May 15, 2002
An interview with
by Lynn Trenning
Michael Bush has been hired, in the newly created position, as Producing Artistic Director for Charlotte Repertory Theatre. He has spent the last 23 years at the Manhattan Theatre Club, 11 of them as their Associate Artistic Director.|
I spoke with Michael on May 15, 2002.
When are you coming here?
I'm just finishing up 23 years at Manhattan Theatre Club. The MTC Spring Gala was Monday night. We raised over 1.5 M. It is one of the biggest fundraisers in the American Theater. Many of New Yorkís finest performers contribute their talents to this black tie event. Our hosts were Gary Beach and Roger Bart from The Producers, as well as Valerie Harper. We opened with a big production number from Thoroughly Modern Millie and had the entire cast of Urinetown at the end. I am finishing up at MTC at the end of the week, then I am taking two weeks in New York to get some things in order for Charlotte Rep before I move. Weíre having auditions for Glass Menagerie in New York City on May 22 and 23 before I come down to hold more auditions in Charlotte on June 3. Thatís how I want to run all of our shows: auditions in both New York and Charlotte. I've acquired the services of a New York casting agent.
Are you taking a vacation before you move?
I'm taking a vacation in July. The first meeting I had about coming to Charlotte was on September 10th. I took the job in November and started as a consultant on January 1st. So I've been working two jobs! Basically I had 60 days to put together next year's season.
What are the benefits of being a bigger fish in a smaller pond?
The "benefits" are personal. Iíve been in the business a quarter of a century and Iíve learned that I have to trust my own instincts and my instincts said, "Do this." Charlotte is my first home. I saw an opportunity to serve the community in a way I've never been able to in New York. A couple of years ago the Lila Wallace Foundation was asking me the questions they ask in their grant process, and they asked, "How do you measure success?" Over the years my answers have gotten shorter, and they asked if I wanted to know my answer to this question five years ago. Five years ago I said I wanted a show to have good reviews, an extended life, to be successful, etc. Five years later I measured success by "If I liked it." It comes down to personal standards. At this point in my career, I'm ready to run an organization. If you look at the map of where the major regional theatres are in America, there was a hole in the center of the New South. Charlotte seemed the perfect place for a major regional theatre. I think Charlotte is a city of the 21st century. Over the past six months, driving into Charlotte from the airport, I keep waiting for that opinion to change, but happily it hasnít.
You and Matt Olin are both Charlotte natives. What was your relationship prior to meeting him at Charlotte Rep?
I knew Matt when he was at Dodger Theatricals, and before that when he was at Columbia. Victoria Bailey, the former general manager of MTC, taught Arts Management at Columbia and she asked me to be a consultant on Matt's Masters thesis. So I've been following his career since its beginning.
Is the Charlotte Repertory Board more active than the Manhattan Theatre Club's?
The board at MTC is the best board you could hope for. They just committed to a 35 M capital campaign to restore a historic Broadway theatre. Certainly, the leadership of Charlotte Rep's current board attracted me. They are clearly taking some risks, which is quite exciting. I'm trying to grapple with what the board wants. They tell me they want to move the theatre to a new level. What I can do is come down and present the best theatre I can. Theyíre challenging me to do this. They've excited me.
MTC produces only new works. What part did you play in selecting these works?
Lynne Meadow, the artistic director at MTC, and I made the final decisions. Together we agreed upon what shows we would produce. However, some of the projects were solely guided artistically by me. For instance, Love! Valour! Compassion! was a play that I guided from its inception to its Tony Award winning Broadway production. I was in charge of the day-to-day artistic activities at the theatre. The line producing was done in my office. That's a movie term, but I use it a lot. The line producer refers to the person who is on the "front line" in the production process. He puts the production team together, oversees the casting, etc. I would deliver the show to rehearsal and come back two weeks later, give notes to the director and basically guide it to its opening.
Which of these new plays will we get to see in Charlotte?
Well, they wouldn't be new work any more, would they? However, there are certainly plays that I helped produce that I'd like to bring to Charlotte. Because my specialty has been new work, I want to present a fair share of that here. But I also consider myself a theatre historian. Musicals are my passion. I won't hide that fact. But I do think it is my responsibility to bring variety. The classics are important. That's why I'm opening with The Glass Menagerie. I wanted to open with an American classic and a Southern writer. And Penny Fuller, who is a North Carolina native, wanted to be here for my opener. We have a humorous story. I used to work at General Cinemas at Charlottetown Mall. I'd be working as an usher and I had a friend who would call me whenever a Broadway celebrity was going to be on Johnny Carson. One night he called me at work and told me to stop at his house on my way home because Penny Fuller, who was starring on Broadway at the time in the musical Applause, was going to be a guest on the Johnny Carson show. She mentioned that she's from North Carolina, and Johnny asked her what people in North Carolina do for fun. She said they drink Coca-Cola, eat Cheese Nips and watch the Johnny Carson show. My friend and I were doing exactly that! We were drinking Coca-Cola, eating Cheese Nips, and watching the Johnny Carson show! Twelve years later I hired her to do a play called Three Viewings and we've been dear friends ever since. When I was considering this venture, I talked to her because I wanted to know if someone of her caliber would come down, and she said she would be honored to open my first season for me.
