Jennifer Bielstein is unafraid to chart her own course.
As a high school student in Houston, she loved theatre but didn’t want to become an actor. She saw her future role as someone in charge of a major theatre.
At the time, arts administration programs were rare, but that didn’t deter Bielstein. At the University of North Carolina, she appealed to officials to allow her to design a scholastic program that met her goals. She graduated with a combined degree in business and theatre, a tailor-made combination for her chosen career path.
Now, after more than 15 years of making her mark in Chicago, Bielstein, 37, is the new managing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. She replaced Alexander “Sandy” Speer, a beloved arts executive and leader of the regional theatre movement, who retired last spring after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Speer devoted 40 years to building the Kentucky theatre into one of the nation’s most respected companies. Consistently unflappable, he kept ATL financially stable as it produced hundreds of new plays, including three that went on to win Pulitzers. Outside Louisville, he gained a national reputation for his quietly effective work in the formation and development of the League of Resident Theatres.
Assuming the reins previously held by someone so admired is a delicate matter. Bielstein (pronounced Beel-stine) understands that. “From my point of view, Sandy is a legend, so it’s exciting and daunting to step into his shoes here,” she says, adding, “He helped make Actors Theatre a leader locally and nationally, and there is a huge responsibility that goes with that.”
The two have different personalities—Speer is notoriously shy while Bielstein is gregarious and outgoing—but their views are similar regarding the significance of regional theatre and the importance of collaboration between the creative and administrative sides.
Speer is “a great statesman of American arts,” according to Philip C. Eschels, president of ATL’s board of directors. He sees the same potential in Bielstein, who has stepped confidently into her shared leadership role with the company’s artistic director Marc Masterson, a fellow native of Houston.
“She has a can-do, will-do attitude,” Eschels says of Bielstein, who took over the job on Nov. 1 and has already made a good impression in the community. As ATL’s chief operating officer and revenue administrator, Bielstein is responsible for daily operations and implementing development strategies.
After Bielstein earned her degree at UNC–Chapel Hill in 1991, she moved to Chicago. In that city of more than 200 theatres, her levelheaded competence got noticed. As marketing and communications director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company and later as managing and then executive director of Writers’ Theatre in the suburb of Glencoe, Ill., she achieved a reputation for increasing audiences and boosting financial support for theatres. At Steppenwolf, Bielstein led a season-ticket campaign that resulted in 100-percent subscription capacity. And during her eight years as marketing director, the theatre’s earned income climbed from $3.2 million to $5.7 million.
As marketing chair of the League of Chicago Theatres, she spearheaded a city-wide program, Theatre Thursdays, which attracted many first-time theatregoers. And in just three years at Writers’ Theatre, Bielstein’s leadership resulted in the doubling of contributions from about $711,000 to $1.4 million. Those numbers, along with her warm personality, marketing savvy and reputation for collaborative leadership, cinched the decision for the Actors Theatre board.
The Louisville company, founded in 1964, has an annual budget of $9 million and produces a full season of works as well as the renowned Humana Festival of New American Plays. As the state theatre of Kentucky and a past Tony winner, the company produces works on three stages at its Main Street theatre complex.
Speer left the company in good shape, Bielstein is quick to note—his contributions include a recent capital and endowment campaign that exceeded its goal of $12 million. But arts groups everywhere face tough challenges, she adds, such as a steady decline in subscriptions and rising production costs.
Bielstein is eager to tackle those problems for ATL and the industry. “One of my goals is to be a visionary for the field and figure out what it takes to be a sustainable regional theatre for the next generation.” Her main job, she said, is to answer the question, “How do we package what we do in a way so that people will want to buy it?”
Masterson says he’s comfortable with ATL’s co-leadership structure and with Bielstein. “She is strong and capable and smart, and I will value her perspective as she will mine. It’s not about winning; it’s about making decisions together.”
For Bielstein, her new role is clear-cut: “Marc and I respect each other and communicate well—and we will develop a shared vision. I see the administrative side of a theatre as supporting an artistic vision.”
Judith Egerton is the theatre critic and arts reporter for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.