Emily Zeck moved to New York intent on becoming an actor, but quickly found her niche behind the footlights. After earning an MA and MBA from Southern Methodist University, the Texas native was named managing director of Theatre Aspen, where she first met Paige Price, who was then the company’s artistic director. Zeck left Colorado-based company in 2013, and subsequently worked for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, New York Stage and Film, and in Broadway general management.
Earlier this year, Price — Zeck’s former boss — succeeded Sara Garonzik as the producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC), and she knew exactly who she wanted as her second-in-command. “When Emily and I worked together at Theatre Aspen, we embarked on a capital campaign, which neither of us had done before, right in the middle of a financial crisis,” Price told me by email. “But like Thelma and Louise, we jumped off the cliff, and it was very rewarding. Emily is tenacious. She does what it takes to get the job done, and her integrity is unimpeachable. As we begin to shape the future of PTC, I am excited to have her along, because she has an artistic sensibility and taste.”
I recently spoke to Emily about her professional history, her move to Philadelphia, and just what exactly a managing director does. These are edited excerpts.
Cameron Kelsall: Can you give me an overview of your career in theater administration?
Emily Zeck: I started out in college as an actor, as so many administrators do. It’s a very common story. I’m from Texas, but I went to college in New York, and then I was trying to do the acting thing once I graduated. To try and further my acting career, I produced a show, and I fell in love with that more than I ever had with acting. So that was the turning point for me, I think. From there, I went to grad school in Dallas, to reorient my trajectory and learn more about administration.
I came out of grad school in 2009 — which was not a great time to be looking for a job — and I got very lucky. I applied cold for the job at Theatre Aspen, and I got it. And that’s where I met Paige Price. We worked together there for four years and built a great relationship. From there, I spent some time at the Denver Center, in their marketing department, and then got the opportunity to work for a Broadway general management firm. I had always been curious about Broadway, so I wanted to see if it was a good fit. I spent a year there, and it wasn’t actually the best fit. So I ended up going back to the nonprofit world through New York Stage and Film, which is where I was most recently. While there, I focused on learning new work development and artist support.
CK: You said that working in the Broadway world wasn’t the right fit for you. That’s interesting – a lot of people talk about theater as if there’s Broadway, and then there’s everything else. What are the key distinctions between life on Broadway and life in regional theater?
EZ: I don’t want to disparage the Broadway business in any way, because I have loved it since I was 5 years old. I will always be a big fan, but it just felt very different to me. I really wasn’t prepared for how much it felt like a business. My passion is in the overlap of the art and the business, and it felt slightly dry to me. I found myself surprised to be missing the community feeling that belonging to an organization gives you. I didn’t know what I had until I had the opposite. But it was a learning experience, and I also think that the Broadway business is its own beast. It’s a lot easier to come up in that business, and perhaps harder to break in when you’re midway through your career.
CK: What exactly does a managing director do within a theater company?
EZ: I think of the managing director as the administrative head of the theater, to varying degrees. In my relationship with Paige, we are able to form our duties based on our strengths. We both serve as outward faces of the organization to the public. What is unique to my position is that I am tasked with all of the organization’s financial maintenance. So, I’m creating the budgets, making sure our expenses and revenues are tracking with the budgets, projecting cash flow, managing debt and payables, and making sure we are working towards being a financially healthy organization. I think of that as the most important thing on my plate right now.
CK: Did you have much knowledge of the theater scene in Philadelphia before you came to PTC?
EZ: I had heard that it was very active, and that it was a very warm and welcoming community. I knew of the Fringe Festival, and I think having an active Fringe is a very good sign that artists are finding space to have a voice. Those were my impressions before I came, and I’ve learned more since. I’m getting to know what the Arden is, what the Wilma is, what the Walnut Street is, what the Fringe is. I’m getting to know some of the players, which has been great.
CK: PTC has a unique 2017-2018 season, which blends full productions with special events. How did that season come about?
EZ: I came into the organization after the season had been set, but I would have fully supported this idea of taking a season to pause and reflect, and just kind of make sure that our model going forward is thought-out and sustainable. At the same time, we’re not going completely dark, and we’re giving our audience some programming to enjoy so that we stay on everyone’s radar. We definitely didn’t want to shut our doors for a year – we wanted to keep people coming to the space.
CK: Now that you’re in the middle of this transition period, what do you see as the next chapter of PTC?
EZ: It’s evolving. Another big part of this year is taking the time to listen to people. We want PTC to be reflective of the community, and responsive to the community. We’re taking a lot of new survey initiatives. We have an event coming up called See and Be Scene, where we’ll be previewing scenes from plays that Paige is considering for next season. We want to be responsive and inclusive. Programming-wise, we want to be very diverse, and reflect the demographics of Philadelphia. I don’t know if we’ve done a great job of that in the past, and we want to do better. I also don’t know if we’ve worked with local artists as much as we could, and we’re going to take a closer look at that. We want to work more with local artists, so we may look at what we can do regarding the timing of our season to make that happen.