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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Interview | Stephen Sanders, Original Developer on The Last Goodbye

Williamstown Theatre Festival's Artistic Assistant Stephen Sanders is one of the unseen, unsung members of the festival's year-round staff who knows the festival inside and out. In addition to his integral role in keeping WTF up and running, he also has a special affiliation with The Last Goodbye--as one of its producers and an original developers of the piece, before it was ever slated to come to Williamstown. He sat down with dramaturg Kristin Idaszak to talk about the role of producers in non-profit theatre.

Kristin Idaszak: How did you first get involved with The Last Goodbye?

Stephen Sanders: My first summer here was 2007. I was the Assistant to the Artistic Director and General Manager, and I met Lauren Fitzgerald, who was working as the Publicity Manager that summer. We had a great summer and became fast friends. The same thing also happened with Kris Kukul, the Music Director here. So the relationships were in place before anything ever happened.

Fast forward to last October of 2008. Lauren and I work in the same building in New York and we’ve remained close, and she started working on this project with Michael during that summer while I was gone. When I got back to the city and I saw her on the elevator and she said to me, “Let’s take a walk; I have something I want to talk with you about.” We walked from our offices on 42nd and Eighth, to 46th and Eighth where they were having auditions for the first reading they were about to do. So between 42nd and 46th she told me about the whole project, and that Michael’s wife was pregnant and had the baby early so they needed extra help producing the reading. By the end of those four blocks I said, “Sure, let’s do it,” having no idea what I was getting myself into.

I walked into the first rehearsal and introduced myself to Michael, and then sat down and started reading stage directions for the first reading of the play. And that’s how it happened—I just dove in. And we all worked really hard to produce that reading in the East Village.

There’s a great sort of unspoken rule about producing:  always work with your friends because you need that level of passion and trust from the people you’re working with. And I learned that really quickly working on this project. We had no idea if this was going to succeed—it hadn’t been anything yet. It was just a group of friends working on something we believed in.

KI: What has been the best thing about working on this show?

SS: I think just having a dream or idea and seeing it fully realized. Initially it was just the four of us talking about it and working on our own, and now it’s here and I know that we created that—the four of us worked together to create it. And now I get to help give them what they need to fully realize that initial vision. That’s really my job—to make sure they have everything they need. And that’s what I like about producing in general. You’re like the invisible hand making sure everything is in place. It’s also about cultivating relationships and seeing a show through to production, and anything I can do to help attain that goal, whether it be big or small, is what I enjoy most about the process.

KI: So what’s your official role now?

SS: The four of us are calling ourselves “Original Developers.” In the first two incarnations of the piece—and here for us, too—in non-profit theatre the role of a producer is different than in for-profit theatre. It doesn’t mean necessarily financially backing a project; it’s about putting the pieces together and the organizational and developmental aspects of producing a show. In the commercial world the producer’s role is augmented by the money and the investments, though there are definitely still developmental responsibilities as well. We got The Last Goodbye on its feet!

KI: What does that entail in general for non-profit theatre?

SS: In non-profit theatres every institution has a unique producing model. It’s an umbrella title—we do a little bit of everything. Producers have to be jacks-of-all-trades. You’re working with a limited staff and with limited resources for that staff, so you really have to be able to help them do their jobs efficiently and keep things moving along. And actually, my position here at the festival as Artistic Assistant was really designed to be a catch-all. I’m around everywhere, I try to know about everything that’s going on, I’m trying to stay in the know about every project’s particular needs so that if there’s ever a problem I’m totally informed and ready to jump in at a moment’s notice and help push that project through to the end. And it’s not only the big things. The small things add up.

KI: It seems like the producer is the person who has to see the forest through the trees but also know where every branch and leaf is too.

SS: Exactly. And it’s so easy to get bogged down in the details but you also have to be able to pull yourself out and see the big picture. But that’s also what I like about it—getting to do both of those things.

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