Going purely by the numbers, most theatre actors work at nonprofits. It doesn't alter the process: The director still commands the ship; the actors still propel it. But, to extend the metaphor, there's frequently another figure aboard whom actors should note: the artistic director.
Kate Maguire, executive director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is unusual in that she comes to her job from the administrative end of nonprofit management (she was a noted actor before that). Equally unusual, BTF doesn't have a typical nonprofit hierarchy, with an artistic director overseeing casting, directors, and programming, and a managing director balancing the books. Maguire, simply, does all of the above.
Founded in 1928 and one of the nation's oldest professional theatres, BTF, with its $2.4 million budget, produces at a high level: eight shows this season on two stages, attracting actors such as Jayne Atkinson, Stephen DeRosa, Anita Gillette, David Green, Randy Harrison, Jonathan Hogan, Debra Jo Rupp, and Joyce Van Patten, plus Tony-winning directors like Vivian Matalon and an audience of more than 40,000.
Programming, says Maguire, is just one of the hard but rewarding parts of her job: "And there are different factors to my decisions. There's 'What's going on in the world? How do we want to speak to the world from a creative sense from our perch here in the Berkshires?' There's 'Who are our directors? What are they interested in working on? Who are our actors? What might some of them be interested in working on?' And then the third piece—'What do I think the company should be working on?'—which may be different. So I'm always thinking about how plays will resonate."
Complicating the task—yet making it exhilarating—is Maguire's commitment to revisiting old plays and nurturing new ones. This season includes revivals of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! and Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven (directed by Matalon, who won a Tony for the play's Broadway revival in 1980) and new plays like Julie Jensen's Two-Headed and a workshop of My Pal George by Rick Cleveland, who was an executive producer on Six Feet Under and earned an Emmy for his writing for The West Wing.
"With Two-Headed," Maguire explains, "I had the play in my thoughts because of the themes—about two Mormon women and what happens to them in a male-dominated society. It's something we're talking about right now because one of our presidential candidates is a Mormon, but there are also all kinds of discussions in our culture now about religious faith and how religion affects us."
After programming, naturally, comes finding directors. "Most of the directors we work with have worked here before. Rick Corley, who is directing Educating Rita and is the artistic director of Madison Rep, has been coming here for 14 years," she says. "But there's also a company of actors I look forward to. Last year, with Amadeus, we had Jonathan Epstein and Randy Harrison, who'd been here before; it just seemed perfect for those actors. And it'll often happen that way. I'll think, Wouldn't it be great to see these two in a particular show? On the other hand, actors come to us through our apprenticeship program—like Austin Durant, who came to us right from Temple University, who I thought was absolutely wonderful in The Illusion last year and who is playing the chief this year in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest before he goes off to Yale."
Is there something schizophrenic about a job that involves making artistic and financial decisions coequally and concurrently? Maguire laughs at the question but doesn't explicitly deny it. "If we look at my day right now," she says, "I'm in at 9 and I'll work until 3 or 4, and it's all finances and fundraising. Then I'll go home and take a couple of hours' break; then I'll come back and sign checks or assign contracts."
During BTF's season—roughly May through October and including BTF Plays!, the theatre's educational arm—the rigors of fundraising and running a theatre mean that Maguire has from the end of September until early the following year to consider how the next season's programming might come together thematically. "It's at the end of the season that I usually realize what was going on for me," she says. "I happen to be a 51-year-old woman with three children—twins that are 28…and I've got a 12-year-old on the verge of puberty. So I'm a mother, and, if I think about it, I've placed myself in The Glass Menagerie, which we're doing this year, as Amanda. Love! Valour! is really all about relationships. Certainly Mrs. Warren is all about family; so is Morning's at Seven. Hopefully, I'm in sync with the rest of the world somehow. Certainly I'm in sync with other 51-year-old women."
Then again, other 51-year-old women aren't typically programming major regional theatres and overseeing fundraising simultaneously—never mind that acting career. "I started off as an actress, taught, had twins, then went through a divorce and became a single mother. So I really had to ask, Am I really going to drag these kids all over the place and live in poverty, or am I going to remain in the theatre and figure out some way to balance things financially? So I got trained in marketing, development, and ultimately in finance.
"Before I realized it," Maguire adds, "I became managing director here [in 1995]. Now, because I'd worked here and because I'd worked at Shakespeare & Company [in Lenox, Mass.], our board already knew me as an actress, teacher, and administrator; they knew that I could straddle the fence. And it does help for artistic directors to understand finances." She became executive director in 1998.
It should be noted that Maguire is a little modest: Anyone who can annually charm several million dollars out of philanthropists while attracting top-tier practitioners to her theatre must have a keen mix of qualities. Another such quality is the way she advises directors on casting and actors on how to work at her venue. "When new actors come to our theatre, they have to remember this theatre was originally built as a casino, not a stage," she says of the 1888 Main Stage building. "I often find myself in the longest conversations about how best to work in the space. It's often better if you can rake the stage, and also there's no fly space or wing space…so I'm looking for directors with a real sense of practicality, people who do abstract things well."
Sometimes, too, her notes are very specific: "I think the blocking may be off in this scene" is a typical Maguire-like comment. "At other times," she says, "I'll tell the director I'm not sure about the shape of an actor's character, or, if the director is new and young, I'll advise them on how to get a play up in three weeks. Please understand, I'm not criticizing. It's all about how directors can best serve the actors."
Which includes keeping meticulous notes from each year's casting sessions as a resource. "It can be very handy," Maguire says. "You can have someone like Aya Cash, who is playing Laura in our Menagerie. We do auditions in New York City, where we work with Alan Filderman, and there may be 27 young actresses that come in, and some are absolutely wonderful. And then Aya, our Laura, walks in, and it's all there. But then there are actors that have come in a couple of times and perhaps they haven't gotten the role but I've always admired them. Maybe it's the third time they're being seen, and I might say to a director, 'Would you work with this actor, because I think this actor might be the right one?' And often for that actor, it can help them turn the corner." For performers, that may well be Maguire's most respected quality of all.