"Thrilled" almost describes how I feel about today's interview, but not quite. I'm over the moon to continue the Conversation with a Creative series with theatre historian and producer, Jennifer Ashley Tepper.
I first met Jen back in 2010 when I struck gold in the boss department and got tapped to be her intern at Davenport Theatrical Enterprises. Since then I've watched Jen curate and oversee the production of some 500 shows and grow to be a leader in the Broadway community. Jennifer is the author of the Untold Stories of Broadway series and was recently named one of the ten professionals on Backstage Magazine's "1st Annual Broadway Future Power List." She's also one of the smartest and most accessible people I've met in the entertainment industry. Please enjoy this conversation with Jennifer Ashley Tepper.
Conversation with a Creative: Meet Jennifer Ashley Tepper
HS: What does creativity mean to you?
JAT: I think creativity means doing things that haven’t been done before—whether that means telling a story that hasn’t been told, writing music in a way that it hasn’t been written, producing in a new way, etc. Anyone who is asking themselves “what’s the best way I can do this job today,” based on knowledge of the past and the present and a goal for the future, is probably being creative.
HS: Let’s revisit your career trajectory a little bit. Many people know you as the author of the Untold Stories of Broadway and the Director of Programming at 54 Below. But they may not know you once managed me as your intern. (Ha!) Let’s back it way up, you went to NYU—you studied what? What did you want to do? And how did you get from there to here?
JAT: I went to NYU Tisch and majored in Dramatic Writing. I always knew I wanted New York City to be my college, and it was. I majored in Dramatic Writing because I loved theatre and I loved writing, but while I sat in classes full of would-be playwrights and screenwriters, I wanted to be a theatre historian/producer. I tailored my college experience to my own career goals by producing my own shows, taking a variety of classes, collaborating with students in different departments, seeing tons of shows all throughout the city, and doing many internships and volunteer jobs.
I had many, many jobs from the time I graduated NYU in 2008 to the time I started working at Davenport Theatrical (where I was lucky to have you as my intern!) in 2010. I worked for several directors, including Michael Berresse on [title of show] on Broadway and Michael Greif on a handful of projects. I P.A.’d workshops, I assisted producers, I worked on benefits, I produced my own concerts, I did many a day job from tutoring to babysitting. I began collaborating with people like Kevin Michael Murphy on the If It Only Even Runs A Minute series, and Joe Iconis on all of his concerts and shows.
It was working on Bloodsong of Love at Ars Nova, a great musical of Joe’s in 2010, that got me my job as Director of Promotions and later Director of Marketing & Communications at Davenport Theatrical. Ken Davenport saw what I was doing marketing and audience outreach-wise on Bloodsong of Love, and brought me in for an interview to talk about doing the same things for his shows. I worked for Ken for about three years, on shows like Godspell and Macbeth on Broadway, while at the same time still continuing to do many of my own projects. I met my now-publishers, Brisa Trinchero and Roberta Pereira, of Dress Circle Publishing, through Godspell and they asked me if I’d be interested in pitching a book to them after seeing an If It Only Even Runs A Minute concert… so it’s all connected.
Do what you love. Do it loud and proud. And you will find the right people and they will find you. That’s also true of what happened next, which is that 54 Below was looking for a new Director of Programming and the powers-that-be knew me because of my work producing Joe Iconis’ concerts. I’ve been at Feinstein’s/54 Below for over two years now.
"Do what you love. Do it loud and proud. And you will find the right people and they will find you."
HS: You grew up on cast recordings in Florida. What were your dreams about Broadway then? And when did you begin to figure out your specific skill set (your “unfair advantage” so to speak) and get clear on where you wanted to go and what you wanted to do?
JAT: I always said that I wanted to “be the theatre”. I loved performing at theatre camp and in high school, but I knew from a decently young age that I wasn’t going to be a professional performer. I directed, I wrote plays, I tried a lot of different things—but what I was really passionate about was a combination of theatre history and making new theatre happen from a leadership standpoint. I studied theatre from afar so much in Florida that I knew there were tons of people who did a variety of jobs in theatre. I knew there was more than “being a performer” or “being a writer”. I knew about the Ira Weitzmans and the Ted Chapins of the world from the time I was a teenager, so I knew that there were many unique jobs one could do. While I didn’t necessarily know exactly where I fit into that, I knew it was possible.
