No Guts No Glory: My Conversation with Lisa Cleff Kurtz

The following interview is by Timothy Huang, author of Costs of Living, Lines and The View from Here. He’s also a writer on ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com.

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It’s five o’clock on a Saturday and the regular crowd rushes in.  That’s not a lyric quote, I’m actually telling you something.  5pm.  Bar Six.  Regular crowd.  I know it’s the regular crowd because this is where Lisa Cleff Kurtz and I meet. Which lately, is often. Here’s how it goes: I offer to treat, usually to say thank you for something she’s done for me.  We meet.  She orders a soft drink, I order calamari. Then, I try to pay and find out the check has been taken care of. I accuse her of being a ninja, she says “get me next time.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

timothyhuangheadshot
Timothy Huang

We’re actually in a really great place though when you consider twelve months ago I didn’t know who she was. And ten months ago I knew everything about her, but she still didn’t know I existed.  I should explain. Last winter I was tapped by A.R.T. / New York to write a musical tribute (in total secrecy) to the honoree of their Spring Gala, their star Board Member, Lisa Cleff Kurtz.  And unbeknownst to her, I did just that.  (With a great deal of help from director Frank Ventura, Music Director Debra Barsha and of course, all of Lisa’s friends and family…) And the rest, as they say, is sophistry.

I took the job because any time someone is being celebrated in the arts, I like to know why.  Also, I love A.R.T. / New York. And if you’re a musical theater writer in the city you probably do too, though you may not know it. Prospect Theater Company, the New York Theater Barn and CAP21?  All members. All of the work you do with those companies, you also do with the Alliance of Resident Theaters / New York. But that’s not why you’re here.  You’re here because I want to introduce you to my friend, the former actress cum personal trainer cum recruiter who became a casting director cum director’s rep cum SVP executive producer of multi million dollar commercials while being a single mom who became a Broadway investor cum Bulldog Board Member cum taste maker. Because who doesn’t have a thing or two to learn from her?

TH: So how did you get involved with A.R.T. / New York to begin with?

LCK: When I was a young actor I had many jobs. One of them was as a legal recruiter. I used to call lawyers and offer them jobs different from the jobs they were already in. So one day I called this guy [Andrew Lance] and he’s like “F*ck off lady, I’m not interested in leaving my fabulous job for your sh!tty job. I’m so fabulous.”

TH: Ha!  And this is your now-best-friend?

LCK: Yeah it’s true, he became my best friend. So he’s about to hang up on me and I and I saw on his info card that he went to Princeton University. And I grew up in Princeton. So I said, “Oh I see you went to Princeton? I grew up there.” And he goes, “Oh where’d you grow up?” And ten minutes later he asks me out on a date.

TH: That’s sweet

LisaCleffKurtz
Lisa Cleff Kurtz

LCK: So long story short, we became best friends. And that was thirty five years ago. So Andy loved theater.  He used to take me to see everything when I was a broke-ass actor, because he loved it, and many years later he was on the board of A.R.T. / New York and they were actually honoring him at the gala because as a real estate lawyer, he did the deal that enabled them to buy that new space. So he invited me to the gala, where I met Ginny [Louloudes, Executive Director], and she said, “Would you like to be on the board?” and I said, “I have no idea what that means, but sure.”  And that’s how that happened.

TH: The story I heard started with you volunteering for them over concentrated periods of time.

LCK: I definitely volunteered. On the marketing committee and the gala committee…

TH: Do you remember how long it took for you to go from being a volunteer to a member of the board?

LCK: Very quickly. It was few months. But I think it was a special circumstance. I mean I was looking. I wanted to do something. I wanted to get involved, in New York Theater… by not licking envelopes. I had this whole advertising thing.

TH: By using your skillset.

LCK: Exactly. And I wanted to give that to someone. And it was perfect timing. And it’s the perfect place for me because you know, I’m super ADD. And it allows me…

TH: To go after all of the things, all of the time.

LCK: Yeah. I mean I’ve gotten to know people like you, New York Theater Workshop, Second Stage and The Public and it’s been amazing. Really fantastic.

