director for the first time in 30 years and her vision is taking us in some new directions.  My entrepreneurial background has been a big help – especially as we create development processes, teams, and business plans that are unique to each project.  The way one develops a new musical is very different from the way you develop a new play; each needs their own timeline, resources, and goals.

Before coming to the McCarter, I was working at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. It has a lot of similarities to the McCarter, as it is an independent theatre on the University of San Diego campus. The Playhouse is one of the first theatres that developed regular partnerships with for-profit producers to develop shows that could move on to Broadway, tour the US, and perform around the world.

When you’re developing any show, you need to make specific business decisions that reflect the overall goal of the project. Having a business model that allows for variance in show production allows an organization to be more agile and do different things based on the needs/goals of the specific project. This might mean creating a show to be licensed while also developing it for different theatre markets. If there isn’t business planning, you miss out on the work’s potential. When you get it right, it means you can provide more resources and a living wage to artists.

Scene from the play "Gloria - A Life" by Emily Mann
Mary McDonnell (center) and the company of Gloria – A Life by Emily Mann. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What role do partnerships play at the McCarter Theatre Centre? Why are they important for arts organizations?

Our partnership with Princeton University is at the very core of the McCarter. Firstly, we’re in a university building – which is maintained and cared for by the university.  This gives us the luxury to focus on producing art instead of on building maintenance. This is a huge benefit because owning and maintaining a building have high costs and require lots of resources. Next, the intellectual capital at Princeton is astounding. Princeton has a long commitment to the arts. It is devoted to the arts, in fact. Some of the most talented and knowledgeable researchers and writers are there and we’re constantly talking and seeing how we could work together. This means we get to work with experts and develop new ideas and stories that help create empathy for a shared humanity through theatre. Before I arrived, Princeton University and McCarter worked together to share stories based on the history of slavery in Princeton.  We were able to build on this successful collaboration and commission playwrights to tell stories of migration and immigration.

We also have partnerships with the other arts organizations across the country. This is important, especially during the pandemic, to get the project in front of a lot of people. Especially as the Broadway market became tighter, theatres started to work together to build shows that are shared amongst themselves. Likewise, this gives the artists a better opportunity to have their work seen.  Also, these partnerships have allowed us to move more quickly into producing and distributing digital online projects.

What has your experience been like as the director of an arts organization during the COVID-19 pandemic?

There’s no question this is just an awful moment. When you think about all of the people who have been without work, theatres around the world being dark for so long it’s devastating for our industry. It will be interesting to see how we bounce back, how we bring audiences back to shows. The more trust audiences have with places, the more they are likely to go back, so we don’t want to come back too soon and erode that trust.

Here in New Jersey, our Governor has issued an executive order that allows indoor performance with a cap of 150 audience, but this still doesn’t work for most organizations because they can’t recover the costs on the show from that many tickets. Some organizations can make this work for themselves, so we’re also glad to support them.

One of our initiatives has been to host all our education courses online. Previously, all the participants came from close by. Since we’re known internationally, now we’re getting people from different countries to start signing up. We’ve had people from around the US, Canada, Mexico, and the UK sign up for our classes and this has given us insight into the reach we can have. This has inspired us to look abroad for new possibilities elsewhere as well!

Reopening will be an effort of the whole industry together. There is a group of orgs in New Jersey that meet and discuss how to open in the future that will help us figure out the best way to go about opening back up. Collaborating with others is very important at this time.

McCarter Theatre Center Facade
McCarter Theatre Center Facade-2018 Block Party. Photo by Tom Miller

How will theatre as an art and the theatre as a place be affected as the world becomes more digital?

Pre COVID-19 we were thinking of theatre as a place. We wanted to create a place that had a good feel and makes you want to stick around. Now, we’re finding out what needs to happen to the physical space to add a feeling of safety to the relationships that we’re building. People are concerned and we can’t let anything erode the trust that they have in us, so we want to be as safe as possible.

Before COVID-19, live, in-person festival type events were seeing great attendance and you were starting to see more theatre festivals come together. Festivals would bring in companies or artists from different cities and countries to diversify the offerings there. In some ways, this mirrors what you’re able to do digitally with things like Netflix. In programming, people are reactive to having these gatherings as opposed to single events. They can attend it as an event even if they don’t have an exact reason to be there and then find something that they’re interested in. As we move to the 21st century, the industry is moving towards more diverse curatorial models and letting people select what they want to see. Some organizations are working on developing a streaming platform for live theatre, which is really exciting. It will hopefully bring that atmosphere that festivals create to online platforms for the arts.

I think there is also a move towards more collaboration. We’re seeing that a lot of arts managers and company directors are talking a lot more and creating more space for exchange. There are large shifts happening in the industry. As art moves to the digital sphere, you could potentially have customers or employees from anywhere in the world.

For example, we recently partnered with Roundhouse Theatre in Maryland on a virtual playreading festival of the work of Adrienne Kennedy. While they did the majority of the production, we helped extend the reach of the press and marketing campaign. It was a digital collaboration that turned out well for both parties.

COVID-19 has taught us we don’t need to get on a plane to meet with people in Italy or Mexico. Now, in a way, the world seems more open than ever and I think we will continue to see more theatres move towards more digital programming.

At the end of the day, it’s also changing the way we deal with finances in art on a large scale. We’re meeting to reexamine everything we do and making us think about what our goals are and how we can achieve them.

What made you want to join the MMIAM International Advisory Board?

What’s really attractive to me about the MMIAM is its internationality and its multidisciplinary nature. The way the program is structured is almost like a festival because you’re dipped into so many things at once – so many other cultures and experiences. These days, so much is focused on old white American business practices. Getting to travel and see what people around the world is very important and eye-opening.

Networks are everything and I think MMIAM gets this. During MMIAM you develop a deep relationship with your peers and with an international network of professionals and professors. This gives you a competitive advantage down the road when applying for jobs and collaborating on projects.