Liz Smith: Broadway’s Roundabout Dynamo, Julia Levy — The Importance of Being Non-Profit!

Julia Levy

Our Liz chats with one of the most celebrated women in independent theater

“WHY, IT would cost us one million dollars to even have moved that across the street, let alone to another block in Times Square!”

This was the startling remark made by Julia Levy, the executive director of New York’s Roundabout Theater, when I suggested that the company’s big recent hit, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” starring the British great Brian Bedford, should have been moved to a commercial theater and kept running.

When I pressed, Julia refused to blame “unions” for this sudden spurt of high finance versus artistic creation. She even shrugged. “Everybody complains about how much theater production costs. There’s no putting on anything anymore on a shoestring. But we raise money for non-profit and we give our subscribers, our supporters and some of the public the benefit of our efforts to keep live theater from dying. This is our mission, our quest, our obligation – it’s not to produce ‘hits!’

“We do new unknown plays, give artists a forum and a home. Occasionally, we revive worthy theater that maybe didn’t get a break the first time around.

When we do have a so-called ‘hit’– well – moving sets, costumes, electricians, stagehands around and resetting a show — the costs are prohibitive. We are non-profit; that’s our primary role. We often mount new shows and old ones that didn’t survive in the past. We wish they would all go on and make money, but that seldom happens.

“We have now and then had big hits that out-lived their subscription time, and we did move our  wonderful production of “Cabaret.” It ran for years and made a lot of money.”

(UPDATE: The Roundabout Theater’s run of “The Importance of Being Earnest” has been extended through July 3rd.)

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I ask if that happens, do the stars, actors and all make more money than they do in not-for-profit?

“Yes, sometimes, but not always. For instance, ‘Cabaret’ made Alan Cumming a star and eventually he was still acting in our production after we moved it and he was making a commensurate salary. He has always been very grateful and beholden to us. And now he is ‘The Good Wife,’ on TV.”

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The trials and tribulations, the unique joys of live theater, the pain of money-raising and the unusual thrill of offering comedy and drama to the public were all exemplified in my talk with Julia.

In person, this blue-eyed, curly-longhaired and youthful-looking woman might be playing a best friend to one of the glamorous actresses in “The Real  Housewives of New York.” But no, she is a theater-only devotee, a money-manager-fund-raiser, an entrepreneur as dedicated as if she’d been born a Barrymore, as intelligent and crafty as a Wall Streeter with a bonus.

And she is devoted to her partner in drama, artistic director Todd Haimes, who is famous in his own right for his place in the Roundabout’s creative process.

Julia says they get along. “There are those who call us ‘the married couple.’ We fight; we make up. He is totally brilliant and it goes beyond his taste level. He has incredible instincts and you either have that or you don’t.”

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JULIA grew up near New Haven, Connecticut and the Yale Drama School’s influence on her comes partly from having had Lynne Meadows, famous herself for running the Manhattan Theater Club, as a growing-up babysitter.

“But I didn’t get into the creative part of theater. First, I wanted to run a ski resort. I was fired from my first job at an ad agency, and I always tell our interns what a big opportunity getting fired is! Finally I got into ‘development’ at the Boston Symphony, thinking I’d be ‘developing’ great music sources. Well, it was a euphemism for fund-raising, and I learned my lessons well.

“I worked for some strong, noble women. I have a life partner who is a retired lawyer but he supports me in every way and he, too, loves theater. So neither of us feels the need to marry! The Roundabout is my other love.

“We are a subscription theater, producing on and off Broadway. We have developed programs for nurturing young writers. We have eight new productions a year. We live in the future. And we work with public school children via the Department of Education. In 1993 we had a seminal break-through – producing ‘Anna Christie’ with Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson; we followed that reviving our first musical ‘She Loves Me.’ We’ve been on fire ever since. And every year is different, but we put all of the money we earn back into the Roundabout.

“You know, as not-for-profit, we are darned good at competing with commercial theater. One of our most challenging things is the concept of competing with Broadway. And Broadway doesn’t always like us very much when we succeed!

“I say – aren’t I lucky!?”

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MY NOTES indicate that I could write a book about Julia Levy. She has so much to say and she is living proof that you don’t have to want to be an actor, a director, a playwright to love the theater. You can just love the excitement of raising money for it; you can live a life of ‘artistic’ public service, you can just be a member of the audience, although you will be there opening night. You can contribute to the cultural life of a big city.

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