Tony Award-Winning Producer Catherine Schreiber On Blazing Trails & Changing Culture Through Theater

If you are ever in doubt about the power of art and entertainment to change hearts and mind, and in turn the world, then you need to get familiar with award-winning Broadway producer Catherine Schreiber. Her resume is an absolute powerhouse list of what it looks like to be a trailblazer despite not following the conventional “rules” that the theater world demands.

She didn’t start her career in Broadway, but ended up changing direction at a stage in her life when the entertainment world seems to write off women (we refer to Amy Schumer’s ‘Last F***able Day’ sketch). Today, the Tony Award-winning producer who has over 25 major productions both in the US and abroad under her belt doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Through some of her most notable productions, including the award-winning ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ which tackles history, race, and the Civil Rights movement, Catherine spoke to us about how she is most passionate about working on plays and musicals that have the ability to move the cultural needle on topics such as race and sexuality.

Catherine also gives us insight into some of the groundbreaking work other women in the theater world are doing both in the US and London where she spends a fair amount of time. She is also the first woman to win the prestigious Broadway Global Producer of the Year award, showing that the world should never write off women and what we are capable of achieving if the right amount of passion and motivation exists. But above all the accolades and industry recognition is a woman who cares deeply about the work she is doing and how theater can play a major role in helping to change the world for the better.

Can you share with us about your foray into the world of producing, and how you got into the Broadway scene?

I grew up in Great Neck, New York, and lived in the city pursuing an acting career after majoring English and studying acting at Yale College. After that I went to Los Angeles to pursue work. I met my husband, started a family, while pursuing an acting (television and film) and writing career. I wrote solo and with a writing partner. Several films were optioned and developed.

We worked with Sony, Disney, Kate Hudson’s company, among others. Several features were also finalists in screenwriting contests. We had so much fun with one script, ‘Desperate Writers,’ (running lines together, etc.) that we decided to make it into a play. I produced the play at the ‘Edgemar Theatre’ in Santa Monica. I hadn’t been on stage in twenty years before ‘Desperate Writers.’ It was a joy connecting again with an important part of myself – my love for acting on stage.

When we moved to New York, my hope was to produce ‘Desperate Writers’ there. I was introduced to a wonderful general manager and producer, Tom Smedes, who said if I wanted to get involved in producing a show in New York, I should invest in a Broadway show for a learning experience. He was producing ‘Next Fall’ at the time. I read the reviews from the Off Broadway production, which were stellar.

I said, “I don’t want to invest, I want to produce.” Here was a show about an important subject: homosexuality and the resistance of institutions like hospitals to acknowledge a homosexual relationship when it came to visitation rights, etc. This ticked off a key box for me in terms of important issues. So I went for it. That was my first Broadway producing experience and it was a wonderful one. ‘Next Fall’ was nominated for 4 Tony Awards, including Best New Play. That was in 2010, and my Broadway producing career had begun.

I got involved in producing more shows as I continued my quest to produce my own. I gave ‘Desperate Writers’ to a producer and I was given a script to read, which I was told was an historical drama. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down. It was ‘The King’s Speech!’ I thought, “This is really good.” I decided to put “front money” into the show, the riskiest money before all the pieces of the show have come together, casting, getting a theatre etc. I felt validated when the film came out to massive acclaim, and of course, Oscar recognition.

We did the show in London to great reviews. The play is still yet to come to Broadway, but I believe it will. It is one of my favorite projects to date. And then I kept going. It’s been quite a wonderful ride.

Catherine with fellow producer Tim Levy, holding her Tony award.

Producing wasn’t your first career choice. What did you previously do, and what was the reason for a career shift after the age of 50?

As I mentioned, I started as an actress in NY, then moved to LA and began writing because I loved that, too. And I thought, I could write parts for myself. I started producing, first to do the play I wanted to act in, ‘Saturday Night’, by Jerome Kass and then later to produce ‘Desperate Writers’. ‘Desperate Writers’ was written first by Joshua Grenrock and myself as a film. We made it into a play because we thought that might be the way to start with this project. In 2007, I produced the play I had co-written that I would also act in. That was a true pivotal moment in my life. My new life as a producer had begun. When we moved to NY I started to look at how to produce ‘Desperate Writers’ there and I started to produce on Broadway.

