A Q&A WITH ARTISTIC DIRECTOR TONY ESTRELLA
How soon will you start planning The Gamm's 2024-25 season?
Already started. It's a year round job. No sooner is one season finalized then the next one is on its way! Once we decide what plays we want to do, we have to start a very long and sometimes convoluted process of requesting the rights and waiting for a response, and sometimes hoping to beat a similar size theater to the punch. Once that happens, we have to quickly get the word out to actors so the audition process can begin. Scheduling auditions is a big undertaking and sometimes more than one round is required to cast a role.
The new year is looming large but we're only two productions and one holiday show into the current season. How do you keep your focus on this one while planning the next?
There are actually 24 hours in a day and I try to use every one of them. Yes, season planning happens in my dreams.
What is the interplay between artistic choices and business needs, particularly at a time when theaters across the country are facing serious financial challenges?
You always have to stick to the artistic mission but that never means, in good times or in bad, that thinking hard on attracting audiences is the opposite of challenging them and yourself. Clearly, some plays have broader appeal than others. Usually it's because they've earned it over time. They come with built-in marketing. It's our job to create that excitement for those plays that may be newer, unknown, or have a reputation for being a harder sell. That thinking is short sighted and insults the audience's intelligence and appetite. Thankfully, we have an incredibly loyal audience of subscribers, ticket buyers, and donors who count on us to entertain the crap out of them and engage them emotionally and imaginatively. We rely on them to keep us honest and encourage risk-taking rather than resting on our laurels!
Casting, sets, lighting, sound, and costumes all add to the cost of a production. How do those elements factor into your choice of plays?
We have to serve the play at a professional level. That sets a certain standard for all the production elements, from casting through design. If we can't find a way to scale a production to our space, as well as our financial and human resources, and also maintain the play’s essential integrity then we shouldn't do it. Audiences know when they’re not quite getting the full experience. We have a big appetite at The Gamm and we’ve taken risks on some epic work that, I believe, have paid off. But there are other plays we’d love to do but that our capacity won’t allow. Simply put, we can’t meet the size, breadth and practical demands of the work.
Do you ever choose a play with a specific actor or actors in mind that you might otherwise not do?
Absolutely. This is another way of answering the last question: You can't do Hamlet if you don't have a Hamlet and you can't do Streetcar without a genius Blanche. Or you can...but you'd be foolish.
What is the balance in your mind between elevating classics and introducing new works?
They go hand in hand and, when curated properly, can really have a great conversation. In other words, they augment and enhance each other. New works are harder of course. They’re riskier and need development and a first audience to find themselves. If they’re going to last, they need to stand next to the giants and hold their own.
Next season is The Gamm's 40th! Does choosing a lineup for this milestone season add any pressure?
Yes, but it's good pressure! It’s a clear organizing principle to build the season around and help focus the choices.
What is one more thing you wish people understood about the season planning process?
It ain't just throwing darts at a board and hoping for the best. It's the opposite of random. It's meticulous and exhaustive, and the core of the artistic director’s job!
A Q&A WITH EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR JASON CABRAL
What inspired you to take on this role of executive director at The Gamm?
There have been many individuals who have played a significant role in inspiring me to take this step in my career, and I am eternally grateful to each of them.
First and foremost, my parents were my earliest source of inspiration. Both of them migrated to the United States from the Azores when they were teenagers. My father tells a great story of their plane being halted due to a government coup when they attempted to leave Portugal in the 1970s – talk about drama! Their decision to move, driven by a desire to build a better life for their families and to pursue the American dream, has left an indelible mark on my upbringing. The underlying desire for 'striving for success' and self-improvement has continued to resonate with me throughout my life. Our first-generation American experience, growing up in a moderately poor, working-class household, humbled me in a way that has shaped my values, work ethic, and career aspirations. I am forever grateful to my parents and grandparents for laying the groundwork for my success. Without their support from a young age, I am not sure I would have been as inspired to make an impact as I am today in this role.
Secondly, my love for theater and the arts was kindled by great teachers and mentors. Coming from a very creative family where singing, dancing, and playing instruments were part of our everyday life, I had the privilege of having exceptional educators guide my creative development from an early age, and this continued through my college years. Cultivating an imagination and passion for the arts has been deeply rewarding, and maintaining a sense of curiosity has consistently opened doors throughout my journey.
