If Ellen Richard had ended her theatre career in June 2005 when she stepped down as managing director of the Roundabout Theatre Company after 22 years on the job, it would have been enough to earn her a place in New York stage history.
During her tenure at the Roundabout, she and Todd Haimes brought the one-time Off-Broadway from bankruptcy to a three-theatre, nonprofit Broadway powerhouse. But the theatre community came calling once again in the form of Second Stage — another nonprofit that has seen its fortunes grow well beyond its humble Off-Broadway beginnings. In March 2006, Second Stage needed an interim executive director and Richard took the job. Four months later, she took on the position permanently. Now, two years later, she has made about as big a splash as a theatre administrator can, fetching for her company its own Broadway house: the Helen Hayes. Richard talked to Playbill.com how it landed Broadway's most intimate house for its very own, and how she ended up in the same industry she thought she had left behind.
Playbill.com: How did the Helen Hayes Theatre deal come to be?
Ellen Richard: It started because we had a demolition clause in our 43rd Street theatre clause. We got to the point where the landlord could actually give us that notice. He could tear down the building. With the development going on Eighth Avenue, we had heard he was in discussions with the people who were developing the 44th Street corner of Eighth Avenue, so we were pretty nervous that we could find ourselves homeless. Simultaneously while negotiating with the owner of our building to remove the demolition clause — which I was successful with, but that didn't happen until months later — I was trying to find a theatre for Second Stage — essentially a new home. At one of my meetings, I heard that there might be a Broadway theatre for sale and picked up the phone and called the Helen Hayes, thinking that might be it. That's how the discussions started.
Playbill.com: How were negotiations?
ER: They were great. The theatre is owned by Marty Markinson and family of Donald Tick, who passed away a couple years ago. But mostly I dealt with Marty, who is a prince. He was wonderful throughout the whole process. We're not closing for two years, which works for both of us. Marty said he needed time to say goodbye to his theatre, and we needed time to raise the money. Playbill.com: You're very lucky. Second Stage got its hands on the only Broadway theatre that could possibly go on the market. The Shuberts, Nederlanders and Jujamcyns aren't letting go of any properties.
ER: And I think it's the best possible theatre for Second Stage. The other theatres would have been too big for us and the work that we do. This theatre is very intimate. When it was first built, it was made to house intimate, experimental work. So it's continuing to fulfill its mission.
Playbill.com: How will Second Stage use it? For special long-run productions or to present your season?
ER: We will present a season there. Our intention is to present three shows a year at the Helen Hayes, three shows at the 43rd Street theatre, and we'll continue to play in the summer at our Uptown theatre. Currently we do four at 43rd Street, so we'll drop down to three there.
Playbill.com: What kind of Second Stage shows would be good for the Helen Hayes?
ER: Peter and Jerry would have been great for the Helen Hayes. Next to Normal would have worked really well in that theatre. I think it probably would be authors who are a little farther along in their career.
Playbill.com: How has your experience at Second Stage been different from the one you had at Roundabout?
ER: Well, it is different in that Carole Rothman and Todd Haimes are very different artistic directors. She is very hands-on with the development of the work. And Todd hires the right people and kind of lets them go off and do their thing. Second Stage is a much smaller company, too. You just feel like you're more in touch with everything that's going on in all the different areas. It's a little harder; promoting and selling new plays is harder than revivals.
Playbill.com: When you left the Roundabout, did you intend to go on to another theatre and stay in the same line of work?
ER: (Laughs) No. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to take a break. I thought I wanted to move back to Connecticut, which is where I grew up, and which is what I did. I sold my apartment and moved to Connecticut. I wasn't really looking for a job. I was doing a little consulting. Not for a minute did I think I'd be back in New York trying to run another not-for-profit theatre company. It was only because they asked me to fill in as an interim director while they looked for an executive director that I said yes. And here I am, two and a half years later. (Laughs) I became engaged. When Carole would talk about people they were interviewing and I could feel my back go up, thinking, "Wait, that's my job!"