All Roads Lead to the General Manager

To be a general manager, you need the skills of the detail-oriented coupled with the skills of the people-oriented. The general manager has the temperament -- not to mention the abilities -- of the accountant and the lawyer, as well as the larger vision of the theatre person.

"And the general manager has to be able to say no," asserts Sydney Beers, general manager of Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. "You have to be tough, but you also have to be nice. At the Roundabout, we work with the same people over and over again, so we have the chance to build relationships."

Charlotte Wilcox, who has been in the business for decades and has worked as general manager for a host of Broadway shows, including "Bombay Dreams," "Taboo," and the current "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," agrees, adding, "You have to like controlling things and be happy in the background, bearing witness to the talents around you. You have to be a hard worker and be willing to ask yourself, 'Is what I'm being asked unrealistic, or is it just more work than I want to do?' "

So who are general managers? What are their backgrounds? And what exactly do they do? To obtain the answers to these and other questions, Back Stage talked with a handful of general managers.

Let's start at the beginning. Although the job description may vary with the producer and the particular demands of the production and venue -- whether a large or small commercial show or a nonprofit institution such as Roundabout -- in all cases the general manager deals with money matters. He or she allocates funds (for costumes and scenery, for example) and negotiates everyone's contracts, with the exception of the writer(s). (The production attorney handles authors' agreements, with input from the general manager.) The general manager works with the technical supervisor, handling bids made by costume, light, and scene shops. And the general manager is also the producer's liaison with the director during the tech period.

General managers may also function as troubleshooters and be called upon to decide, for example, whether there is enough money on hand to redesign a set when a director abruptly wants a new look on stage. The general manager oversees the company manager, who deals with visas and housing issues for actors from other countries, and also keeps tabs on what's happening in the box office, making daily reports on which seats are selling or failing to sell.

There are occasions when the general manager's role is not all that different from that of the stage manager: Often they work in tandem -- for example, by contacting a producer if an actor is disruptive or unhappy with his costume. The general manager may also be involved in replacing an ailing actor with an understudy.

Admittedly, there isn't much mythology surrounding general managers; many outside the theatre world probably don't even know they exist. And when civilians learn about general managers, notes Beers, they are usually surprised at how much work mounting a show entails. Among insiders -- those theatre folk whom general managers deal with on a regular basis -- "they continue to think we have access to far more money than in fact we do," she says.

The Broadway World

Nonetheless, as an in-house staffer at a nonprofit theatre, Beers is in a relatively sheltered position compared to the independent general managers who work the Broadway scene -- moving from production to production on a freelance basis -- where everything is on a larger scale, often more complicated, and the stakes are so much higher. But not unexpectedly, so are the wages.

"General managers, who are hired by producers, get flat fees," says Wilcox. "Obviously, the precise amount you'll get depends on the project. For a Broadway musical, a general manager may earn a flat fee between $35,000 to $45,000. Thereafter, he'll get a weekly salary of approximately $4,500 that usually begins two weeks prior to the first rehearsal, says Wilcox. Some general managers also get a percentage of the net profits."

For a Broadway play, general managers earn a flat fee of approximately $30,000, Wilcox says, and an estimated $3,500 weekly salary.

And while the money is undoubtedly impressive, especially for general managers who may be juggling several shows simultaneously -- Wilcox has worked up to six shows at the same time -- there are lots of built-in expenses, including an office staff. "I have four full-time employees and three part-time employees," she reports.

There is also the nonstop work, including budgeting (which may take two weeks) and being on hand 12 hours a day -- especially before opening.

"And even after a show has closed on Broadway, general managers are still being contacted years down the road with one problem or another -- from government forms that have to be filled out to requests from a producer who wants you to track down information about some aspect of an agreement signed years earlier," Wilcox says.

There are about 15 general management firms working on Broadway, according to Wilcox; some may work Off-Broadway as well. Among the major players are Alan Wasser Associates, Nina Lannan & Associates, 101 Productions, Ken Denison WWE, Roy Gabay Theatrical Management, Niko Associates, Stuart Thompson Productions, and, of course, the Charlotte Wilcox Company. A few general managers, like Gabay and Manny Kladitis (founder and president of Niko Associates), also produce.

As noted, the major nonprofits usually have an in-house general manager who has been hired by the institution. The general manager's salary is much more modest than the Broadway general manager, although incomes clearly depend on the size and status of the institution. Similarly, a general manager who works for a very small Off-Broadway show earns a salary commensurate with the production and players involved. Indeed, many such shows don't have general managers at all. If there are limited funds, the producer functions as a general manager.