Honestly, one of the two best things I hear about my “Untold Stories of Broadway” books, that makes me the happiest is from young people: “I never knew there were so many different jobs in the theatre I could do that were so exciting and important!” That I can tell the stories of the casting directors and the house managers and the company managers, alongside the performers and writers, is something that means a lot to me. Hey kids! You can do so many different things that will make theatre happen. Just try everything. Dive in.
HS: You’ve done a heck of a lot in your twenties. What is your advice to someone in college or coming out of college that wants to kill the game before 30, like you have?
JAT: Do what you are passionate about, right now. Just start. If you want to be a producer, produce a new play in a basement for 10 people. If you want to be a singer, go to an open mic. If you want to be a journalist, start a blog. If you want to be a writer, write and do a small reading with the people you know now. Don’t ever wait for permission. Just start, even if it’s at the smallest level, and then soon you’ll be at level 2 and then level 3. Make it happen for yourself.
"Do what you are passionate about, right now. Just start."
Don’t burn bridges. Don’t put yourself or anyone else down on the internet or in public. Remember that this is 2015, and you have no idea who will read what you write. Answer every email, even if it’s just a one-sentence response saying you appreciate the message. Read a lot of books about what you want to do. Go see a lot of people doing the thing you want to do in person. Reach out to people you admire and ask them for advice. Don’t let anyone stop you. Honestly, one of the people I most respect in this business told me in 2009 “Don’t try to write books about the theatre, no one reads them and no one can make a living from doing that”. That was his opinion, and I don’t respect him any less for giving it to me, and it didn’t stop me from trying to write books about the theatre. I can name 10 experiences like that I’ve had. This business can be discouraging, but you mustn’t be discouraged. Behind every successful musical theatre is a trunk of 20 spec songs written for shows they never got, before they got the one that put them on the map. That’s true for every successful professional in the arts. You can learn from people’s advice while also trusting your own compass.
Work with people you admire, even if it means getting them coffee or observing them from a corner of the rehearsal room. If you are just starting out and have the time, volunteer to do things for free. People talk a lot about the internship culture being a bad thing, and I absolutely agree that it has gotten out of hand and that in a lot of ways, people are taken advantage of in ways that shouldn’t be happening… but that said, almost every paid job I have ever gotten has happened because I started out doing something I was really passionate about, that I was volunteering to do. Don’t be afraid to do things for free or for not-a-lot-of-money if you are getting a lot out of the experience. Get a day job too, and make it work. Nothing gets you a paid job doing what you love faster than making yourself indispensable as a volunteer or intern.
And lastly, it’s all about perseverance. It’s all about sticking around. Talent is part of it, and timing is part of it… but you need to be indefatigable. I have so many friends who are just getting their Broadway debuts, or their first big jobs, in their late 20s or early 30s. Especially if you have a distinctive talent, and don’t fit into a specific mold, it sometimes takes TIME. Keep going.
HS: Did these accomplishments come as a result of focus, specific goals, and ambition?
JAT: For me, absolutely, but I think they also came from being open to any number of paths, and saying “yes” a lot. They came from working really hard at every job I got, whether it was the job I wanted at that moment or not, and trying my best to observe and learn from absolutely every person around me.
HS: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Or were the books birthed out of a need to share these incredible stories with the world?
JAT: I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But the books were definitely born out of both that, and an excitement to explore and tell the stories of Broadway, theater by theater.
HS: How did you get the idea to write the Untold Stories of Broadway?
JAT: My time at the Lyceum during [title of show] is really what sparked my fascination in thinking about Broadway history, theater by theater. I loved the idea that any time anyone did a Broadway show, they were sharing the space in spirit with every show that had come before them. My time at the Lyceum, and then at Circle in the Square during Godspell, were definitely a huge part of what gave me the idea of talking to a variety of theatre professionals, based around their memories in specific theaters. The theaters themselves really connect us all.
HS: One thing I’ve noticed online is you have this hilariously self-deprecating tone—you’re able to promote your work without anyone noticing. Case in point: “Some days you shoot an interview about your books for ABC NEWS!!! In the center of Times Square!!! And a pigeon literally lands on your shoulder during the interview!!! #HopeTheyIncludeThatPart” As a writer, we’re always tempted to self-promote, self-promote, self-promote. Do you have a strategy for promoting your stuff in a light-hearted way or is this just your personality coming out?
