Ann McLaughlin’s career plan crystallized the day the guy showed up to repossess the water cooler. It was 1997, and she was fresh out of college, working as an assistant at the modest New York offices of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. An official-looking fellow appeared, with a clipboard in one hand, a cart in the other, and a sorry-lady-just-doing-my-job look on his face.
This was not an unfamiliar scenario. “The O’Neill was always on the brink of financial disaster, and every day we were dealing with someone coming in and taking something away because the bill hadn’t been paid,” recalls McLaughlin, now 31 and the associate general manager of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. “That was formative for me. I realized then that if you can financially stabilize companies, you can empower artists to do their work. I can’t imagine what [the late O’Neill National Playwrights Conference artistic director] Lloyd Richards could have done if he had full resources at hand. If it weren’t for those things being taken away, I wouldn’t have figured this out.” Her long-term goal, she says, is to jump-start a financially strapped small nonprofit theatre.
McLaughlin certainly didn’t foresee the down-and-dirty details of theatre management when she became enamored with the stage while growing up on the “itty bitty island” of Kauai in Hawaii, where she performed in high school musicals. She majored in theatre at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts—“I had never seen snow!”—and spent summers interning at the O’Neill’s summer home in Waterford, Conn., before joining the staff full-time after graduation. Looking back, her only regret is majoring in theatre as an undergraduate. “That will not clinch it for you,” she says. “I wish I had known that, because I would have studied something crazy in college. The more viewpoints you can get, the better.”
Likewise, she doesn’t think tomorrow’s managers need to micromanage their careers from the minute they come of age. “If you want it to happen, your path will lead you,” she says, sounding a bit like her mentor Richards, who was a Buddha-like figure to several generations of aspiring theatre professionals. She fondly remembers the way he ran the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill like “an invisible guiding hand.” It was Richards, in fact, who encouraged her to go to the Yale School of Drama. Mary McCabe, the former managing director of the Playwrights Conference and McLaughlin’s former boss, also urged her to apply. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny,” McCabe recalls. “I couldn’t keep her busy enough, and I thought Yale could.”
And that it did. The venerable program, of course, is an exhilarating grind, with classes all day and jobs at the Yale Repertory Theatre that stretch on through the night. Sleep, McLaughlin recalls, was rarely an option. But the path she speaks of materialized in New Haven. An internship at the Huntington during her second year at Yale led to a TCG New Generations fellowship at the Boston theatre after she graduated in 2003, which led to her current job.
The training at Yale, she says, was “phenomenal,” but perhaps just as important was the network she developed there. “I left with a toolbox of people I can always call,” she says. “If I don’t know the answer, I do know who to call.” But with characteristic modesty, she isn’t one of those people who believe you have to be a member of the “Yale mafia” to pursue a career in management. She is acutely aware that the mention of the school impresses some folks, but makes others bristle.
The pedigree isn’t what matters most to McLaughlin, but rather the experience. She started her internship at the Huntington two days before 9/11. She had originally been set to work on a building project that was postponed temporarily after the national disaster. Instead, she ended up assisting Huntington managing director Michael Maso on LORT contract negotiations with United Scenic Artists. That may not sound like a sexy assignment, but McLaughlin approached it with the enthusiasm of a football fanatic preparing for the pre-season drafts. “She ate it up,” recalls Maso, noting that her organizational skills are matched by the inner strength needed to persist in today’s challenging nonprofit environment.
Today, she handles hundreds of contract negotiations with artists every season, so the internship turned out to be invaluable training. It’s a karma thing. Every experience is just another step on that path. And if she later moves on to a struggling company that needs a management makeover, she’ll know what to do when the repo man comes calling.
Patti Hartigan, a former cultural reporter and critic for the Boston Globe, is a writer living in the Boston area.