Blurring the Lines

Case in point: Off-Broadway producer Scott Morfee, who heads the Barrow Street Theater, is also one of its general managers. And Erin Craig who works as a general manager for the Producing Company, a co-producer of "Hurlyburly," also runs her own company, La Vie Productions, which produces new works and functions as a general management firm. Craig is an employee at the Producing Company and a boss -- a potential employer -- at La Vie Productions. A blurring of the line between producing and general managing is common today.

So is typecasting. Like actors, some general managers become identified with certain types of productions and are repeatedly hired for them. Stuart Thompson, for example, usually serves as a general manager on straight plays, while Wilcox is known for musicals, though she has several plays under her belt, as well as the Canton Acrobats and the Peking Opera.

With the Peking Opera, despite the largeness of the task, "there was less involved than creating a production from the beginning," she says. "It was already in existence, so my job was mostly about dealing with logistics and interpreters."

But working with performers from abroad brings with it a whole set of potential stumbling blocks: "They come with their expectations about how things work and are amazed, for example, by the rigor of our union rules -- from the work hours to the required breaks for stagehands."

Wilcox says the most challenging project she ever worked on, however, was "Bombay Dreams," whose script went through nine drafts. "Usually there are three or four drafts," she says. And then there was the production's ever-evolving itinerary, with every change requiring a budget update. "At one point, we thought we'd be opening in Canada and then moving to Broadway," she recalls. "Then the plan was to open in Seattle and go to Broadway. In the end, we opened cold on Broadway."

The "Bombay Dreams" experience is not typical. For the most part, producers have a pretty good idea early on how the production will evolve and how much money will be needed for the job, and seasoned general managers usually have a pretty good idea what they'll be dealing with up front. When the players are competent, communication flows and the exchange of opinion is open.

"The producer will tell you how much he wants to spend," says Wilcox. "On the basis of that you will then decide, among other things, the size of the cast and production, the number of weeks of rehearsal, and the caliber of the creative team. You have to know the script, know how many scenes there are, and how many pieces of scenery will be needed -- that's a best guess based on experience and knowledge of how the designer works. After I come up with the budget, I see how far off we are and start trimming. An experienced producer will understand. It's the inexperienced producer who wants to spend $5 million for a $12 million production."

Through the years, what has remained constant is the growing complexity of the field -- from the large amount of legalese in the contracts to the labor-intensive paperwork to the growing role that general managers play in marketing and merchandising.

A Changing Role

There is no organization or union overseeing general managers -- although many general managers started out as company managers and are therefore members of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. So it's virtually impossible to know precisely how many general managers there are nationwide. Wilcox speculates that Los Angeles and Las Vegas may have as few as one or two independent general managers. For the most part, however, "outside of New York, I suspect most general managers are part of theatre institutions."

Today, close to 50% of general managers are women; at one time, women were rare in the field. In fact, Wilcox recalls being told by a male producer that she should be "home having babies" when she pointed out that a less-qualified and less-experienced male colleague had been tapped for a job over her.

General managers are not new on the scene, although their role has evolved, says Peter Neufeld, who was a general manager for 24 years (1969-1993) until his business partner, R. Tyler Gatchell, Jr., died. "Years ago, during both the [Kermit] Bloomgarden and [David] Belasco eras, general managers came from accounting or they worked in the theatre's concession stands," he notes. "All they really needed to know were numbers. The producers were the theatre people who put on the shows and the managers managed them."

Producers who were in it for the long haul, producing show after show, were able to offer general managers long-term in-house employment, Neufeld continues. In the late '50s and early '60s, the old-style producer began to disappear, and those that remained were no longer in a position to guarantee work to general managers year in and year out.

As a result, some general managers began setting up their own businesses and were hired by producers on a freelance basis. They were also forced to become increasingly savvy about all aspects of the business as productions grew more expensive and many more producers got into the act, many of whom were not theatre professionals. In short, general managers needed a level of expertise that at one time was the producer's domain.

And there was another shift in the general manager's role and status: "Years ago, general managers were viewed as management and were discouraged from socializing with actors or crew," Neufeld recalls. "When I was once seen having dinner with a stage electrician, I was told not to do it again."

General managers were also less sensitive to the needs of the production and the feelings of the actor then than they are now, Neufeld continues, recalling a general manager telephoning an actor following a performance to fire him. Clearly, the producer had given him instructions to do so, suggesting insensitivity on both sides, but the general manager could have talked to the actor directly. "I believe that's what would happen today," he says. "I think general managers are kinder and more sensitive now."

