Paper Mill Playhouse
Q&A with Mark S. Hoebee, Producing Artistic Director at Paper Mill Playhouse
Paper Mill Playhouse received the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2016. We caught up with Producing Artistic Director Mark Hoebee to chat about what they’ve been doing since and the inspiring ways in which they’ve put the $25,000 grant to good use. He also gives us a peek behind the curtain — into predicting success and what it takes to run a theater.
What did winning the Regional Theatre Tony Award mean to Paper Mill Playhouse?
It was, I think, the highest honor that a regional theater can receive. I say that because it’s not something that you campaign for or something that you work toward, but a recognition by your colleagues of the body of work that you’ve produced. The fact that these people who we admire would turn around and bestow this honor on us — I literally cannot think of a better gold mark to say, “We think what you’re doing is just great.”
"We have the award proudly displayed in our lobby because we share it with every actor, artist, crew person, designer, patron, donor — we want it where everyone can enjoy it."
In what ways did the grant money help advance the mission of Paper Mill Playhouse?
Since 2016, we have been able to exponentially grow our program Theater for Everyone, where we make theatrical events accessible to individuals of all abilities and challenges. Paper Mill was the first theater in the country to do a comprehensive autism-friendly performance. We also premiered open captioning in the ‘80s, and we’ve always had sensory seminars available for people who have trouble with hearing or sight.
"We’ve been a leader in accessibility for decades, and thanks to grants like this one, those programs are growing."
We started one program where we brought our theater artists into the Stepping Stone School, an elementary school for children who have Down syndrome. And just this last year we combined two of our programs: Lend Your Voice and Adopt-A-School. These are the programs that truly need the kind of funding that this grant provided. And this is really where we’re changing people’s lives — not only those of the kids but their families too. There are ripple effects we never would have expected, and that’s one of the reasons these programs are so incredible.
What's your vision for the future?
We’re currently working on a strategic plan for our education, outreach and access programs because they’re growing and there’s so much demand for them.
For the theater in general, we’re so pleased about our relationships with commercial producers, new artists, directors, and writers, and these new projects that we’ve given birth to. We really strive to become one of the premier facilities for hosting world premieres, where artists can come and see their work realized in a first class production, and where producers can bring in investors and hopefully the shows can find a life beyond us — whether that’s in New York, on tour, in regional theaters or in licensing.
And that’s starting already: Newsies, A Bronx Tale, Honeymoon in Vegas, Hunchback of Notre Dame — they all premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse. Those things will live on long after all of us running it now are gone.
How do you know if a production is going to be successful?
The truth is nobody knows. I pick the shows with my team where the themes speak to me personally and to our audience. Currently we have Benny and Joon playing. It’s about a brother and a sister who face the challenge of having mental illness in their family. I know that will resonate because that’s one of our missions at Paper Mill — to make sure that people understand or at least are open to being around people with mental challenges, enjoying theatrical events. Our patrons have been responding incredibly well to that show.
"It's not always about how much money it earns. It’s about the experience for our staff members and for our patrons who come to the theater."
When it’s a world premiere, and it’s never been done before, there’s a lot we don't know. We see a reading, we see a workshop, we read the script, we trust the artists, and we cross our fingers and hope that it will lead to success. We’ve been incredibly lucky that the shows we have picked have been fantastic.
And we’ll miss the mark sometimes — not every show will be successful. But if it’s a successful experience and leads us to other things, then that’s a success even if it doesn’t go to Broadway.
What's one unexpected thing you've learned from running a theater?
Preparation and clear communication in all aspects of theater are so important. Once you get a show into the theater, nothing ever goes completely right. There are always unforeseen events. It could be with the physical production, it could be an actor who gets injured or sick, it could be a million things. So you need to be as prepared as possible up-front so that when those things occur, you can weather those storms.
I’ve also learned that those storms are much more easily weathered if there’s a trust built between Paper Mill the entity and the artists. If we have a trusting, open relationship, any problem that comes up we can address together and find a solution. There’s always a solution. Together, you can pretty much weather whatever comes your way.
What would you say to other theaters hoping to receive the Regional Theatre Tony Award?
It’s about being true to your mission, what you believe in, how you’re affecting your community, and the work you are doing, and just putting your passion and energy and soul into that. And I think that’s what we did.
We didn’t do anything different to raise our hand and be recognized. We just followed the mission, which is to provide a springboard for new artists, to create the best productions we can within our means, and to educate and provide art-centric experiences for students and patrons of all abilities and challenges. We talk about all of those things all the time, and we just kept pushing the ball forward toward these goals. That’s why it’s so fulfilling. To know that we didn’t try to win it. We were just doing what we believe in and it was recognized.
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