The theater producer is a key player in getting plays to the stage and keeping them running. But it’s a job description that most fans never see, let alone completely understand. So what does it take to be a producer? What motivates someone to get into producing? And how can the theater community keep working to be inclusive and diverse behind the scenes?
To answer those questions and others, I sat down with Tony Award-nominated producer, manager and attorney Rashad V. Chambers. As the founder and president of Esquire Entertainment, he knows quite a few things about the business of the American stage, and here’s what he had to tell me about how he got started and what continues to motivate him today.
Brittany Frederick: Where did your initial interest in theater come from, that you decided this was a career path you wanted to follow?
Rashad V. Chambers: I grew up around the arts. My cousin is an actress and when she was in college, my family would see all of her shows. I think that was where I initially became interested in the arts. I grew up in Pittsburgh, which has a very vibrant art scene—Carnegie Mellon is there, Point Park University is there, and then there are a lot of theaters. I think that people don’t know this, but like Chicago or D.C., Atlanta, there are a lot of people who make a living as a performer in Pittsburgh.
That’s sort of where my initial interest started. Then I think in terms of career, when I was in college I used to visit my friend who went to Columbia, and we would go see Broadway shows together. That was where it really started to become more intriguing in terms of, well, what do producers do and how can I make this an actual career?
BF: Many theater fans are vague about what the role of producer entails. We see so many producers attached to a given show, but don’t always know what they do. How would you describe your work?
RVC: I like to divide it into two categories. First, I like to say that a producer is like a CEO of the company. They’re really in charge of everything—in terms of creating, hiring, designers, director, but also overseeing the budget and working with general managers to figure out who gets paid and when they get paid and all of those things. As a lead producer of a show, you’re doing all of that stuff. You’re doing the creative and the business stuff.
Whereas most of my work on Broadway as a co-producer, my main role is to raise money. The lead producer says this is your slot, you are supposed to raise $200,000 for this show. Then once you do that, your work is kind of done. Although if you’re young and scrappy like I am, then you go to producer meetings or marketing meetings and you really learn. You take everything in.
BF: How do you find your projects? Are you actively looking for shows that interest you and then you approach the creatives about helping them get produced, or are creative teams coming to you looking for that support?
RVC: A combination of both. I would say early on in my career, I was mostly out looking and figuring out what I wanted to do with my aesthetic or my own personal mission statement. I would say now that I’ve been a co-producer for Broadway shows, they come to me and people are interested in having me be a part of their shows or part of their team. Then it just comes down to whether I like the show, whether I like the people involved with it, do I like the subject matter, or things of that nature. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, [so] most people tend to come to me and say, “I’m working on this show. Do you want to be a part of it?”
BF: We saw a number of theaters pivot to online programming as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a producer, how do you feel that changes the theater landscape? Is that something that will stick around even as live plays and musicals are starting to return?
RVC: Nothing will ever replace live theater, because it’s just a different energy and a different experience. I think what the pandemic showed us was that we can think outside the box and find ways to create an addition to live theater, and be able to create opportunities for people who don’t have access to Broadway or some other really big national tours, but still want to consume theater on a regular basis.
When you have virtual programming and you have Ratatouille done through TikTok, it just shows that we have to continue to be creative and think outside the box as we move forward, and then we can do it all. You can still have Broadway, but then we can work with the other unions to be able to record shows the way that Come From Away recorded for Apple Plus and Diana recorded for Netflix. We should be able to do all of those things.
BF: You’ve been involved with some incredible shows. Do you have productions you’ve been a part of that particularly resonated with you?
RVC: They all have in different ways, but I think the one that I hold nearest and dearest to my heart is Ain’t Too Proud, because it’s the first show that I ever raised money for and it’s the first show that I actively pursued. The other three were offered to me. Ain’t Too Proud was eventually offered to me, but I was the one who sought that out.
I went to a workshop presentation of it where it was just in a rehearsal studio. There were no costumes. There was no set. It was really just the actors singing and dancing and giving the team an idea of what the material would look like. One of my clients was in it so I just went to support him, but this lightbulb went off at intermission saying, I need to be a part of it. I need to pursue this. That’s what made me go after it, because I knew that it was going to be something really incredible.
For me as an African-American producer and creator, it’s always important for me to be a part of things that are diverse and tell great stories. It doesn’t have to be an all Black project or all Latin project, but it’s about how is the narrative different and are there diverse people telling this story? When I walked in the room, I saw an African-American woman as the book writer, a Latin choreographer, a Black music director, a Black orchestrator. All of that was so great in addition to these amazing, beautiful black people on stage. It really just ticked off a lot of boxes for me, and then it was this amazing show.
BF: Speaking of race, you also produced American Son, which is one of the most powerful plays to ever discuss that topic.
RVC: That one was special, too, because it ended up being my first show. Even though I raised money for Ain’t Too Proud first, American Son opened first. It was the perfect show to open with because it was a limited engagement, it was a new play, it was a play with a star. I really got to see what it was like to market and do press for a show with a star, and I think it had a really great subject matter. So many friends from all over the country came to that show and shared amazing conversations and tears about where we are as a country and implicit biases.
The thing that I loved about that show is that I feel like no matter where you are in your life, you see yourself in one of those characters. Whether it’s good or bad. It really just makes you look at implicit biases and really have tough conversations. I love that Kerry [Washington] offered herself to the show as not only the star but as a producer, and created different initiatives to do talkbacks and be able to really extend the conversation beyond just the 16 weeks that we were on Broadway, to making a Netflix movie. And then just creating this moment to really discuss this and really talk about the tough things that are happening in society every day.
BF: As a theater producer of color, based on your experience, is there advice you would give about how we can continue to get more representation in the producing space?
RVC: I think it’s just taking the time to extend not only the invitation, but resources and education so that more people just know what’s possible. I’m a producer for a reason. I like to be behind the scenes. I don’t need to be in front of the camera or whatever. A lot of reasons why I agree to interviews like this is because if somebody in Nebraska who’s trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives can see that there are people of color working as producers or casting directors or general managers, they’ll know that it’s possible to have a career in the arts.
A lot of people don’t have access to theater or things of that nature. They may only think that you can be an actor to be in this business. I think it’s letting people know that it’s possible if you don’t become an actor. I think it’s a responsibility of people and allies to be able to create opportunities for up-and-coming producers and artists, and not just work with the usual suspects that they usually go to.
Because of the racial awakening that we’re in, there have been a lot of organizations creating fellowships and creating job opportunities for various people of color. I think that that’s going to be a real game-changer in the next three to five years, in terms of the number of people who are working and creating more opportunities for others that come after them.
BF: Is there anything in particular that you’d like to see in the future of theater? Or that you’d like audiences to know that they don’t yet?
RVC: There’s been a lot of conversations over the past year about equity, diversity, and inclusion. We have a long way to go, but I think people are finally understanding and opening up to learning and getting out of their own way to be able to create a better community. That’s something that I hope will continue to develop—that we can make change while building community. That we make it safe for everyone and that we allow people to be vulnerable and make mistakes without being cancelled, and without being embarrassed or humiliated.
I just want to make room for everything. For the allies that made mistakes but are still learning, I want them to be able to come to people of color to ask questions and be able to learn. On the flip side, I want people of color to have opportunities to grow and to learn and to be able to get that foot in the door because of talent, and not because their grandfather and father and auntie and cousin were directly before them. I just want there to be space for everyone to really be able to thrive.
For more on Rashad V. Chambers and his current projects, visit Esquire Entertainment.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.