NEW YORK CITY: Classic Stage Company (CSC) will welcome Jill Rafson as producing artistic director beginning June 21. A new-play development leader at Roundabout Theatre Company, she will succeed current artistic director John Doyle, a British director with a specialty in Sondheim and musical theatre, who announced his departure last summer.
“The CSC board of directors is thrilled to announce Jill Rafson as our new producing artistic director,” said board co-chair Emma Taylor in a statement. “Jill has been a trailblazer in her support of the next generation of playwrights whose work can be considered modern classics. It’s only fitting that the next leader of Classic Stage Company so wholly understands why committing to the writers of today leads to the classics of tomorrow. We look forward to seeing her perspective on what defines classic theater and how this new vision will bolster CSC into 2023 and beyond.”
Rafson has been with Roundabout Theatre Company since 2005, where she most recently served as associate artistic director and artistic producer for emerging playwrights in the Roundabout Underground program. She has developed many Roundabout works, including Stephen Karam’s The Humans, Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, and Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls. She also served as a dramaturg for the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference, CollaborationTown, The Playwrights’ Center, Fault Line Theatre, and the Flea Theater’s The Mysteries. She has also served as dramaturg for artists including Candace Bushnell, Zoe Sarnak, and Iris Rainer Dart. Rafson has worked with the Broadway League, New York City Center, and ART/NY. She was a member of NYFA’s Emerging Arts Leaders program and has taught/lectured for the Commercial Theatre Institute, ESPA, Kenyon College, Columbia University, Hunter College, and others. Rafson currently serves on the board of the Alliance for Jewish Theater.
Rafson will be seventh artistic director in CSC’s 55-year history, and the second woman in the job (after Carey Perloff). I spoke to Rafson today about the new job and what’s in store for this influential Off-Broadway company, whose budget as of FY 2020 was around $2.8 million (down from $4.5 in 2018).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations on being part of another great wave of theatre leadership turnovers.
JILL RAFSON: Thank you. It’s true, there are way more to keep track of now than I can ever remember in my professional career.
So you’re a new-play person. What will you do at a company whose mission is about reimagining and reviving classic works?
Throughout this entire process with the board, the thing we have talked about the most has been, how do you define a classic? They, as a company, had been wanting to redefine the term, and to ask, what does it mean to be a theatre focused on doing the classics in this particular moment in the American theatre? What ended up making us such a good fit for one another is that I’m definitely coming in with new-play energy into the classical space. I want to infuse today’s artists into classical works, and yes, of course, that’s going to be from a writing perspective. I’m so excited to do adaptations of the classics, or plays inspired by the classics, from our best voices writing right now.
But I’ve also been working really hard at Roundabout on some director-driven programs, and trying to support new voices in all aspects of the theatre. Who’s going to have an exciting take on the plays that we already think of as classics? And can we produce the plays that should be classics but weren’t considered as such in their own time, that were overlooked for the many, many reasons I think we all know—because of who the audience was, who the critics were, what the establishment was at the time. Let’s give those plays a platform. The core belief I’ve come to is that by having a platform like an Off-Broadway theatre, you get to help decide which plays are classics, because just by producing them you are telling your audience and the industry that they are worth seeing again. I take that privilege really seriously. I think we have to operate with a great sense of responsibility, that by just giving a play maybe its first revival, you’re putting it in the canon—you’re making an argument for it to be canon. And that’s what was really exciting to me about this.
This question of what constitutes a classic has been at the core of CSC’s mission from the start. But even when folks like Carey Perloff or David Esbjornson were making the case for more recent works as classics, they were still mostly white men like Pinter or Orton, though they also employed more diverse contemporary writers to interpret the Greeks or Shakespeare. Are you hoping to expand the canon beyond white men?
Definitely. I’m guessing you’re familiar with Roundabout’s Refocus Project, which is something that I’ve been spearheading for the last year or so, and that’s its exact mission. That has been one of my passion projects for the last several years, to really dig into history and say, who got lost along the way and wrote incredible plays that just need somebody to put them back on the radar of New York, but also across the country? Alice Childress is the absolute perfect example of that, with what happened with Trouble in Mind and now The Wedding Band. I think the rest of her work is going to get done soon, and that’s exactly what needs to be happening.
For me, it’s not just going to be authors of color like Alice. I also have a particular passion for elevating women who are neglected. There are all of these women who won Pulitzers back in the day, contemporaries of O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and their work just doesn’t get done. So how do we elevate Zona Gale, Susan Glaspell? How do we make sure they’re not just on college syllabi, but that they’re actually getting produced? Maybe some of these players need a fresh coat of paint from a modern writer, and that’s an exciting thing to think about—what modern sensibilities a writer can bring. But I’m not trying to throw these babies out with the bathwater. I just want to make them producible again. Some of them will require a rethink, and maybe there will be things like what Branden Jacobs-Jenkins did with An Octoroon, where something just needed that kind of meta-theatrical take to bring that piece back to us. It’s not going to be one size fits all.
I’m also very interested in bodies of work in general. A passion of mine is how to make it clear that a lot of these writers, particularly women and people of color, were not one-hit wonders. I think it’s a real shame that people don’t know Lorraine Hansberry’s other works, that it’s always A Raisin in the Sun, and she has these other incredible plays that need to get done, but if we don’t do the other ones, she’ll always just be this one play.
