As part of its action-packed and blizzard-stricken second day, BroadwayCon assembled a panel of industry greats similar not in their current careers, but in their starts. Ann Harada, Ted Chapin, Lonny Price, Hal Luftig, and Ken Davenport discussed their early days as production assistants, where these experiences led them and what it takes to turn time as a PA into the beginning of a career. All five panelists worked as PAs while wondering where in the theatre world they would eventually fit, and all five agree on the importance of just saying "yes."
ANN HARADA, Actress
"When I was a production assistant, I had no idea what job I wanted to eventually end up with in the theatre," says Ann Harada, actress of Avenue Q, Cinderella and "Smash" fame. Harada took her first steps towards a career on Broadway when she worked as a PA on the show Sleight of Hand with producer Suzanne Schwartz in 1987. "I got to basically see how the show was produced from the ground up," she says. "I worked in her office and typed her letters, and I got to actually work on the show itself, which was thrilling."
To anyone drawn to a career in theatre but still unsure of where they might fit, Harada offers this wisdom: "You will find a place to belong in the theatre if that's what you love.
"I came to the conclusion that it was going to be performing, [but] if you keep your mind open, there might be something out there that you never thought about before, and that will really speak to you. Just say 'yes' to everything and [stay] open. That's all you can do."
"I was fascinated by the theatre world, and I wanted to be a part of it," Ted Chapin says. Chapin began his theatre career as a production assistant on the Peter Ustinov play The Unknown Soldier and His Wife in 1967. His first experience as a PA was the result of a call he felt to "be in the room where it happens," says Chapin, referencing the current Broadway megahit Hamilton.
Chapin was a PA for several shows when he was starting out, including the original production of Sondheim's Follies. "I kept a journal because I was in college, and I wanted to get course credit," says Chapin. That journal turned into a book years later. "Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies" was published in 2003 and explores the making of a musical from Chapin's PA perspective.
From the vantage point of an industry professional, Chapin advises up-and-comers as they make connections:,"The more specific you can be, the more homework you can do, the easier it will be for everybody to say 'yes.'"
LONNY PRICE, Director, Actor, Writer
When Lonny Price was 15 years old, he wrote a letter to legendary producer and director Hal Prince. "I told him that I loved his work and just wanted to be around [it]," says Price, an actor, director and writer whose recent success includes directing The New York Philharmonic's production of Sweeney Todd starring Emma Thompson and Broadway's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill starring Audra McDonald. As a result of his letter to Prince, Price worked as a production assistant on Sondheim's Pacific Overtures in 1975.
"I watched Hal Prince treat everyone the same," says Price of what he learned from his time as Prince's PA. "From the stage doorman to the leading man to Stephen Sondheim to the ushers. Everybody was respected."
Price says not to rule out unpaid PA positions. "If you can make money somewhere else and are able to give your services, there's a lot more opportunity." Speaking from experience, Price echoes the advice to always say 'yes,' make yourself indispensible, to be unafraid to approach people and, of course, write a letter. "I think a letter is really cool. That's just me. You can email people," says Price, "but I think [a letter] shows effort."
HAL LUFTIG, Producer
Hal Luftig, acclaimed producer of Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie and many others, was a production assistant on the 1983 revival of Mame. On the first day of rehearsal, Angela Lansbury asked him never to wear stripes again because they made her dizzy. Now, as a tribute to his beginnings, Lufig, never wears stripes to the first rehearsal of a project.
Luftig's experience as a PA coincided with his time at graduate school. He earned his MFA in Arts Management from Columbia University School of the Arts. "For me, going to Columbia was the key to sort of everything," says Luftig. "I got exposed to all these different things that I didn't know." He encourages those interested in having theatre careers to explore education as a way to become a "well-rounded person."
"I think, if everybody knows what everybody else is doing [when working on a show], especially in commercial theatre, I think the impact that has on the bottom line makes for a much better show," he says. "If you can have some kind of educational component to [your start] — I know that's a hard thing to do sometimes, but, if you can, it's a great thing."
KEN DAVENPORT, Producer
"I knew I wanted to be around people that made Broadway happen. I knew I would learn from them," says producer Ken Davenport of what led him to become a production assistant on the 1993 revival of My Fair Lady starring Melissa Errico and Richard Chamberlain. Davenport produced recent Broadway favorites such as Deaf West's Spring Awakening, It's Only a Play and The Visit.
Remembering his beginnings as a PA, Davenport stresses the importance of trying everything in order to move forward towards the right career. "Life is like the SAT's," he says. "Get rid of the wrong answers, and find the right ones. So I said 'yes' to a lot of things." Quoting his mother's advice, Davenport says, "With every job that you find out you don't like, you get closer to the one that you do."
He cites enthusiasm as a key ingredient in making a good impression in the theatre. "All of you people in this room [at BroadwayCon] right now have already expressed how passionate you are about this industry just by being here. Take that to the workplace and, without a doubt, you will climb whatever ladder you want to success.