TH: I’ve noticed sometimes in my community of writers, this includes me, we fall prey to this very old-school mentality of “I wrote the damn thing. It’s someone else’s job to produce it.” And we’ll go on social media and kvetch about how few opportunities are afforded to us…

LCK: That world went out with the baby boomers. That was my father’s world but that is not our world. That doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think it’s unique to entertainment, or theater. It’s the whole economy. Every ten years there’s a crash. Some bigger than others but… when I was in advertising, every time there was a crash half my clients would go away. And then half my staff would go away. It’s economics. We all have to be entrepreneurs. Everybody has to be entrepreneurs. As a former actor, I spent many years finding jobs every day of my life. And you have to be creative about it. Unless you’re Meryl Streep nobody’s out there doing it for you.

TH: And I feel like to a degree even Meryl Streep is doing it for herself.

LCK: Once she passed forty, yes.

TH: Right?

LCK: You have to be your own advocate! Nobody’s going to take care of you like you. That is my answer to the kvetcher who says they can’t sell themselves.  You have to.

TH: You were in advertising, and you’ve also mentioned recruiting.

LCK: I had a kid too.

TH: You also had a kid. Tell me about that life.

LCK: Not only did I have a kid but I was a single mom. And I was not about to feed my kid ramen. I had many jobs. I sold cookies on the street. I did recruiting. I was a personal trainer. The personal training thing actually was one of the best things I did because as an actor you had to answer the phone. If you didn’t answer the phone you missed the job. If you missed the job you were done. So I applied that theory to my personal training business.  I never let a phone call not turn into a client.

TH: And that’s where you learned your business acumen?

LCK: I moved to California and they weren’t into the personal training thing. But if you show up in San Francisco with a New York attitude, you go very far. I hung up a shingle as a casting director and I cast films, and commercials. San Francisco has is a very vibrant advertising community. And when you have that you also have film production. So I’m now a casting director hired for a week in a production company and, you know me: the guy who ran the production company thought I’d make a great Director’s rep. And I said,  “what’s that?” And he said “it’s kind of like being an agent for commercial directors.”  And I was used to doing that because I was already working with the client and the talent.  I was always very nurturing towards the talent.

TH: Because you’d been on the other side of the table.

LCK: Because of that and I was a new mother. And in the early to mid-90s when motion graphics became digital, and film became digital and the web was born, the clients’ ad agencies needed talent who could do all three. So suddenly I went from repping directors to director-designers, techies. I repped a stable of very progressive, state of the art directors who could do all these things. And they were five. They were five years old.  Right out of film school.

TH: So the field you were in changed, so you had to adapt.

LCK: Exactly. You always have to be entrepreneurial. Even if you are working for someone who gives you a check every week, which is becoming less and less common. You have to treat every situation as if you’re an entrepreneur.

TH: So tell me a little bit about what you do for A.R.T. / New York.

LCK: I’m a board member. I’m an unusually active board member. I consider it my job, like I am a consultant with a responsibility that I need to deliver as much as if I were being payed. I’m on the Gala Committee, I’m on the Development Committee, I volunteer with marketing, I’m on the New Member Committee… I pick new board members from the theater.

TH: So you’re out scouting and meeting people. What do you look for in a Board member?

LCK: There’s the “Public” side, which is me, and then there’s the “Theatre” side, which is you.  We look for different things.

TH: To get the business and the artistic perspective?

LCK: Yes. So, there’s a Loan Committee comprised of Public and Theatre Board members who vote on Cash Flow loan applications. That kind of thing. So when we come up with program ideas for the member companies, someone can say “Oh my god that’s fantastic” and someone else can say “that’s a stupid waste of time.”

TH: You’re from the Public side though?

LCK: I’m Public.

TH: But you also have a personal history as an artist. So that probably comes in really handy.

LCK: It was my life for a long time. I starved. I do this now because I love theater.

TH: What else do you do on the board?

LCK: Raise money. That’s our number one job. Because of my background in business development and advertising/marketing, I’ve been pretty good at raising money in the private sector. They’re familiar with raising money by individual donor and institutional giving.  I’m trying to teach them how to generate corporate. Money from corporations. So I’m coming up with a strategic targeted list.

TH: And who goes on that list?

