As the producer behind Hadestown’s success, on Broadway and internationally, Mara Isaacs could be forgiven for resting on her laurels. But, as Howard Sherman discovers, with 18 projects she is doing anything but
For her first foray into Broadway producing, with Hadestown this year, Mara Isaacs found herself in a position that producers at any stage of their career would envy: she had investors queuing up to put money into the show.
After the musical’s initial Off-Broadway run in 2016, “people started coming out of the woodwork asking me if they could invest, when I had never met them before”. As a result, Isaacs said she and her partner Dale Franzen didn’t have to worry about fundraising, but rather: “Who are the people who are the right fit for the ethos of how we work? We had a lot of opportunity and we ended up actually having a waiting list.”
That enthusiastic backing powered Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, all the way to Broadway and this year’s Tony award for best musical, but not before it made stops in Canada and the UK. That’s a long way around to end up 44 blocks north and a few avenues west of where the show, as audiences know it, began.
Why the circuitous route? In the case of Canada, Isaacs explains that because the show had already been seen and reviewed in its Off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop, the next step needed to take place far from prying eyes. That’s why she and her partners took the show to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in late 2017, where it proved another great success after undergoing a major change in its staging midway through the production.
But the National Theatre run was less calculated, resulting not from a pitch by Isaacs, but rather a call from the theatre itself, stemming from an initially unrelated visit by director Rachel Chavkin. “We delayed our timeline for Broadway so we could bring the show to the National,” Isaacs says. “That turned out to be the most important step in our development because of the incredible support they can provide during a rehearsal process, but also because we learned so much from their audience, which then informed the final changes we made prior to coming to Broadway.”
Theatre producing wasn’t in Isaacs’ plans when she went to college. Instead, on the recommendation of her older brother, she took a course with one particularly compelling professor that led her to design her own major in medical anthropology. She describes the discipline as being a subset of cultural anthropology that looks at the culture of illness, wellness and healing.
“When you’re trained as an anthropologist, you’re trained to be both a participant and an observer, to immerse yourself in a culture in such a way that you’re accepted,” Isaacs says. “You learn the language, you learn the rituals, you understand, you know what all the daily customs are, but you also maintain enough distance and objectivity that you can study, you can observe, you can see the differences between what they do versus what they say they do.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Photography assistant in high school.
What was your first theatre job?
Working as an assistant to a puppeteer who did birthday parties when I was in junior high school.
What’s your next job?
Dreaming Zenzile by Somi Kakoma, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, and Iphigenia, a new opera by Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That there’s no replacement for time and experience.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mother. As a successful fine artist who also ran her own art business, she demonstrated that there was no divide between being a creative person and having business acumen.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. Be truthful. Be prepared.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
Anthropologist. Sometimes I think I still am.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t like to spend too much time anticipating the hit, the success, the good things, tooting my own horn, because I feel like that just draws bad juju.
That template was applied to theatre when, having performed with vocal groups while in college, she took a post-graduation internship at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. After four months, she was given a full-time staff job. In her five years there, she gained experience of producing plays and of new play development programmes that led to her 18-year tenure as producing director at the McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey, under artistic director Emily Mann. Three McCarter shows that reached Broadway during that time were productions of Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, Brian Friel’s Translations, and the premiere of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
But after more than two decades working in institutional theatre, Isaacs left the McCarter in 2013 to set up her own company, Octopus Theatricals. Praising the commitments of Mann and Mark Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson to artists and their communities, and her pride in being part of that work, Isaacs says her move was the result of changes in the not-for-profit landscape.
“A change in funding – a reduction in public funding, a reduction in corporate funding, a reduction from foundations – forced a lot of these organisations to look at financial models that focused a lot more on single-ticket sales and revenue, finding ways to generate earned revenue,” Isaacs says. “As a result, it started to affect programming decisions and the way boards were advising their leadership. I started to look around and see that the range of things I was interested in was getting broader and broader. Yet most of the theatres were presenting a range of things that was getting narrower and narrower, out of a sense of survival. Their mission was becoming preservation of the institution, instead of advancement of the art.”
While both Hadestown and Octopus are commercial entities, Isaacs works on a range of projects that don’t necessarily have Broadway as their endgame. Her current roster of 18 active pieces includes the intimate Theatre for One, created by designer Christine Jones, which puts a single performer together with a single audience member for short monologues and musical performances; the new opera Iphigenia by Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding; and And So We Walked, a solo work by Cherokee performance artist DeLanna Studi.
In creating a structure for each project according to its needs and potential partners, Isaacs says she still thinks of her work as essentially in the not-for-profit mode. “By not having to carry the burden of running a not-for-profit institution, by not having to deal with a board and a building and a large institutional infrastructure, I can be a lot more nimble in how I’m supporting these crazy, strange experimental projects and partnering with those not-for-profit institutions who want to get that work on their stages but don’t have the wherewithal to be developing it.”
Isaacs is optimistic about Broadway as a place for innovative work, saying: “What audiences are telling us is that they’re interested in a lot more than the conventional wisdom would have predicted. That’s really exciting. Hadestown, Come from Away and Dear Evan Hansen were not obviously commercial projects when those went to Broadway. Now, looking at it in hindsight, they seem obviously commercial, but I think that in a lot of ways they were advancing what was available.” She goes on to cite Hamilton and Fun Home as well.
Isaacs wonders whether her status, until now, as a Broadway outsider means she doesn’t see limitations of what can be produced on the Great White Way. She says that shows have to make a compelling case to potential audiences. The moment new producers arrive on Broadway, they are deluged with requests to sign on to the producing teams of other shows and besieged with projects looking for champions, and Isaacs confirms that this has been the case for her.
However, already having a substantial set of projects in the works, and operating with a small team, she knows she can only do so much. Isaacs says that the first questions she asks herself when considering any overture are: “Is this someone I want to get married to? Are these people I want to have in my life? Because when it gets hard – and it does get hard – you’ve got to have that basic foundation.”
Ultimately though, Isaacs says her current and future projects all boil down to the same thing. “They have to matter”, she declares. “I take both my time and the time of a future audience member really seriously. I think a lot about what’s actually worthy of asking somebody to carve out this precious thing, which is time, and giving it over to artists.”
She adds: “It is really important to me that the work I do, as an aggregate across the many things that I do, reflects the complexity of the world that I live in.”
Born: Los Angeles
Training: University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in medical anthropology
• Hadestown, Broadway (2019)
• Tony for best musical for Hadestown, 2019
• Tony for best play for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, 2013 (as producing director for McCarter Theatre Center)
Hadestown runs at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, and is booking until November 2020: hadestown.com. And So We Walked is currently touring, both in the US and internationally: andsowewalked.com