Within 8 years you garnered 2 Tony wins, 6 Tony nominations, 4 Olivier Award nominations, and have to date produced over 25 plays and musicals in New York and abroad. What was that like, and which production did you get most excited about?

It’s always an honor when a show you’ve worked so hard on gets recognized. The show which I’m been most excited about is Kander & Ebb’s ‘The Scottsboro Boys’. This magnificent musical directed by Tony and Olivier Award-winner, Susan Stroman, is about the 9 teenage black youth, 13-18 who were wrongly accused of rape in 1931 racist Alabama. Their trials led to two seminal Supreme Court rulings that everyone deserves proper representation and that everyone is entitled to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. In that case, black people could not be prevented from serving on a jury. It actually helped spark the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Rosa Parks met her husband at a Scottsboro Boys rally.

When I was a co-producer on the Broadway show, I got involved with the ‘Scottsboro Boys Museum’ which was started by Shelia Washington, so that she could help keep the story of the Scottsboro Boys alive. I felt their history was so important that I became a Founder of the Museum and was so honored when I received the key to the city of Scottsboro, Alabama, for my work. In 2013, I was honored again when I delivered the keynote speech at the signing of ‘The Scottsboro Boys Act’ to exonerate the boys. [Former Alabama] Governor Bentley said I had helped change history.

Now that is what theatre is about. Theatre can indeed change history. It changes attitudes toward homosexuality and racism and leads to more understanding, empathy and compassion. Theatre provides an opportunity for everyone of all races, economic groups to see their lives, their struggles, depicted on stage.

Catherine shaking hands with Former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

After The ‘Scottsboro Boys’ closed on Broadway, I was heartbroken. I wanted the show to continue and be seen by more people. It needed a life beyond Broadway. Because of my passion for the show, I was thrilled to get the rights to take it to London. First I took it to the multi award-winning theatre, ‘The Young Vic,’ where we were nominated for 7 ‘Olivier Awards’ and won the ‘Critics’ Circle Award’ for Best New Musical. Then we moved the show to the West End (comparable to our Broadway) where the show won the ‘Evening Standard Award’ for Best New Musical.

I brought The Scottsboro Boys to London because I had to, because it moved me as no other show had ever done. The show changed my life. It changed lives in London. Wherever I go, people thank me for bringing the show and most tell me it was the best show they have ever seen in their lives. And I’m very flattered that because of the show, I’ve gotten the reputation as someone who makes things happen. I’m very proud of that.

Probably the most badass thing we learned about you was that you were the first woman to win Broadway Global Producer of the Year. What did this accolade mean to you personally and professionally?

Broadway Global “honors producers of live stage works who inspire and teach respect for cultures, embrace diversity, and educate on issues in our global society. All winners must be accessible on social media; leave a legacy of live stage works that inspires respect, embraces diversity, and brings nations together; and give back to not-for-profits that make our society a better world for all, sharing their time and efforts in charity work.”

To have received this award is truly humbling. I attribute it to my role in producing ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ and other shows such as ‘Next Fall’ and ‘Clybourne Park’ and I see it as an inspiration to continue to produce important, life-changing works in the future. I was so honored to have received this and I feel like it’s a sign that I’m headed in the right direction.

Catherine with JJ Abrams, who is another lead producer of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’. | Photo: Darren Bell

There is a lot of press right now about the lack of female directors, producers and writers in Hollywood. Should the media be paying attention to what is happening over on the East Coast in the Broadway world also?

Absolutely. We need more women writers and directors because women bring a different energy and experience to Broadway. Women have stories they need to write and there are many women out there who want to see those stories because they can identify with them. We need writers and directors from all backgrounds who bring divergent experiences and points of view with them. Unfortunately, when I did some research about why there was inequality in various fields, it was often the women, themselves, who did not reach out their hands to other women. But some women are changing this.

