Sarah McLellan’s passion for supporting adventurous art and artists has found a new home. Coming off a stint as managing director of New York City’s innovative Clubbed Thumb (by way of Williamstown Theater Festival and the Juilliard School), she’ll head uptown to join Ensemble Studio Theatre as their new executive director. I wrote about EST’s reinvention under artistic director William Carden in 2015, and I spoke recently with Sarah about her plans for the 50-year-old institution, whose longtime 52nd Street home is undergoing a massive renovation as she takes the reins.
MARK ARMSTRONG: How did you get invoIved in theatre?
SARAH MCLELLAN: I was a young person who knew very quickly what I wanted to do with my life. I went to a performing arts high school and then to Sarah Lawrence, where I discovered that producing was where my skill set lay. When I bossed people around as a producer, everyone seemed to listen. When I tried to boss people around as an actor, it really got on people’s nerves.
I found a groove in development and training. The first job that I had was at Juilliard and from there Williamstown Theater Festival, where I ran the apprentice program. It’s an easy thing to get hooked on, watching people discover things about themselves and about art. It’s completely intoxicating. That was exciting about working with Clubbed Thumb, and this opportunity to work with EST is an extension of that.
What was the highlight of your time at Clubbed Thumb?
I built a CRM—it’s our donor database and our artistic database. Those sides talk to each other, because there’s a lot of overlap, and it also manages our entire literary process, commission and directing fellowship applications. That’s the nerdiest highlight, but I’m pretty proud of it. The jazzy highlight was my first Summerworks. We put up three individual productions in seven weeks. The first was Jerry Lieblich’s D Deb Debbie Deborah. I loved the play, and that was the first play that Clubbed Thumb was reviewed by Ben Brantley in The New York Times.
He had never come to Clubbed Thumb before?
No. And it was this absolute love-letter rave. Getting to watch Maria [Striar] experience that, to feel recognized for this incredible body of work, and then this immediate uptick in sales, this crazy atmosphere—that was a moment we all sprinted from. Like, OK, this is happening.
EST and Clubbed Thumb both make new work, but they have different goals and structures. What will this transition be like?
I don’t know if they do have different goals! Both have an emphasis on providing artists—mostly at an early stage of their career, but really at any stage where they want to reinvest in themselves—opportunity for development. I think that’s really a similar goal. Certainly [different] structures.
Yes, EST has a unique hybrid of artistic and business structure.
Clubbed Thumb relies on our alumni community; we have artists on our board. But it is very formalized and explicitly articulated at EST. The membership [plays] a day-to-day role in the life of the theatre. That’s very different, certainly. There are 600 member artists who have a stake in the organization, a body of tremendous talent that you can draw on, and that you’re responsible to. I’m excited to see how the executive leadership can interact with the membership, draw on the institutional memory.
EST has an intense history, and with a lifetime membership some of that stuff stays in the DNA. How’s the body politic doing?
Very well. There’s a refreshing transparency to the way people talk about history at EST. Painful moments are regularly brought up. I think that’s so healthy. Billy [Carden] wanted me to know everything. There’s an excitement about the direction EST’s taking, a real engagement with the future. To acknowledge the history, but to do every single thing possible to make the future what we want it to be. Excited and hopeful.
Billy also brought EST back into the family of New York City theatres. You’re coming from Clubbed Thumb. Can we expect more partnerships with other theatres producing new work?
A huge priority for EST is to increase diversity at all levels of our organization. That has been clearly articulated. Partnerships with other theatres are hopefully going to be a part of that initiative. That’s a lovely point to make about Billy: the opening of the doors and letting in the air and the light. He’s so sweet and generous and such a deep thinker about community. That’s what we want, and I think that’s something they are bringing me in for. I have a long history in the developmental culture of New York and they welcome that.
I used to hear that EST leased that old furniture factory for one dollar a year. What’s the actual arrangement?
I wish I could tell you. [Laughs.] There is an intimate and extraordinary relationship with the Clinton Housing and Development Company, which is the landlord. They are our partners in the capital project we are undertaking—I don’t think it’s one dollar, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable amount. This building project is so important. People call that space their artistic home.
The current space is 74 seats on the second floor. What does the future space look like?
The theatre will move down to the ground floor. There will be a storefront—a pristine, architecturally designed and vetted 99-seat theatre. It’s a theatre for EST’s work and we’re completely intending to—Billy likes to use the phrase “maintain our lifestyle.” Everyone at EST is fiercely proud of the space we occupy in the producing landscape. We don’t want to transform what EST does; we want our facilities to match the maturity and the esteem of the programs.
Opening the first floor theatre has been like the Second Avenue subway of EST for so long. Is it really happening?
Oh yes! We have partners on board and funding in place. The Radio Drama Network provided $1 million so we could secure city funding for this new space. They’ve given me the wonderful job of spending the money! We’re ready.
A theatre with a mission to develop plays isn’t designed to generate earned income. It’s, what, 20 percent?
Yeah, if that.
And it has a board designed to generously include artist-members. Where does money for stability and growth come from?
The goal of a developmental theatre company is not earned income. We budget our box office very conservatively. The box office is gravy, but we’re not counting on that to make our financial goals. EST has been lucky at finding renegade philanthropists. Our long partnership with the Sloan Foundation is a big part of the creative fabric of the American theatre. The Radio Drama Network is a visionary partner. And artist-members are an important part of any theatre’s good fundraising strategy—the connections those artists can provide, the access to artistic process. In terms of future growth and identifying resources to sustain that growth, that’s my job.
What are your personal goals for your leadership at EST?
To provide resources that match the mature and extraordinary work the organization is doing. More money. The other personal goal I have is to humbly serve the work and the artists. To do a lot of listening and help chart a course forward that everyone feels good about.