Lastly, my husband continues to inspire me daily. He challenges my thinking while providing unwavering support in all my endeavors. Having someone in your corner can make the seemingly impossible, possible. In fact, it was he who identified the opportunity at The Gamm and encouraged me to pursue it. Without his encouragement, I wouldn't be in the role I am today.
Can you share with us your story and background in the theater that landed you at The Gamm?
Let’s start at the very beginning — a very good place to start.
My first foray into the world of theater took place during high school, and although the production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was sadly canceled due to a lack of funding, that rehearsal process was a transformative experience for me. It instilled in me a sense of belonging that I had never felt before. Prior to finding the theater, my concept of community was primarily defined by church and family, but it was within the theater that I discovered a community that I could shape and define for myself.
The real breakthrough happened when I took on my first official role in a production—1776 at the Little Theatre of Fall River, more than two decades ago. Despite having just three lines, I fell in love with the experience and access to friendships I hadn’t had before. I was irrevocably bitten by the theater bug. This strong sense of community in the theater gradually led me to change my academic plans. I was originally on a path to apply for an undergraduate degree in mathematics or engineering, but the allure of the theater compelled me to shift gears. I soon enrolled at Rhode Island College to pursue a degree in musical theater performance.
Following my undergraduate studies, I furthered my theater education at Wayne State University in Detroit, where I earned an MFA in Acting. During my time there, I was part of an acting company that performed at the Hilberry Repertory Theatre, one of the few remaining rotating repertory companies in the country. This program allowed me to embrace a diverse range of roles, from Konstantin in "The Seagull" one night to Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the next, and Arlecchino in "The Servant of Two Masters" the following evening. This experience not only fulfilled every actor's dream but also tested our versatility and stamina, ultimately deepening my appreciation and respect for the art of theater.
My studies also led me to a unique opportunity—to study abroad at the Moscow Art Theatre, a formative experience that broadened my horizons and introduced me to different perspectives on theater.
After completing my formal education, I began working regionally as an actor. However, an opportunity to serve as a teaching artist with an educational theater company arose. This role involved international tours, where we used theater to teach English as a second language. The experience was incredibly rewarding and demonstrated the potential for making a meaningful impact outside the traditional path of an actor.
Upon returning home, I arrived at a crossroads where I began to value impact and financial stability more than the act of performing itself. This led me to explore opportunities that would keep me engaged with the theater while transitioning into the administrative side of the arts. A pivotal point in this transition was my time on the development team at The Public Theater in New York City. This experience was akin to an accelerated, hands-on training program due to the size and scale of the operation. It was here that I honed my skills and developed a dual role—working directly with annual fund supporters while also contributing to building data-driven operation.
My inherent interest in math and problem-solving found a perfect match in this dual role, and I quickly discovered my niche in development. This experience eventually propelled me to become a senior leader at both Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
It was during my tenure at Center Theatre Group when the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, and the entire theater industry was thrown into uncertainty. At this point in my career, I found myself applying all the skills I had acquired over the years in the theater to help the organization navigate through these unprecedented challenges. It became evident that data-driven decision-making would be essential to the organization's survival and future success. These were tough decisions, but they illuminated the delicate balance between the business and art within the theater world.
I took a few years away from the theatre and worked at national non-profit organizations, such as the NAACP, Habitat for Humanity, and ASPCA, which provided a whole new perspective on fundraising and impact that I was excited to learn.
Fast forward to today, and I am thrilled to have returned to the theater space after my time working at these organizations. My journey through the world of theater, paired with my experience in non-profit management, has uniquely positioned me for this role at The Gamm. These diverse experiences have not only deepened my understanding and appreciation of the art form but have also equipped me with the strategic and organizational skills necessary to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the theater industry. Reconnecting with my theater roots, rejoining my passionate community, and reigniting my artistic pursuits feels like a homecoming, and I am already applying this rich history of experience to contribute to The Gamm's continued success and its vibrant future in Rhode Island.
Why The Gamm?
