CINCINNATI: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park announced today the appointment of Abby Marcus as the theatre’s new managing director, starting in July. She will replace Buzz Ward, who will retire after serving 29 years in leadership at the Playhouse.
“Abby is the next generation of arts leadership: creative, innovative and inclusive,” said Blake Robison, the Playhouse’s artistic director, in a statement. “Her financial acumen and strategic thinking will help lead us into a new era as we emerge from the pandemic and expand our work with all parts of the greater Cincinnati community. I am excited to welcome Abby and look forward to partnering with her.”
Currently, Marcus is managing director of the Orchard Project, a multidisciplinary artist residency program in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She has also served as managing director of CalArts Center for New Performance in Los Angeles and as finance director at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where she helped oversee their $32 million capital expansion project. In addition to her finance and management background, Marcus serves as a creative producer of Vampire Cowboys, an Obie-winning theatre company in New York City. She has held previous leadership positions at NYC’s Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Dramatists Guild of America and the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.
Marcus arrives at a transformational moment in the Playhouse’s history, as the company begins construction on its $49.5 million theatre complex. The new 539-seat mainstage, Moe and Jack’s Place–The Rouse Theatre, includes new rehearsal rooms, costume shop and backstage areas. It will expand what can be done onstage with state-of-the art theatre technology and joins the previously renovated Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre to create a fully modernized Playhouse for generations to come.
“Abby’s proven experience in financial and theatre management, combined with past success in building and operating a new theatrical facility, make her the ideal fit for the Playhouse at this pivotal time,” said Playhouse board president Ellen van der Horst in a statement. “We are delighted to welcome Abby to the Playhouse family.”
I spoke to Marcus via Zoom from her home in Sherman Oak, Calif., earlier this week. It was more than simply a professional catch-up: She and her husband, playwright and screenwriter Qui Nguyen, are friends of my family, not least because our kids are around the same age and they all used to play together when the Marcus-Nguyen clan lived in Brooklyn.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations, Abby. It’s good to see you again, even virtually, and for such a happy occasion.
ABBY MARCUS: Thank you. I’m excited. It’s very good news!
You’ve worked in administration or production in almost every kind of live performance, but this is your first job at regional or resident theatre, is that right?
Yes, this is my first opportunity to work at a major LORT regional theatre, which I’m deeply excited about. My background—from working Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway in New York, working with a ton of new-play development companies, with presenting organizations such as St. Ann’s, and even my work most recently with Cal Arts Center for New Performance, which did a lot of national and international touring productions—is a varied background, and I look forward to bringing all of that experience to Cincinnati Playhouse.
Was the title of managing director at a regional theatre always the aspiration you were working toward?
Yes, managing director was always part of my path. It’s kind of why I gave myself that title, managing director/producer, with Vampire Cowboys really early on. It was self-fulfilling prophecy, like, “I’m gonna give myself the title and do that job and a small scale in a laboratory setting in with a small indie theatre company, and then take that learning as I build towards bigger opportunities with bigger organizations.”
How did you catch the theatre bug, and how did you know that behind-the-scenes was where you belonged?
Going way, way back, my early impulses were performative. I definitely was the kid who was always dancing, singing, center of attention, wanting that. And then I went to a public high school with a very competitive theatre program, and I remember being told freshman year by my high school theatre teacher that the stage was not the place for me. I was 14 and heartbroken, but I don’t think he was wrong. So I transitioned into technical theatre and stage management, and I thought that was what I wanted to do in regional theater. That’s what I did up through college. And then I had an opportunity at the Westport Country Playhouse, in their year with year-round operations, they invited me onto their year-round staff; it was my first taste of administrative work, and I loved it. That led back to grad school, then to all these amazing opportunities with Labyrinth and ART/New York and Vampire Cowboys and St. Ann’s.
What I loved about stage management is the same thing I love about producing: that I get to be a part of the process. What I quickly learned about professional stage management is that that process is much longer than what I had learned in the school or summer stock setting where you’re like, project, project, project, project. That was a big part of my move into administration, because I can touch many more projects as a producer, and as a managing director, as a theatre arts administrator, than I can as the working stage manager. It’s still about being a part of the process. I love nothing more than like dipping into the rehearsal room, or watching a tech or seeing a show for the first time with the audience. Those things still make my blood race.
