Tiffani Gavin (she/her) had been a fan of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center long before becoming only the fifth executive director in the company’s storied 55-year history. Gavin takes over for Preston Whiteway, who now works for Tribeca Productions, and she will oversee the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute (NTI) as well as its development programs for plays, musicals, puppetry, and cabaret.
It’s that legacy of nurturing and developing new artists and new work—in addition to the credit August Wilson gives the O’Neill for the development of his work—that pulled Gavin away from a career that had already taken her to Broadway heights. Prior to joining the O’Neill, Gavin had worked in general management at the Public Theater, as manager of Broadway’s Marquis Theater, and as managing director for American Repertory Theater. Gavin has also served as executive producer for Clear Channel Entertainment and general manager/VP of production at Martian Entertainment. Her Clear Channel credits include Ragtime (national tour), The Producers (Broadway, national tour), Hairspray (Broadway, national tour), and Sweet Charity (2005 Broadway revival).
All these experiences have led Gavin to a position that manages to combine her various passions and skill sets, from the financial and business end of the field to the creative. Importantly, however, as Gavin now looks to balance the O’Neill’s half-century legacy with the desire and necessity to continue pushing the company into the future, she hopes to use her new position to encourage those who have not attended the O’Neill in the past, whose voices have not been heard or who face institutional or financial barriers in the field, to join in the institution’s legacy.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: What made the O’Neill feel like the right next step for you in your career and life journey?
TIFFANI GAVIN: When I saw the position was available, it seemed like the perfect position for me in terms of my background. I’ve always felt like I had to choose between the artistic part of my brain and the management part of my brain. I always really liked developing new work and working with writers and creatives as a producer, but I also enjoyed budgeting, dealing with funds, meeting with investors, and all of the general management part of things. So I feel like I flipped a little bit back and forth between being a general manager and a producer.
But at the O’Neill, in the single leadership model, I get to do both. It felt like a much more natural fit. I get to work with some of the greatest artistic directors and be a part of their process in creating the conferences, and I get to work with students and get to know the students through NTI. At the same time, I’m still part of the fundraising effort, management of the theatre, and the fiscal responsibility and all of that. It’s a huge job, but it seemed well suited to the progression of my career and the interest that I’ve had in the theatre overall.
What’s your vision for the future of the O’Neill? What do you hope people are saying and thinking about the O’Neill when you hit that 60th anniversary in a few years?
Well, I think the O’Neill has always been about risk-taking and innovation, and I would like to continue that tradition. I’d like to see it be a place where we take risks into new ways of developing theatre. I mean, right now during this pandemic, we’ve had to adjust the ways in which we can teach students and we’re going to have to figure out the ways in which we can present our work to an audience—the openness to that, the ability to reinvent and reignite and be the leader in developing theatre in this kind of new normal, I see that as a great opportunity.
I also see it as an opportunity for us to get to a point where we can stay more involved with our writers. As a matter of practice, we always are there for our writers, our artistic directors are always helping to advise them. But I’d like to formalize that in some way, being able to help artists more as their journey progresses. Not just be the place that it starts, but also part of helping it to go a longer distance. I’d like to see us able to touch our pieces more regularly and in an ongoing way.
You’re joining the O’Neill at such an important time in the country and the field, both with the pandemic still going on and with We See You White American Theater and the anti-racism movement. How has that affected the way you are approaching this position?
One of the things that works to my benefit is that I get to use my imagination. I have not been there through an entire season to see exactly how everything has run there in the past. I’ve worked on a project here in the past, so I know what the O’Neill process can do for a piece of work. I have seen a piece come in one way and two weeks later come out vastly better than the way it walked in the door. So I know how they are able to do that, but I also get to sort of reimagine things, because I don’t have any preconceived notions about how things have to work. That’s a very advantageous place to be in in terms of We See You, White American Theatre and creating opportunities for BIPOC communities.
I give the O’Neill credit for having taken this on a while ago. Diversity and inclusion has been something that they’ve been aware of and trying to work through with their curriculum and making sure that they have a more diverse teaching staff. They’ve always done very diverse work. Through their scholarship opportunities, they’ve been able to help students from a variety of different backgrounds to be able to come to the theatre. The Miranda family has made a commitment to the O’Neill over the next 10 years to develop an endowment to support BIPOC students’ scholarships for coming to the National Theatre Institute. To further diversify the theatre artists that are able to participate, we have to find ways to make sure that we can pay people so that their financial situation is not a barrier to entry.
We have to be proactive about bringing in people and making it known that inclusion is part of what we do every day, that it is integral to how we want to move forward, and is integral to how we want to function. It makes the O’Neill a stronger, better place when we have more voices and more diversity at the table from top to bottom, from board level to intern. We are making concerted efforts to do that within our curriculum, within our faculty, within our board, just on every single level. I’m excited to be a part of that, to lead an organization that has that in their mission. When it is central to your approach and how you look at the world, then it isn’t a job. It’s not a program, it’s a priority. It’s very integrated into my vision for theatre in general and certainly for the O’Neill while I’m leading it.
Are there any aspects of your work with companies like ART and the Public, or with the Broadway and touring productions, that you think could be implemented here? Or are you coming in kind of brand new, ready to see what’s there and move from that point?
Coming from working in a commercial background, I understand risk. There’s always a financial risk when you start talking about commercial theatre. So to come to a place where their motto is to risk, fail, and risk again, I can definitely identify with that.
But in general, my background has made me well-rounded enough that I can look at things from a broader perspective to see how the O’Neill fits into the conversation of the American theatre as a whole, and to have a very forward-thinking view about what the O’Neill can be. Having been to a lot of different places, seen a lot of different processes, and worked for different producers and general managers, you get a very good sense of where there may be deficiencies.
If you were talking to anyone out there who’s heard of the O’Neill, but maybe hasn’t actually participated in any programming, what would you say to them to encourage them to join the O’Neill family?
I would say to them that your voice is welcome. With the O’Neill, you’re being asked to come and join the conversation—your voice is important here. And it’s a very special place. It’s different than other places that you have gone to see theatre, it’s different than other places that you have trained. Having been there, I think you’ll have found something there that you wouldn’t find other places.
Actually, I told the students when I was speaking to them last week that I have friends that have been to the O’Neill and been through the NTI program. I have a friend who said she was there in the ’80s; I have another friend that was there in the ’90s. They all speak about the O’Neill as something that is very hard for them to describe, but at the same time, as an experience, they will never forget it. What I said to the students was: This is an opportunity and a time that you should savor every moment of. My sense from those I know that have been a part of this program, they have grown through it in ways that they never expected or planned, and what they learned here took them to places they didn’t necessarily know they were going to go. So I asked them to pay attention, to listen, and to be open to what they experienced and I think that they would be the better for it.
I would a 100 percent agree with that. That was my experience at the National Critics Institute in a nutshell.
It’s amazing. I hear stories of people that have met their lifelong partners or lifelong writing partners or got their start at the O’Neill. I have friends that have gone through the acting program, but are now television producers. Even Preston Whiteway, who spent most of his career at the O’Neill, has now gone on to work at Tribeca Productions. You learn things here that can take you anywhere, and you meet people that will be a part of your life for years and years to come. It’s a very, very special place.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for our readers to know either about you or about the O’Neill as you start your journey?
What I would want them to know is that my goal was not to come in and take away anything that’s special. The idea is to build upon something that has an incredible foundation of its own. I am there to be a good steward and to help to move it forward. And I hope that I make them all proud.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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