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Broadway Producers Finding It Easier to Move Between Commercial, Nonprofit Sectors

Commercial producers aren’t just commercial anymore.

At least not all of them — not since the divide between the commercial theater industry and the not-for-profit legit sector has crumbled under the weight of ongoing shifts in the cultural, artistic and economic landscape. Just as the two intertwining worlds have become increasingly integral to each other’s activities over the years, individual producers have begun to mix and match from both models, crossing over from one sector to another, and even maintaining a foot in both worlds.

Take Robyn Goodman (“Avenue Q”). The lead producer of the commercial Broadway tuner “Cinderella” is also the artistic producer of the Roundabout Underground programming at the Gotham nonprofit Roundabout Theater. Late last year she was also named the exec producer at the regional nonprofit Bucks County Playhouse.

She isn’t alone in moving fluidly from one side of the street to the other and back again. Longtime Goodspeed Musicals exec Sue Frost left her post there in 2005 and went on to produce commercial Tony winner “Memphis.” Fox Theatrical’s Mike Isaacson (“Bring It On”) has been exec producer of the Muny, St. Louis’ nonprofit outdoor theater, since 2010. Mara Isaacs recently left an 18-year stint at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater to develop work in (and for) both the commercial and the not-for-profit sectors.

“The difference between nonprofit and commercial seems almost marginal these days,” says Goodman, who cut her teeth as one of the co-founders of Off Broadway’s nonprofit Second Stage Theater.

Those who’ve exited the confines of the not-for-profit sector cite the pleasures of leaving behind a subscription season’s one-model-fits-all structure to concentrate solely on finding the best way to serve up the projects about which they care most deeply. Their career changes can be driven by everything from an itch to produce in a larger arena to a perceived need they’re anxious to fulfill in the industry.

“It felt to me like there was a big hole in the ecosystem for new musicals, with a lot of options for development but not a lot for production and for a distribution pipeline,” Frost says of her own commercial work.

Such gaps can also spur the commercial forays of nonprofit leaders like Oskar Eustis at the Public Theater, which operates a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary to shepherd work that moves on to the commercial realm. “The thing that really motivates me is trying to make sure the artists at the Public get the maximum payoff for their success, because I’m so aware that we, as a nonprofit, don’t pay them a living wage,” Eustis explains.

On either side of the fence, the basics of producing are similar, but the relationships forged for a single commercial production — with investors, with artists, with audiences — are different than the bonds forged by the ongoing work of a nonprofit.

“In commercial producing, we’re creating artistic events vs. creating a community around the art, which is what you’re doing in the nonprofit world,” says Debbie Bisno, the commercial producer (“The Heiress,” “Mothers and Sons”) who was the co-founder of Chicago nonprofit Roadworks Prods.

Adds Isaacson: “At the end of the day, you’re still asking yourself, ‘What are people looking for? What excites them?’ But why they’re there and how you get them there is a different conversation.”

The deep community of a nonprofit organization is one of the things some alums of the sector miss most, along with another major benefit of working at an institution — a regular paycheck.

“The commercial world is not for the faint of heart,” Isaacs notes.

Goodman, too, feels the pressures of commerce. “What I do now is ride the wave of success of my shows, and that can be scary sometimes,” she explains. “Waking up in the middle of night worrying about how to pay your bills? That’s not fun.”

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