Ruth Sternberg wants you to know that she’s a champion of the “yes.” While production managers may gain the reputation of nitpicking the financial details of a designer’s vision, Sternberg, production executive at the Public Theater, is no naysayer.
“What I’m trying to do is get as much of the art on the stage as possible,” she says, admitting that balancing time, budgets, and art can throw up its share of obstacles. “I’ve always wanted to figure out how to get to ‘yes,’” Sternberg adds, clarifying that production managers are “not the ‘no’ people—we’re just the realist people.”
Since saying yes to Oskar Eustis’s invitation to join the Public when he became the artistic director in 2005, Sternberg, a Bronx native, has perfected the practice. She’s helped designers and directors bring to life everything from ancient Rome to outer space, in addition to working with the Public’s expansive community programs. “She is a brilliant and deeply committed leader,” Eustis says. “Nothing I have dreamed could have become real without Ruth.”
After years in the business, including currently overseeing five production managers, Sternberg is still surprised by the unexpected, and sometimes outlandish, nature of design. “Last week I was asked to research what it would take to put a live horse on the stage,” she relays, noting that it was more the unpredictability of the animal than the money that led her to quash the idea (in case you’re wondering: You would need to reshod the horse with rubber shoes each time they come to the theatre, or invest in a rubber stage to prevent equine slippage). If the job sounds complicated, requiring a combination of technical expertise, management experience, and knowledge of animal performance laws, it is. But Sternberg thrives in the face of a challenge.
“What I want to work on are the most complicated shows there are with the best people there are,” she states, adding that what she values above all else is collaboration. For Sternberg, getting every designer on the same page isn’t a luxury—it’s her theatrical philosophy. “Good design is dramaturgy,” she says. Often, the best way to steer a production back on course when differences arise is to step back in humility and wonder. “When I see something going off of what I think is in service to the play, I don’t assume that I know better than anybody else. I’m tempted to just ask, ‘Why are we doing that? Am I missing something?’”
Sternberg has sharpened her mediation skills over the years, facilitating communication among large artistic teams. “The more you can talk about what the scenic elements are being put in service to, the more ideas are being discovered and understood. My role is about making sure those conversations happen.”
One reason Sternberg is able to empathize with different designers is the Public’s unique production management structure. While many companies recruit folks into her role with either stage management or technical theatre backgrounds, Sternberg has been able to bring both to the Public, building a professionally diverse community that she calls “joyous.” This “allows for a team that has answers to a much broader spectrum of questions” than one manager alone ever could. She emphasizes that there is no longer just one path to becoming a production manager.
Together, Sternberg and her team have installed indoor trees, handled life-sized puppets, and hung dozens of umbrellas on the Public’s stages. “I’m pretty excited about everything,” Sternberg says of their ongoing season. “I’m also excited about everything being open so that I can sleep again.”