How involved were writers in the production of their plays at Manhattan Theatre Club?
There was tremendous involvement. It is a writers' theatre. There are four kinds of theatres. There are writers, directors, actors and producers' theaters. Writing is the muscle of MTC. It is devoted to new work and new work starts with the writers. They are part of the final product. We worked very aggressively on rewrites. I'm a very hands-on artistic director.
What was it like to work with Arthur Miller?
Arthur Miller. A very gentle giant, but also very sure of what he wants. That is the best kind of situation, when a writer is clear on what he is writing about. I have a yardstick for plays. Does the play do what it sets out to do? Does it drop you off in the destination you are heading to? I'm a stickler for storytelling. What story are you telling, why, and how well are you telling it?
Manhattan Theatre Club has Stage 1 (seats 299) and Stage 2 (seats 150). How do you decide what plays are assigned to what stages?
Instinct. What perspective do I want to see this from? I'm happiest putting something in the most intimate space possible.
How do these theatres compare to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center?
They are very good for off-Broadway theaters. The Booth Playhouse I love because it is an intimate classical proscenium type of house. At the same time I sit there and think about how to make it more immediate. There is something that a proscenium house does to a play that says, "it's finished," as if you are in one room, looking at something happening in another. That's fine for some work, but new work needs to be more in your lap. A proscenium is a frame. Just like you finish a piece of art with a frame.
What's the last play you saw in Charlotte?
Can you tell me how it was different from the New York production?
The production in Charlotte got to the truth of the play. Catherine is a tricky role to play. This isn't really a fair question as I only saw it at a dress rehearsal. Then I felt that there was more humor to be mined in the play. But I was the only one in the theatre, and humor is hard to get to with an audience of one! I understand Steve got them there. I thought it was well cast. I am a particular fan of Graham Smith.
One of the first things I'm doing is trying to identify a pool of actors locally and regionally who want to work at The Rep.. There is almost a joke in New York about how many artists come from North Carolina. My motto there is 'if you come from North Carolina, I'll hunt you down.' I hope I can be a Pied Piper, and I think I can be. But I heard second-hand that an equity actress in North Carolina said that since I've been hired she'll never get work again. I want to assure the community that I'll use the talent here, but for everyone's benefit, I have to produce the best quality theatre that I can.
If, in either the New York or the North Carolina auditions, someone comes in and knocks me out, I'll hire them. I've been overwhelmed by the number of actresses in New York who want to play Laura. Next week I'll be doing auditions with Joe Hardy, the director, for Glass Menagerie in New York. Then I'll do an open call for actors in Charlotte. (As a member of the League of Resident Theatres, Charlotte Rep will abide by the rules of Actors' Equity Association.) After that, we will make our final decisions.
Since Charlotte Repertory is the only professional theatre in Charlotte, have you thought about putting on plays with large casts to use more actors?
Actors now are not even paid what they are worth, but they are the most costly item. Plus there is housing, which is always an issue for regional theatre, so larger casts are a problem. Baseball players play ball, actors need to act, directors need to direct. I need a pool of talent here that is available to do new work. I want to intermingle people from all over the country. But I need, and want to cultivate and encourage, a pool of talent that is local to Charlotte. I'm very interested in having a 'Made in Charlotte' stamp put on the work.
What needs to happen for Charlotte to become a city where plays premiere?
All that needs to happen is that you premiere a play here. A lot of commercial and not-for-profit alliances have existed in New York, Chicago and Boston. In San Diego, both La Jolla and Old Globe have reaped the benefits of these relationships, and shows have been born there. In Charlotte, you can be in New York in the morning and fly to Charlotte in the afternoon. And it is beautiful here. I find that commercial producers are very interested in looking at the possibilities of an association. Part of that is the geographical relationship between New York and Charlotte.
Will a commercial relationship endanger your access to other monies?
This is called enhancement money, and every regional theatre in the country does it. It is becoming very vital. Two years ago in Boston, there was a conference called ACT 2. This conference was about understanding the relationship between commercial producers and not-for-profit theaters. The government's lack of funding is encouraging this relationship. Musicals are extremely expensive and the development of a musical takes about the gestation time of an elephant. Nothing is going to secure the financial future of a theatre more significantly than a hit play or musical. Look at what A Chorus Line did for The Public Theatre. And what Proof did for MTC. With regards to the Arts and Science Council, I can't imagine this is a new concept. Certainly, this is one of the things I've talked about with the board. For example, there is certainly commercial interest in my show Let Me Sing. I want commercial producers to come to Charlotte and see Let Me Sing. I could be looking to secure their funding beforehand, but I'm not.
