When Todd Haimes took on the role of artistic director of Roundabout Theatre Company in 1990 (after serving seven years as executive director), the company was known primarily as a home for classic plays. Off-Broadway revivals of Shaw, Chekhov, and Shakespeare were RTC mainstays, while on Broadway, independent producers continued to bring back the same big, well-known musicals every few years. So Haimes had an idea: Why not revive a different kind of American musical?
And with that, the company produced the first Broadway revival of She Loves Me (the Company’s first musical), which established Roundabout a not-for-profit to watch. “Without hyperbole, if that musical had not been a hit, I knew that we’d never do another musical,” says Haimes.
In the decades since, Haimes has built a legacy out of similarly daring decisions. It has been under his leadership that RTC began to produce more contemporary writers, opened the Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway with Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel and, in 2007, built a black box space that would go on to launch the careers of Tony-winning writers Steven Levenson and Stephen Karam, as well as new writers Ming Peiffer, Lindsey Ferrentino, Jiréh Breon Holder, and more.
When Karam came to Roundabout with his first play, Speech & Debate, Haimes knew that Roundabout had to be the one to produce it. But experience had taught him that early-career writers didn’t always benefit from being programmed alongside the likes of Pinter and Miller. “I didn’t think the kind of reception they got was the kind of support a young playwright should get,” said Haimes, and so the company, “like something out of summerstock,” decided to build an entirely new theatre—out of its unused, leaking basement space.
Out of this impulse, the Roundabout Underground initiative was born. Its mission: to give emerging playwrights their first Off-Broadway production as well as a commission for a second play. This second part was particularly important to Haimes. “[We didn’t want them to] feel as if their whole lives were resting on that production,” he says. “The whole point was to try to take some of the pressure off while giving them exposure.”
Still, to this day, Haimes is in awe of what the Underground program (now spearheaded by Jill Rafson) has achieved. “I had no idea how much talent there was [amongst younger writers],” says the artistic director and CEO. “To me, it takes a certain maturity that comes with age to write a fully formed play. I was completely wrong… It’s turned out to be this unbelievably invigorating program for the theatre, for me, and for the staff.”