Learn How One Lunch Date Led to Decades of Running an Award-Winning Theatre and Changing Children's Lives

News   Learn How One Lunch Date Led to Decades of Running an Award-Winning Theatre and Changing Children's Lives
 
"Let's do lunch" is a powerful statement for Barbara Zinn Krieger, the multi-talented woman running New York City Children's Theatre. Over the course of her career, which has spanned both arts and education, lunch dates have proven to be fruitful and even life-changing.

Following a divorce, Krieger was living on Long Island and attempting to include theatre in her life when a friend invited her to lunch and asked her to be on the board of a new nonprofit theatre she was creating.

"It was a time in my life when I needed to say yes to a lot of new ideas, because I was leaving behind an old life of 16 years and starting afresh," Krieger recalled recently in her sunlit midtown office. The plan quickly escalated — and changed — when her friend fell in love with a pilot over the summer and began planning a wedding. She then offered Krieger the theatre.

Barbara Zinn Krieger
Barbara Zinn Krieger

Krieger drew upon her background in singing, acting and directing, as well as her family connections in the real estate business, and went on to build the very first 60-seat Vineyard Theatre on East 26th Street.

"What were we going to do? We had nothing. Nobody knew us. So I wrote something," she said, recalling a piece on cabaret singer Alec Wilder in the New Yorker that inspired her to write the play that then became the first production at the Vineyard Theatre.

"That was our first show, and it opened, and it did very well. It had all of these people in it who are now very famous who were just starting out — Craig Lucas was a chorus boy then, Christine Andreas, Keith David... The reviewers went, 'There's this little space that looks like a car park or a basement. But it's a good show. Why don't you go?'"

The theatre continued to grow, and Krieger became involved in the administrative process to obtain a new space on 14th Street. Doug Aibel assumed the role of artistic director, and Krieger served as the executive director for the next 22 years. The nonprofit company premiered new works including Avenue Q, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical on Broadway; The Scottsboro Boys, by John Kander and Fred Ebb; How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel; and [title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen.

"But I wasn't doing the art," she said. "I had stopped doing the art, and I felt that there was a piece missing for me."

<i>A Band of Angels</i> won Off-Broadway Alliance's 2015 Best Family Musical winner
A Band of Angels won Off-Broadway Alliance's 2015 Best Family Musical winner Photo by Carol Rosegg

It was over another lunch date when Krieger expressed this desire to her friends Sybille Pearson and Kathleen Chalfant, and Pearson recommended Krieger draw upon her background as an educator and write for children and offered to help teach her.

"It just felt so right to do for kids what the Vineyard was doing for adults," Krieger said of the beginning of Making Books Sing, an educational nonprofit that adapts children's books into theatre productions for children and focuses on social awareness and political topics like homelessness.

The organization grew and eventually changed its name to New York City Children's Theatre to reflect how its horizons have broadened to include dance pieces, puppet pieces, straight plays and devised theatre as well as musicals. They also bring small performance pieces from school to school, performing for students.

The organization includes an artistic education program, featuring residencies, workshops and touring shows, as well as programs that focus on special needs and anti-bullying.

"We're trying to enchant kids with the arts so they'll, in some way, want to participate, whether it's becoming part of the arts, or just getting the arts into their lives by going to see theatre or music or dance."

Audiences are also engaged through pre- and post-performance activities. When NYCCT presented Ballerina Swan, about a swan whose dream was to become a dancer, poster paper was plastered throughout the lobby so children could write and draw their own dreams. Krieger's own family participated in the post-show talkback of The Butterfly, about a Jewish boy who was hidden by a Catholic family, that featured Holocaust survivors sharing their experiences with the audience. Krieger described the children's participation, mimicking in a high-pitched voice the audience members who, during performances of Wanda's Monster, would shout, "He's coming out of the closet! He's coming to your bed! Wake up! He's a monster! He's over there!"

A scene from <i>Wanda's Monster</i>
A scene from Wanda's Monster Photo by Carol Rosegg

"The thing for me that's so exciting is when I get an email from a parent, saying, 'Thank you for this. I talked about it with my children all the way home. They asked all sorts of questions,'" Kreiger said. "It's a dialogue that happens between parents and children. If I see a parent on a cell phone, then I have failed because I haven't engaged that parent. I have to brag that people don't do that. Parents are as engaged in our shows as kids."

Along with her devotion and experience, Krieger offers a personal touch to her work, inviting colleagues to converse with her in person rather than over email, and insisting on frequent staff meetings to encourage a collaborative creative process. During her early years in the business, she even picked up a critic and drove him to a performance in Brooklyn to express her appreciation for him reviewing the production.

"We weren't in Manhattan yet," she recalled. "I offered to pick him up and take him [to Brooklyn]. We had the best time in the car!"

A scene from <i>Ballerina Swan</i>
A scene from Ballerina Swan Photo by Carol Rosegg

Reflecting on her accomplishments, Krieger has no plans of slowing down, even after accomplishing so much in a time when women have fought to achieve leadership positions. "It is harder to just get in, for a woman," she said. "My co-artistic director is a woman. We have lots of interns who come through here, and most of them are women. And, we try our best to help them. I cannot tell you how many letters of recommendation I've written for people. And anybody who calls me and says, 'I have a question. Would you meet with me?' I say, 'Absolutely, yes.' My dad used to say, 'If I've done something for you, I don't want you to do it back for me. I want you to pass it on.' And I've never forgotten that, and I try my best to pay it forward.

"I think I had to fight harder to prove that I was genuine, that I really knew what I was talking about," she said. "If a man comes in a powerful role we take for granted he got there the right way. If a woman does, we say, 'How did she get there?' … The old girl network is beginning. I've got lots of colleagues I respect and we know each other. We need an old girl network. We don't have one yet."

Visit nycchildrenstheater.org for more information about New York City Children's Theatre and vineyardtheatre.org to learn about the Vineyard Theatre.

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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