Can you tell me your impressions of Cincinnati and of the Playhouse?
Prior to this job, I was deeply aware of Cincinnati Playhouse as a major regional theatre. I knew they had work that had made its way to New York. I’m deeply excited that they mix the kinds of shows that have had a life in New York and other places and bringing them to Cincinnati, but also are putting new work out into the landscape through commissioning and a new-works program. It’s a really exciting time to be joining the Playhouse. I’m succeeding the amazing buzz Ward, who’s been there for 29 years—it’s big shoes to fill. But they’re at the precipice of breaking ground on a major capital project; they really revitalized one of their smaller space, their Shelterhouse Theatre, and now they are revitalizing kind of their larger theatre space, and most of the lobby administrative building, as well. And I think that’s really gonna be like a big step forward for the organization in terms of how it serves its community. It’s a really cool time to join that process.
It’s an exciting time also due to the prospect of returning to live, in-person theatre.
Oh my God, and I get to be part of that—that was the best part. I was so lucky that I was able, due to the vaccines and other circumstances, to make a trip out to Cincinnati and their staff was able to show me the facility. I hadn’t actually been there in person before, and just being able to walk into those theatre spaces and stand on the stage—I got a little emotional. It’s like theatre has been this theoretical construct for the past 12 months. And here is an actual tangible theatre!
Can you tell me about your sense of the Playhouse’s relationship to the community? Is it seen as serving the community, or does it have a bit of the elitist “house on the hill” association that many large regionals do, and which are some are trying to shake?
Funny you mention that—it is literally on a hill overlooking a good chunk of the city. I mean, Cincinnati is a city made up of seven hills, and each has its own neighborhood. But I don’t think it’s the “institution on the hill,” as one would think of it. I feel that they are deeply ingrained in and beloved by the community. They have a very strong and supportive board, which I’m very excited to work with, and their board members have been a very welcoming part of the process. They also have a really strong subscription base, which is something that feels unheard of in theatre. People always talk about subscriptions being this dying model, and here’s a theatre that’s actually still successfully running a subscription program. Which is really exciting, because I think it really means that there is an ingrained amount of support.
They also have a lot of new programs they’ve been running that had found traction previously and that have deepened during the pandemic—programs that are more interactive, outside of the walls of the Playhouse and more in the community. They have a robust education program that is in the public schools. So I think they really are both in conversation with the community and looked at as a resource for the community. And I think that’s a relationship that will only deepen over time.
The flip side of having loyal subscribers, of course, is the question of whether that ingrained audience is ready for change. It seems we’re in a moment where, thanks in part to movements like We See You White American Theater and others, change is necessary and overdue. Is the Playhouse positioned to become a more diverse and responsive theatre?
It is a larger institution, and change in larger institutions is not as fast or responsive as change in smaller, more nimble institutions. On the other hand, Cincinnati Playhouse has been putting in the work since before the murder and uprising last summer, before We See You. They have board-led diversity committee comprising board and staff, and that is staff at all levels, and I got a chance to meet with them as part of this process. They are very engaged in issues of diversity, both in relationship to the We See You demands, but also in thinking about local issues specific to Cincinnati and, for instance, their LGBTQIA community. Part of what Blake has really been terrific about, and what I’m really excited about, is the new work he’s bringing that is speaking directly to the community the Playhouse is serving; he’s commissioning artists who have roots in the Cincinnati area who are speaking to the experience of living in Cincinnati. I think of the KJ Sanchez piece that was commissioned by the Playhouse you know; they had Universes there last season with a brand new piece they created.
So the shift has already started before I’m coming in the door, and my excitement is to continue to figure out how to support that, how to deepen that, and how to continue to look at things like the We See You document and figure out how we bring that into the operational side of the theatre. So there’s the public-facing work, but then there’s the people who we employ, the teaching artists, the staff, the actors. My work is really did to upon what they’ve already done and continue to give them a solid foundation moving forward.
Are you and Qui and the kids ready for the move from Southern California to Ohio?
We spent a couple years in Minnesota when I was working at Playwrights Center, so we have a little experience with life in the Midwest. And Qui went to grad school in Ohio. One reason I’m excited about relocating to Cincinnati is that it isn’t just the Playhouse—there’s this larger arts community, and all these other theatres making work. So that makes for a more vibrant exchange.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!