JAT: I think you just always need to be yourself. People who know me well know that what you see online is really what you get in person. That’s not to say that 100% of what you’d get in person is posted on social media—but what IS posted, is genuine. What’s posted online is the 2% of my day that I choose to share with friends publicly, and also with thousands of strangers. With anyone, from my best friend to a celebrity to a stranger, I am also aware that what I’m seeing is only 2% of their day.
People who rock at social media seem very aware of this, to me. Laura Benanti keeps it completely real on social media, and is very personal, but you understand that you’re seeing 2% of her day, and she is choosing what she wants to share publicly. She’s not word vomiting her entire life on you, but when she does tell you what’s going on with her, it’s what is really going on with her. I think it’s amazing that we can all connect on social media, and I love being able to talk to theatre folks all over the globe through it—it’s an important aspect of life in 2015, and one that I’m grateful for and love using.
I think people who “promote” and “network” successfully aren’t thinking about it or approaching it that way, in those words. When I’m working on a show I love, I want to tell people about it, the same way I’d want to tell people if I just saw Oprah walking into Hamilton. When I’m making a new connection at a get-together, it’s because I really want to learn more about that person. Promoting for the sake of promoting or networking because you think you’re supposed to, is useless to everyone. But if you’re doing something you care about and think is great, and sharing that with the world, that’s something I want to read about or talk about.
HS: You somehow seem to flawlessly integrate your passion projects into your “work work.” Can you talk a little about that? How do you do that?
JAT: I honestly believe that if you work hard enough at your passion projects, you can find ways to make them into your “work work.” That said, my close friend and frequent collaborator, Joe Iconis, and I were discussing this recently: it’s often much more challenging to work with friends you have existing relationships with, than it is to work with new collaborators. It’s also often much more rewarding too, and it often—but not always—yields more exciting results.
BUT for example, when I am negotiating a 54 Below engagement with a friend, or portraying a friend in a certain way in their interview in my book, it is a challenge to navigate your friendship and loyalty and previous collaboration while also doing your job to tell the most truthful story, or make the best show. It’s much simpler to start out with a blank page and cast an actor from an audition or write an article about your interview with a stranger. In some ways, the work is going to be better if it’s a collaboration based on years of mutual understanding and a shared language about theatre (hello great theatre companies like Steppenwolf!), but it’s also sometimes hard to tell where your loyalty to the relationship and collaboration ends and your loyalty to the project begins. It’s a challenge that’s written about so well in my favorite musical, Merrily We Roll Along, but I also understand it more as the years go on. What do you do when a friend you’ve been working with for years isn’t right for the part anymore, or doesn’t have an artistic vision that you feel matches what you’re trying to create? What do you do when what the show needs or what the story needs is not what your collaborator needs?
It’s such a tricky balance and the truth is that if you are making your passion projects, which are things you do with people you care about, into “work work” that is what you make a living doing, you are always figuring out how to balance the two. All I want in my life is to work with people who I think are great artists and great people and figure out how to make shows happen that I believe in. Those two things have an overlap for sure, and nothing is better than when your friend and collaborator is right for a part or a job that you can give them and that they can also excel at. But sometimes that’s not the case, and I think being able to recognize that, recognizing the times when you have to do what’s best for the project, and not for the friendship, because truly you’d be serving neither if you tried to push the two things together where they don’t fit… that’s the key to integrating. Knowing when to do it.
HS: I have to ask you about any time management advice you may have. You’re a prolific writer while also producing every night at 54 Below. How do you meet your deadlines?
JAT: I find that doing a lot of things at once, helps me to do everything better. If I need a break from answering emails from 54 Below artists, I take an hour and come up with questions for my next book interview. If I need a break from doing research for my book, I take a break and brainstorm new musicals we can do in concert at 54 Below. I have so much on my plate that I literally never procrastinate, because I know that if I’m not getting something done at any given moment, what I’m giving up is my ability to do something I want to do later. If I’m not using this next free 90 minutes to do 90 minutes worth of something, I am not going to be able to have dinner with a friend next week, because I’ll need to do these 90 minutes of work, then. It sounds crazy, but it really works for me. I know that there’s so much I want to do, that any moment I’m not doing something is taking away an opportunity I’ll have later. That said, I really don’t work around the clock—but when I am working, I am getting a lot done, efficiently.