Let Me Sing will have its world premiere in Charlotte in January 2003. What spurred you to create this?
The history of the American musical theatre is a passion of mine. I teach a 3Ĺ hour class every Thursday for Brooklyn College. It became very popular very quickly, and I realized I'd created a thesis. The thesis was that this art form, the most American of theatrical forms, and truly the only American theatrical form that we've given to the world, came about by its creators' attempts to redefine themselves through their work. They were immigrants and they were redefining themselves as Americans. Their work, their songs, were an expression of "I" - "Who am I in this new world?" In popular music, there were three different musical sounds at the turn of the last century. All of them, interestingly enough, were from the bottom of the social ladder: African-American, Eastern European, and Irish. But, if you were sitting in a cafe in Paris in 1911 and heard "Alexander's Rag Time Band," you would've said, "Thatís American." As the American musical came to fruition with Rodgers & Hammerstein and Oklahoma, the art form stopped being "I" and started being "we," and it started defining our moral standards. Musicals expressed "we" through the 1960's. They expressed optimism. What happened next, with social unrest in the 60's, is that we realized nothing can speak for all of us. Then Sondheim entered and asked, "Who am I in this disjointed world?" He has devoted his career skewering Hammerstein's cockeyed optimism.
I was encouraged to write a book, but instead I decided to create what I wanted to create 25 years ago when I started in this business. So I said I'd write a show. Let Me Sing starts with George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin, and ends with Rodgers and Hammerstein.
I can't wait to see it. Is it precast?
Andre deShields has committed to the project. I did a workshop of the musical with Andre last summer at MTC. The rest of the cast has yet to be decided. It will be a co-production with George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, which is another LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theatre.
Charlotte is a lot different from when you moved to New York 23 years ago. What sort of feel do you have for today's Charlotte audience?
They are hungry for theatre - I hope. I have to admit that I need to see more theatre with them to get a sense of them. I did try to get down to Charlotte over the last 6 months and see as much as I could, but I need more time to stand in the back of the theater with these audiences. I've tried to give a wide range of experiences for next season. I look at putting together a season as a tray of hors d'oeuvres. I don't want to serve you the same meal each time.
It's also part of my job to lead an audience to what it wants to see, not to what it thinks it wants to see. I like to laugh, and I don't mean just presenting comedy. Someone once told me that in an ideal Michael Bush play, the first act is uproariously funny and someone kills themselves in the second act. That, to me, is what life is, but I am a cockeyed optimist. The playwright Alan Ayckbourn once described himself to me as a clown dancing in a minefield. I thought that was a wonderful metaphor.
Last year Charlotte Rep had to cancel a main stage production and a workshop production due to an anticipated budget shortfall of $180,000. What can you do to ensure the financial health of Charlotte's only fully professional resident theatre company?
Excuse me while I put my other hat on. Being a line producer for MTC, I've always been aware of the bottom line. I share the responsibility of the fiscal health of the theatre. I have been so involved in the actual administration of the work at MTC. You have to take risks, but you have to back it with a secure fiscal logic. When a director decides he needs 14 yellow raincoats, it's my job to say, "No, you need 2." Regarding the cancellation, I don't know of a single regional theatre where a staff hasn't been called in after 9/11 and told to cut 15%.
Will we see many Galas in Charlotte?
Yes! We did one on April 13th where we announced next yearís season. Certainly we will keep that tradition. Fundraising is a specialty of mine. The spring gala is set, and I'm rethinking the New Years Eve Gala.
Have you seen any other recent theatre in Charlotte?
I saw the Royal Shakespeare Companyís production of Merchant of Venice at Davidson. It is a beautiful space and it was a beautiful production. I plan on being an active audience member in Charlotte - at all theaters. Any success of a theater in Charlotte is a success for all of us.
Did you live in Manhattan?
Yes, for 23 years.
What about suburban life in Charlotte appeals to you after so many years in New York?
I think that getting out of New York will make me appreciate it more. It took me 12 years to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I have so many connections and friends in the city that Iíll never give it up completely. I have a house outside of the city in the Hudson Valley, and I will certainly use it as a retreat. It's a great place to read plays. There is a part of me, at 48, that looks at this as though I'm graduating and I'm ready to start my life. I've said to people that I've seen my life expanding on a larger radar screen. My family is in Charlotte. So itís exciting that I can come home at this juncture in my life, particularly to spend more time with my mother. Itís very rewarding.
~ Lynn Trenning