LCK: In order for us to hit a home run we have to target them based on many different things.  1)  are they a viable corporation, 2) do they do philanthropy, 3) are they interested in the arts at all, 4) does what we do in supporting every Off Broadway company in nyc (all five boroughs) does what we do have any…

TH: Is there synergy there.

LCK: Thank you yes. A brand synergy. I was thinking about HBO the other day.  HBO is kind of a no brainer. It’s a very New York oriented company. They don’t have an LA office.  Everything is here.  The marketing is here.

TH: They shoot so much here too.

LCK: Yes they do.  And they use theater actors.  Look at all those shows – all theater actors, and directors and writers. Very high quality, innovative, interesting programming. Which is very much like Off Broadway Theater. So I wrote a letter and I explained to them the synergy I saw between A.R.T. / New York and HBO and, you know, what do I have to lose?  A.R.T. / New York has nothing to lose.

TH: So I was having a conversation with my friend Jen Tepper. One of the things we were talking about is the nature of finding a career in theater, and how so much of it depends on attrition. And how when you consider there are certain people who can’t afford to continue doing it, then you’re looking at an “institutionalized exclusivity.”

LCK: Yeah.

TH: I asked her if that was her experience, and she observed that the intern culture is really weird, because the only people who can afford to take an unpaid internship for three years at a time-

LCK: -are people with rich parents. Who else can afford it? No one can afford that!

TH: This is important to me because the next great artist is out there. They could come from a low income family.They might have amazing ideas, or be able to articulate something about their generation that nobody else can and what are we going to do as a community when they knock on our door?

LCK: I’ll tell you. One of the biggest goals of A.R.T. / New York is to find that kid. Our board is purposefully mixed. All different colors, all different backgrounds. We’re trying very hard to get younger and younger, but a lot of young people don’t really know what boards are or they don’t think they’re qualified.  So we’ve been actively looking.

TH: I have a friend Katelyn who is in college right now. She couldn’t get an internship because the hours meant quitting school. And that’s not going to change when she finishes either. So what do you tell her? How does she get to make her mark on our community?

LCK: I worked lobster shift. You know what that is? Midnight to 6. I worked that shift… I’m sure they still exist. I proofread at a law firm. Made very good money doing that. I sold- are you too young to remember TV Guide?

TH: I remember the TV Guide.

LCK: I sold TV guides over the phone from nine to three in the morning while I was auditioning. I did it so I could volunteer to work in a casting office during the day. You take the picture you sign them in, a monkey could do it. That’s not the benefit. The benefit was in getting to know the casting director. That’s what I’d tell her. Try to focus.  And kill.

TH: You’ve invested in Broadway musicals is that right?

LCK: An American in Paris and The Heidi Chronicles. That’s it.

TH: What drew you to American in Paris?

LCK: I was a dancer. I love Gershwin. It’s one of my all time favorite movies. And it was a hunch. And also my girlfriend, who is very prudent, is one of the lead producers.

TH: This is Gabrielle? [Palitz, producer of Fiddler on the Roof, The Visit]

LCK: Yeah Gabby. And she has an amazing track record. Mathilda, Starcatcher, the Lyndon Johnson play. And we got excited about it. And I could listen to that music till I’m dead.

TH: Now what about the Heidi Chronicles? What drew you to that?

LCK: It was also personal. Wendy Wasserstein spoke to me as an actor. New York Jewish girl. And I used to audition with her material, and I missed her. I miss her.

TH: So it’s not about numbers or return on investment. It’s just about connection?

LCK: I actually think that’s extremely relevant for everyone. It’s like buying a painting.  You don’t buy it thinking it’ll be good to flip. You buy it because you want to look at it for the next twenty years. It’s the same thing. I had a personal connection. We’ve been told American in Paris will recoup by March. And if it runs longer than that… we’ll make a little bit of dough.

TH: Heidi didn’t recoup. Any regrets?

LCK: I learned a lot from that experience. I’m not the kind of person who regrets.

I think about this last bit as I reach for my wallet; how having no regrets, and finding value in every experience is a recurring theme in our conversations. I’m about to make note of this to her when I notice the waitress come back with the check which, again, I was unable to pay. I swear she is a ninja.  “No worries,” she says, reading my mind.  “You can get me next time.”

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