I also have a few efficiency tips that I basically live by, that help me a lot.
1) If I am at a computer doing work and any email comes in that I can answer in two minutes or less, I answer it right away. (That’s actually a Ken Davenport rule—thanks, Ken!),
2) If I’m not at a computer, or if it’s an email that I can’t answer in two minutes, it goes into a folder for that specific project. Then, I work on emails one folder/ project at a time.
3) 90% of what I do is most efficiently done via email (notice a pattern here?). Knowing when something should be an email, and when it should be an in-person meeting or phone call, is a huge part of efficiency.
Wow. I am an email monster.
Also, I find it helpful to be on social media while writing. I know that most writers don’t, but I do. Seeing people living life and being excited about theatre while I’m writing about theatre, makes me motivated and inspired to write things. Never do I tweet more than when I’m in the depths of working on my book, and want to share little tid-bits of what’s going on as I “explore” the Nederlander Theatre, or the original run of A Chorus Line, or anything else. I love that social media allows that to happen. Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted something recently about twitter being a helpful tool to exercise one writing muscle, while using a different writing muscle to create a full-scale off-line project. I think one feeds the other, and I have to say that facebook and twitter make me write faster and better. They inspire me as I’m writing and make me more efficient, as crazy as that sounds. Facebook and twitter make me want to share the best version of the longer-form thing I’m creating with people, because they make that sharing a tangible thing in the moment, even though it’s only a bite-sized preview version. They help my brain.
HS: Do you ever deal with fear that the thing you're working on or promoting will flop? How do you power through that?
JAT: Hal Prince said it far better than I could. “I have had financial successes that were artistic failures, and financial failures that were artistic successes.” I think that great work does not always go hand in hand in with technical “success”. You do what you believe in, and you do it the best you can, and that’s all there is. So it doesn’t bother me at all to work on something that doesn’t sell out, or doesn’t make money, or any other technical barometer of success, as long as I’m proud of the work I did. The goal is to make something great and do your best to get as many people to see it as possible. I always aim for that to the best of my ability, but no one hits that all the time. And being disappointed in your own actual work is okay too. We should all be giving ourselves challenges that are challenging enough that we’re not always going to meet them the first time out. “What’s the point of demands you can meet?” and all that.
HS: It seems like you’ve created your own niche on Broadway (historian, under appreciated musical lover, promoter of new work, etc). How did you decide where to focus and what path to go down?
JAT: Well, thanks! I think it’s all about diversifying your talents, and being proud of doing multiple things at the same time. You don’t have to pick one career or one job title. You are not limited to one thing. This isn’t the Game of Life where you’re a “teacher” or you’re an “entertainer” or you’re a “real estate agent”. You can be all of those things, you know? All of the different things I do feed each other in such a great way, that gets better all the time. I had such a wonderful, in-depth interview with Patti LuPone recently for my third book, and I know it was because of the relationship/ trust we have, because of working together during her engagements at 54 Below. I have learned so much from producing concerts of new work that has informed so much of what I’ve been able to do to produce concerts of old work and bringing underappreciated musicals of the past back to life. I understand yesterday’s writers better, because I understand today’s writers.
No project is an island, and everything you do is going to inform your work elsewhere. I think about Matthew Murphy, who I so admire, and how both his work as a dancer, and his work with the new musical theatre community, has informed his production photography for new Broadway shows. I think about Mark Fisher, and how his work as a performer, as a theatre person, as so many things, has informed his work as an entrepreneur at Mark Fisher Fitness. We live in a world where producers are also writers, and actors are also musicians, and stage managers are also photographers… and I think it just gives everyone more respect for each other’s work, and more understanding for the work they themselves are doing.
HS: BONUS: Any parting thoughts or words of advice to creatives?
JAT: Pick up the pen/ phone/ computer/ keyboard/ camera/ paintbrush/ script/ trumpet/ anything, AND DO IT!
Learn more about Jennifer on her website and follow her heartfelt obsession with theatre and hilarity on Twitter and Facebook. And pick up the Untold Stories of Broadway Volumes 1 and 2! They make great holiday gifts!!
And for more Conversation with a Creative goodness check the last few chats with Emily, an actress and social entrepreneur, Karen, a writer and professor, and John, a filmmaker. And, of course, subscribe to the blog so you get future posts right in your inbox.