An easy answer would be the conversations I had with Tony and our now Board Chair, Miriam Weinzenbaum during the search and interview process. It was important for me to have a solid understanding of everything I would be walking into, where the risks and opportunities were from their perspective. Both Miriam and Tony were incredibly open and thoughtful throughout the process, making me feel inspired by our potential partnership. You want to feel that sense of excitement and support in taking on a role like this, and there was no question in my mind that I did with them.
More broadly, I first went to the Gamm 20 years ago in Pawtucket when I was getting my undergraduate degree in theater at Rhode Island College. At that time, as young actors, we felt the buzz of what The Gamm was contributing to the theater landscape in Rhode Island. The work was raw, it was real, and it was thought-provoking. The attention and care for the work were so palpable. The intimacy of the space, forcing the connection between actor and audience member and the text, was exceptional. To me, it was an actor's theater, and that alone was energizing.
Twenty years later, what you experience in the black box here in Warwick is still the same at its core. It's still about the quality of work and the real human connection made when the lights go out. The Gamm's identity hasn't changed, and that's a beautiful thing. So, there is no question of the product and its value. So, perhaps it's the old actor in me, but as an arts leader meant to come in and help develop a plan for selling this product, it was easy to get excited about because who we are as a theater is my reason for why. I am thrilled to finally be a part of something I've been inspired by for many years.
What are three priorities you view as critical to the Gamm's ability to find success in the coming years?
First and foremost, ensuring financial stability is a top priority. In my initial two months here, I delved deep into our financials to assess the level of risk and uncertainties in our budget. We aim to mitigate these risks with actionable plans for revenue generation and cost management. The challenges faced by theaters across the nation due to the pandemic closures have highlighted the importance of reevaluating our operating model comprehensively. It's not merely about ticket pricing, fundraising, marketing, or production costs, but also about the broader goals we aim to achieve. Our long-term vision is to ensure that The Gamm thrives for the next two decades, and this necessitates thoughtful financial planning and risk management.
Secondly, building a clear vision for the next 20 years is another top priority. Drawing inspiration from my experiences with organizations like the ASPCA, NAACP, and Habitat for Humanity, we recognize the value of a focused and inspiring mission. These organizations have a clear north star that guides their strategic planning and decision-making. At The Gamm, we are embarking on a journey to define our forward-looking aspirations. This vision will not only provide clarity and focus for our day-to-day work but will also be instrumental in conveying the "why" of our mission to our supporters. We are enthusiastic about this process, which we believe will inspire and engage all of us more deeply with The Gamm.
Lastly, but certainly not least, we prioritize the stewardship of our audience and artistic community. The core of our business is built on human connection, and we consider it our duty to honor and nurture these relationships. Our stakeholders, including donors, subscribers, students, artists, and community partners, are essential to our success. We are committed to engaging with each of these groups in more meaningful and impactful ways. The bonds we share with our community members are at the heart of our mission, and we're dedicated to fostering these connections as we move forward. Our success is intricately tied to the positive impact we make on the lives of those who support and engage with us. These priorities are central to our roadmap for success and are integral to The Gamm's mission of enriching lives through the power of theater.
How can Gamm supporters actively participate in shaping the future of the theater,
and what role do they play in the organization?
Gamm supporters play a pivotal role in shaping the future of The Gamm, and their involvement is instrumental. We encourage our supporters to become advocates and spread the word by sharing their appreciation of our work with their networks, friends, and colleagues. Word-of-mouth and personal recommendations are incredibly powerful in building our audience base. If every subscriber or ticket buyer shared their experience and brought a new person to The Gamm for their next visit, it would change the game for us in terms of audience growth and sustainability.
Furthermore, we emphasize the importance of cultivating a culture of philanthropy within our organization. While financial contributions are, of course, vital to our sustainability, we encourage our supporters to give a part of themselves, whether it's their skills, time, network, or financial support. It takes all of us to find success, and what one person doesn't have to offer, another may. As we embrace the season of giving, we ask our supporters to reflect on what they can contribute during this critical time.
Ultimately, we are immensely grateful for the community we've fostered at The Gamm. From the moment I joined, the sense of family has been palpable, serving as a constant source of inspiration in my daily work. This spirit of togetherness propels us into a future filled with promise and creativity. So, our supporters play a pivotal role in shaping our future, and their contributions in advocacy, philanthropy, and community-building are what make it all possible.