John Doyle staged a lot of musicals. Will there be fewer under your leadership?
They’re not going away entirely. I can’t tell you yet how many there will be, but it’s definitely an interest of mine. I really do have a passion for saving musicals from the ash heap, ones that have great scores and problematic books. It’s been really interesting to dive into this conversation in the CSC context, given the conversations happening around the direction that Encores has been going recently. But I think that we need to do both things: I really want to see which things you can just do as they are, and which things need another look. Because it’s not enough to just present as a museum piece. I think that as a producing organization, if you’re going to do a full run of a show, part of your job is to make an argument that we are doing this show because it deserves to be done here and everywhere. I really want CSC to be influencing the field, and to be making some musicals doable that maybe otherwise someone wouldn’t. If that means messing around with the cast size or how the story is told, the way John did with his incredible takes on things like Pacific Overtures—that’s really interesting to me.
I also noticed that your title is producing artistic director—“producing” is a new addition. You’re the first CSC leader to not also be a director, though this is certainly a trend among artistic directors, especially in New York. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, one of the reasons I was excited to talk to the board of CSC was that they said they were interested in, for the first time, having somebody lead the ship who wasn’t going to be directing any productions. I think part of that is just having someone who has a little more bandwidth to stick with the admin work from a truly practical perspective. For me, the opportunity is to put the focus on the institution as opposed to the work of an individual artist. John’s work has been incredible, and has really elevated CSC’s profile in a lot of ways, and I want to continue and build on that, but from a different point of view. I want to bring in people who have their passion projects. That’s an example I’ve learned from in my entire time at Roundabout, which is run by someone who doesn’t consider himself an artist, that the job of an artistic director is to facilitate the passion and the greatest work from the artists that you bring into your institution. It’s our job to hear what they want to be doing, to see which projects we align on, and then to support them through that process to get their best work done. I want to bring in exciting directors and writers. I’ve got lots of ideas, but I can’t wait to hear all of their ideas.
You alluded to Todd Haimes, Roundabout’s longtime artistic director. Can you tell me what you learned from him?
I have definitely learned to treat people well. Our industry is all about relationships. Speaking as someone who has gone from being an intern at Roundabout, and then having spent 17 years growing up there, and now getting to do this new job—yu never know what people are going to become who you meet really early on in your career. So committing to artists in the long term is essential. It’s so much about saying to people, we’re not just going to do this one show together; let’s build something. At roundabout that has meant producing someone in the Underground and then commissioning their next play, and hopefully producing that next play, and then maybe commissioning them again, and helping these artists build a career. I want to give people that same feeling of a home base at CSC. Because I think when artists are supported, they get to do their best work.
Given its mission, would CSC ever produce an entirely new play, not based on any previous material?
If I’m being honest, I don’t know. Initially I’m going to be most interested in plays that do have some tie to the canon, even if they are just gently inspired by something that is canonical. But there’s a part of me that’s really passionate about this: You’re never going to have more classics if you don’t support writers past the beginning of their career. We as an industry are very focused on the new. And then when writers reach mid-career, they get abandoned, and we go back to look for the next shiny object. We don’t help people grow a career. How are you going to allow people to develop a body of work, and create what could be the classics of the future, when you’re not supporting these writers at the peak of their powers? That’s on my mind. I haven’t figured out exactly what it will look like for CSC. But I’d like to have the ability to support writers when they’re doing their best work.
You start in June. When do you get to announce your first season?
Well, we have a bunch of COVID postponements still to go, so John’s production of A Man of No Importance will open the season—that was supposed to be done ages ago. We have a backlog, so we’re waiting to see what the rest of the season is going to look like. So it feels like the 2023-24 season will be the first one that is fully mine to really show my taste. I think we’ll do a lot of smaller things over the course of my first season, just so I can sort of introduce myself to the community and start developing projects for future production.
I don’t want to put you on the spot here, but since we’ve talked a lot about the canon, tell me: Who’s in your personal Jill Rafson Canon?
Gosh, that’s so hard, naming my favorites—there’s probably one for every era and every genre. Lorraine Hansberry is certainly one, because I have a huge soft spot for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. And Alice Childress has become a real obsession of mine over the last several years; her work is incredible, and she was so ahead of her time. I fully admit that Tom Stoppard was a gateway for me when I first started thinking about doing theatre, just that level of intellect. I liked being challenged by those works; stage managing a Stoppard play in college was part of what made me want to go down this path. On the musical front, I am a full Sondheim person. Assassins is truly my favorite musical, so the timing this has been excellent. I also love the warmth of a Wendy Wasserstein, that is hugely compelling to me; I want to make sure that comedies don’t get neglected, because I think we often don’t put them on the same pedestal as their more dramatic counterparts. And I think that the audience is desperate for that. I’m excited about mystery plays and thrillers, because for whatever reason, they get done regionally but nobody seems to do them in New York. And people love them. They they do something for us as an audience. And, you know, David Henry Hwang is one of our great writers, and I want to make sure there’s a spotlight on his work and see how he’s grown over the course of his career. Among the naturalists—like, I could do Chekhov for ages and be happy, and Ibsen; I love that era of writing. You know, Roundabout used to do some more of the Greeks and Shakespeare, but not for a very long time, so it’s something I’ve never gotten to work on in this capacity. I’m excited to dive into those; I’m excited to see what today’s writers have to say about those plays.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org
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