Todd Haimes, who served as artistic director of New York City’s Roundabout Theatre for four decades, died on April 19. He was 66.
“Todd Haimes changed my life.”
That’s a refrain I’ve heard over and over again in the days since we lost a true giant of the theatre, often followed by:
“He gave me my first job.”
“He produced my first play.” “
“He gave me a chance to show what I could do.”
I can’t neatly sum up the nearly 40 years in which Todd ran Roundabout Theatre Company, a trajectory that has already begun to take on nearly mythical status—how he saved a bordering-on-bankrupt little theatre under a supermarket and turned it into the largest nonprofit theatre in the country, becoming a Broadway powerhouse and changing thousands of lives along the way. That story is completely true, yet it fails to capture the day-to-day reality of what made Todd so successful, so beloved, and so singular.
Todd never saw himself as an artist, and he wasn’t shy about saying so. His joy came from empowering artists to do great work, and his great skill was in knowing where to put his trust, both onstage and behind the scenes. So many of us were given that gift of trust over the years—to move up through the ranks of the institution, to go from an assistant to a leader, to take an artistic risk.
Todd demonstrated this extraordinary trust over and over again, yet I never stopped being surprised by the generosity of it. I’d prepare lengthy pitches for new programs, only to be stopped a paragraph in with, “You don’t have to convince me—go try it.” (You’d think I’d be used to it: After being Todd’s intern in 2004, I came back a year later to discuss being his assistant, and as I nervously enumerated my skills, even then he halted my argument: “You already have the job. Let’s just talk.”)
To be trusted by Todd was a privilege, and I think it’s what made so many of us stick by his side for so long. Staff and board alike at Roundabout were apt to have lengthy tenures, and artists would return over and over again, knowing how much Todd valued that they could see Roundabout as a home base to continually stretch themselves in new ways.
But following his gut and placing trust in others never made Todd some remote figure operating from on high. Far from it. Todd was wonderfully human, with foibles that only made him more likable. His innate klutziness kept us all on our toes: When a loud crash could be heard coming from the other side of his office wall, it was a safe bet that either a new coffee stain had been added to the carpet, or one of his towering stacks of papers and plays had finally given up the fight. More readings than I can count ended with a can of soda soaking the rehearsal room floor, launched when Todd rose too enthusiastically to congratulate the artists.
His excitement occasionally left little room for attention to detail. Any visitor to his office in recent years will have noticed the large framed photo of Todd celebrating a birthday with Danny DeVito and Mark Ruffalo during a production of Arthur Miller’s The Price. Todd had been so pleased with the photo that he had it blown up and framed it himself, neglecting to notice the tiny engraving of “Mr. & Mrs.” on his chosen frame. When this was pointed out, Todd laughed and embraced the imperfection.
To make theatre on the nonprofit model at the scale of Roundabout was always going to be an imperfect, challenging journey. But Todd believed deeply in that model, and the landscape of our culture looks different today because Todd valued doing serious theatre at the highest level, giving today’s greatest artists their chance to speak the words of Shaw and O’Neill, to breath new life into the songs of Kander & Ebb and Bock & Harnick.
And he evolved with the times, making space for voices that were under-appreciated in their own era, like Childress and Fuller, all while launching new voices who would re-energize the future canon. He loved Roundabout Underground, the theatre’s home for emerging writers, and he would often tell me that this scrappy program reminded him of why he got into theatre in the first place. No matter how much Roundabout grew, he would always love theatre in a basement.
If you wanted to see Todd bristle, you only had to mention a saying he loathed, “There’s no profit like nonprofit.” Todd knew that not everyone was happy to see Roundabout operate three Broadway theatres, but he also felt strongly that he would never have grown the theatre just for growth’s sake. He saw the promise of a self-sustaining ecosystem of good art and vibrant philanthropy. Yes, he put a lot of stars onstage. He also never made those choices in isolation. Anything that let a great play be heard anew for a wide audience, or any “hits” that meant bigger risks could be taken elsewhere, were all part of the careful balance.
There’s so much more to say about Todd Haimes: He kept furloughed staff on health insurance through the entire pandemic shutdown. He had the best, most genuine laugh on Broadway. He was terrible at taking time off work (I remember asking him to please stop replying to emails the morning of his wedding in 2022). He had a mischievous sense of humor, evidenced by a go-to email response to bad news at any level that simply said, “Poop.” He was generous to those he loved. He never got comfortable with being the center of attention—as the poor singing Elvis telegram one star sent him as a thank you learned all too quickly when Todd tried to hide from the King.
Todd put his faith in so many of us, and we will carry his legacy as best we can. I wish we’d had more time. After 17 years working at Todd’s side, I moved on to run a theatre of my own this season. And true to form, when I told Todd I’d been offered the chance to lead Classic Stage Company, his response was immediate and just right: “Well, we both knew this day would come.” Todd wanted to see his people thrive, always, even if it meant letting them go.
All of us who were lucky enough to be in Todd’s orbit are bereft of an exceptional leader, a deeply good man, and a treasured friend. It’s impossible to fully take in his impact on the American theatre, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Todd raised the bar on what a nonprofit can do.
It’s hard to imagine a Roundabout without Todd at the helm. But I know how important it was to him that this theatre was built to survive him. He cared deeply about the people who make Roundabout so special and who made their lives with this institution, and most of all about the artists whose work we were all there to facilitate. I don’t know what Roundabout’s next phase will be, but if it moves forward with even half of the heart, humor, humility, and ingenuity of Todd Haimes, it will live up to the brilliance of the man who defined this institution for a lifetime.
You changed my life, Todd. Thank you.
Jill Rafson worked at Roundabout from 2005 to 2022, where he roles included associate artistic director and artistic producer for emerging playwrights. She is currently the artistic director of Classic Stage Company.
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