Where Do They All Come From?

Neufeld launched his career as an assistant company manager at Lincoln Center. Other general managers had their sights set on an acting career, but through a combination of circumstances and choice found themselves in a behind-the-scenes job and liking it. Indeed, a fair number of these erstwhile actors discovered they prefer administrative gigs -- not to mention the steady income.

Erin Craig, 31; Sydney Beers, 35; and Charlotte Wilcox, 58, are perfect examples. Craig majored in musical theatre at Baldwin-Wallace College, outside of Cleveland, arrived in New York City to pound the pavement, and then decided that the actor's lifestyle was not for her. Nevertheless, she wanted to work in theatre and took a job as a producer's assistant.

Similarly, Beers studied acting at Catholic University and initially saw administrative work in a theatre as a steppingstone to an acting career. After serving as an intern at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., she went on to become an associate manager at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, working in the sales department, and then did the same at the Delaware Theatre Company before moving on to Roundabout, where she also worked in sales.

"It was at that point I decided that acting was not for me," she recalls. Three years down the road, she moved into general management shortly after Roundabout's artistic director, Todd Haimes, gave her a shot as a project manager on "Cabaret."

"It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life," Beers recalls. "I learned so much. It was July of 1998 and we were performing in the Kit Kat Club when, one morning at nine o'clock, a crane fell in on top of the theatre and we had to shut down for six to eight weeks. When the producers decided to move the show into Studio 54, the challenge was reconstituting the set and re-creating the whole environment.

"Studio 54 was in fact a nightclub with a nightclub mentality," she continues. "And so it was not uncommon to come in to find broken glass all over the floor or released Mylar balloons filled with helium at the top of the ceiling, which might drop down onto the stage in the middle of the show. Sometimes there was confetti all over the floor that we had to sweep up before performances. The club owner had a temper and at one point had me in a headlock. It was crazy -- certainly not what I thought I'd be doing when I signed up."

Nonetheless, Beers was hooked. Daunting tasks do not faze her; on the contrary, they turn her on. And she insists she'd love to general manage a production of "West Side Story," despite the large cast and other challenges, simply because "it's a production that should be done again."

In the future, Beers might like to produce. At the moment, however, that goal is on the back burner. She recently gave birth to a girl and is on maternity leave. No doubt that's one virtue of being on the staff of an institution as opposed to running a business: the opportunity to take paid leave, knowing that there will be work for you when you return.

Wilcox, who gives her own employees maternity leave, admits that when you run your own business, you are on call around the clock and don't have those kinds of guarantees. But in her case, it didn't matter: "By the time I started my own business in 1990, I was very much involved in my career and knew I didn't want to have children."

Wilcox has come a long way from her undergraduate years at Gettysburg College, where she majored in Latin, thinking she would teach at the college level. But when she took a summer job at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, her goals changed: "I realized I didn't want to teach and I might want to act."

Following graduation, she came to New York and took a job as a receptionist for producer Michael Ellis, hoping it might open doors to an acting career. It didn't, but more important, Wilcox concluded that acting was not for her: "I wanted to work steadily and I couldn't take the rejection."

From 1970 to 1971, Wilcox worked for Theatre Now, a general management firm, functioning as a liaison between companies on the road and the general managers in New York. "That's where I learned the ropes," she says.

Wilcox went on to become a general manager for the National Theatre Company, a traveling children's theatre run by the well-known Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler: "I did everything from the books to renting trucks to handling the budget to working with designers to cleaning the stage after each show."

Wilcox returned to Theatre Now in 1973 as an associate general manger, remaining with the company for 17 years. "That's where I began to negotiate Broadway contracts and found understanding the union rules and levels of pay challenging."

In 1991, Wilcox started her own general management firm after Theatre Now went out of business in 1990: "I flirted with the idea of working for another company or even being an in-house general manager at a nonprofit theatre, but it just didn't appeal to me. As hard as you work when you're running your own business, there is a certain freedom that I love."

Wilcox came up the ranks slowly as she moved from gig to gig. Today many general managers have studied theatre administration in college and climb the hierarchy at a rapid pace. But even if you don't have that expertise beforehand, there is nothing like on-the-job experience, she insists.

Wilcox and others contend that if you think you may be interested in working as a general manager, get into a producer's office, take a job as an assistant -- or take any job -- just to get a taste of what it's all about and meet the right players. There's nothing like a little networking.