The American Repertory Theater has plucked its next managing director from off-Broadway: William Russo, currently the managing director of New York Theatre Workshop, the East Village company that premiered the hit musical “Once” after it was developed at the ART.
Russo, 47, will be the administrative counterpart to artistic director Diane Paulus, 46, when he takes up his new position July 22, the theater announced Monday.
The ART’s national search lasted nearly a year, Paulus said, fielding more than 100 recommendations, which were whittled down to three finalists. Russo was the unanimous choice, said Don Ware, chairman of the theater’s board of trustees, who admitted to being “kind of thrilled” that Russo would leave New York Theatre Workshop — most famous for having premiered “Rent,” back in 1996 — for the ART.
“I’m so looking forward to becoming a Cambridge resident,” said Russo, a native of Long Island, N.Y., who has spent nearly his entire adult life in New York City and was brought into the ART’s search through a headhunter. He was drawn to the ART, he said, because of the myriad ways in which it makes theater, particularly “how Diane really includes the audience as a component of how a show gets created.”
“It’s a theater that has just, I think, had such incredible success since Diane’s taken over,” Russo said by phone from New York Theatre Workshop, which has a $4.5 million budget, compared to the ART’s $13 million budget. “The storied history is great, and then what Diane has done over the past couple years has been, I think, extraordinary, and there’s some really exciting work coming out of there.”
ArtsEmerson executive director Robert J. Orchard — who this week is presenting “An Iliad,” a play that won praise last season at New York Theatre Workshop — has known Russo for several years. “He’s terrific,” said Orchard, the ART’s former executive director. “I’m just delighted that Billy’s gonna be across the river.”
Russo became an actor, and a waiter, after graduating in 1988 from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In the 1990s, he spent 4½ years in London, and upon returning to New York worked off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, then at Playwrights Horizons. He teaches budgeting at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, which he will leave when he comes to the ART on a four-year contract.
Nonprofit theater, in its higher reaches, is a pretty small world. But while Paulus and Russo knew plenty of the same people, they had never met until the past few months, as part of the search. “I think we just immediately kind of got each other,” Russo said.
In their conversations, Paulus said, the time flew. “There were just so many ideas that were flowing so organically back and forth between the two of us, I knew immediately that this would be someone who, I think, can run as fast as I run,” she said.
“There’s a great need in any theater to have the operational, administrative, and day-to-day life of the theater functioning as well as the most creative work that’s being done in the rehearsal hall, and those are different areas — of attention, and time, and mentorship of staff,” said Paulus, the ART’s artistic director since 2008.
For a time after Orchard’s departure from the ART in 2009, the theater opted against hiring a managing director, preferring that a single person, Paulus, report to the board. “Diane Paulus is such a ball of energy,” Ware said. But soon there was so much artistic activity, both on the ART’s own stages and in Paulus’s outside projects, “that we realized we would benefit from having even more senior leadership,” he said.
Two years ago, ART producer Diane Borger took on the additional role of interim managing director. She will remain at the ART as producer, reporting to Paulus, while Paulus and Russo will both report to the board.
The artistic director-managing director dynamic “demands a really close relationship,” said Orchard, who was the founding managing director at the ART, working in tandem with founding artistic director Robert Brustein. It can be an advantage, Orchard added, if the partners are around the same age, with the shared vocabulary that comes from that. “Often, artistic sensibilities come out of generational impulses,” he said.
To Russo, the idea that age plays a role in his rapport with Paulus sounds plausible. Maybe, he said, it’s about “being young enough to still think of things differently but being old enough to know what works and what doesn’t.”
“We have grown up in the theater and seen the world change around us, and in particular the regional theater institutional model go through change,” Paulus said. “My attitude has been, well, how do we embrace the new world we live in and think smartly and boldly and creatively about not just the art we’re making but about how we function as a healthy not-for-profit business? And I think Billy wants to think that way as well.”