I love that it is the philosophy of Elliott & Harper, Marianne Elliott’s new company that she began with Chris Harper, that only female directors be hired. I am thrilled to be working with them on their productions. I did a co-production with them of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. It was brilliantly directed by another great female director, Sally Cookson. And Marianne is directing a re-imagined Sondheim classic, ‘Company’, now with the lead being a woman and not a man! And the extraordinary Bunnie Christie who designed ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’ for Marianne is designing ‘Company’.

Can you tell us about some of the women who inspire you on Broadway and the plays/musicals you love the most right now?

There are so many terrific women working on Broadway today. One of the first women I worked with was Nelle Nugent, a wonderful producer, mentor, woman. I loved her inclusivity and her desire to get all co-producers to share their expertise in trying to make a show succeed. Stacey Mindich beautifully brought Dear Evan Hansen to Broadway. Jill Furman (‘Hamilton’), Daryl Roth (‘Kinky Boots’), Robyn Goodman (‘Avenue Q’), Barbara Whitman (‘Fun Home’) Ruth Hendel (‘Fela’), and more. All these women are all terrific producers, and of course there is London based Sonia Friedman, one of the greatest producers today, whose scope of work and success is now legendary. I am thrilled to be working with her on ‘Dreamgirls’ in London.

What I love now on Broadway – ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’. I guarantee everyone in the family from 7 to 100 will love this. ‘Pretty Woman’ is just a feel good, fabulous night at the theatre and it is breaking records at the Nederlander Theatre. ‘Hamilton’, of course, is spectacular. ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ is absolutely extraordinary.

With actress Amber Riley, Olivier winner for ‘Dreamgirls’.

What would you say to especially the woman out there reading this, who is perhaps feeling a little lost in their career, doesn’t know which direction to turn because of their age, but wants to do something meaningful?

One, forget age. Two: I would ask what are you passionate about? What gives you joy? What makes you happy? And I would say do it! If you love the theatre, that’s easy. Get involved with the theatres in your area, support them, get on their committees. If you love Broadway, seek out the shows you love, see who produced them and reach out to them, get involved, maybe invest or try to produce. If you love any of the arts, find out how to get involved in that area. There are no rules. No age restrictions.

Don’t let anyone say you can’t do anything. Someone asked me about what I would do when I retire? Why would I retire from what gives me joy? I plan on working in theatre until I can’t work anymore. And it’s not work, it’s what I love doing. Age means nothing. One isn’t defined by age, race, sex.

What are you currently working on and what will you be doing next that readers can look forward to?

At the moment, I am a lead producer on ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’ on Broadway. We are the longest running “and funniest” play currently on Broadway and about to start our national tour. ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ is a hysterical comedy for the whole family about everything that can possibly go wrong in a play. Also on Broadway, I am a co-producer of ‘Pretty Woman’, which is absolutely a delight and breaking box office records at the Nederlander Theatre. Anyone who loved the movie will love the musical.

And coming soon is ‘Network’ starring Bryan Cranston. That was a tremendous hit in London at the National Theatre and it looks like it will be a hit here too. In London, I am working with one of the greatest directors today, Marianne Elliott. She directed ‘Angels in America’, for which I was so honored to win my second Tony. She is directing ‘Company’ in London starring Patti Lupone, Rosalie Craig and Mel Giedroyc. It is going to be a sensational production, being rewritten by Stephen Sondheim because now “Bob” is going to be a female, Bobbie, and one of the couples is now gay.

And I am producing a fabulous new production of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ with Elliott & Harper Productions directed by the phenomenal Sally Cookson. We had a great success with it at Leeds, outside London.

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For anyone interested in getting involved in theatre you can get in touch with Catherine via her website CatherineSchreiberProductions.com or on Facebook.

Catherine with the cast of ‘The Scottsboro Boys’

 

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