Interview With 54 Below Director Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Jennifer Ashley Tepper, 54 Below, Theatre Nerds

Do what you love, loudly and proudly and fully, without asking for anyone else’s permission

I’ll be honest: I thought I knew pretty much everything about Broadway up until a year ago. I had immersed myself in theatre and its history for years and was always spewing facts to everyone, whether or not they were interested. And that’s when I discovered Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below and author of “The Untold Stories of Broadway,” and quickly realized that my knowledge was minimal compared to her. After devouring each story in her book, I quickly became obsessed and was so glad she agreed to answer some questions for Theatre Nerds!

Theatre Nerds: What was your first exposure to theatre and when did you decide that you wanted a career in this industry?

Tepper: “My first exposure to theatre was seeing national tours of Fiddler on the Roof and A Chorus Line and movie musicals like My Fair Lady and (Bette Midler) Gypsy. I loved them. The theatre bug truly bit once I was sent to theatre summer camp in Florida at the age of 9. I was in Annie, and it was the best experience of my life. After I got my mom to buy me the Annie cast recording, the only thing in the world I wanted was more cast recordings! From that point on, I was obsessed, and I knew that I’d work in the theatre in some capacity, someday.”

TN: You currently work as the Director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below and produce many amazing concerts each year. Do you have a favorite?

Tepper: “Because I program hundreds of concerts every year at Feinstein’s/54 Below, it’s become impossible to pick favorites! I love getting to be involved with such a variety of shows, from artists’ first solo concerts, to new musicals that are being heard for the first time, to the resurrection of underappreciated musicals of the past, to legends I have admired for awhile taking our stage. It’s illuminating to work on so many different kinds of evenings at the same time, because I get to have involvement in so many different corners of the theatre community.”

TN: Let’s talk about your book series, “The Untold Stories of Broadway.” When did you first get the idea for the series?

Tepper: “I have always been fascinated by the Broadway theaters themselves and how they house and impact all of the life that goes on inside of them. The idea of exploring Broadway history by focusing on one theater at a time really came to me while working on [title of show] at the Lyceum in 2008. At that time, I became aware of just how fascinating and unique each Broadway theater is, and how significant it feels to be part of the legacy of a specific house.”

TN: How did you go about writing the book, from interviews to publishing?

Tepper: “I met Brisa Trinchero and Roberta Pereira, who are the founders of Dress Circle Publishing, and pitched the book to them. They’ve been instrumental and so smart on every step of the Untold Stories of Broadway journey. The interviews have been a wonderful, gigantic undertaking. I did about 200 interviews before writing the first volume of the book, and about 30 interviews prior to each subsequent volume. I collect stories about each theater a professional has worked in, and then I tackle eight houses at a time, in each volume. So there are many stories from those first 200 interviews, largely conducted in 2013, that haven’t been published yet, because I haven’t gotten to those particular houses yet! It’s a process that requires both creativity and organization at all times. My aim is always to feature a variety of different kinds of theatre professionals, and people from different perspectives and backgrounds. I try to cover as much time in each theater as possible, so whenever I’ve been able to interview someone about working on Broadway in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s, I’m really happy. I want to tell as full a story as possible about what has happened in each theater.

TN: The third volume of “The Untold Stories of Broadway” is coming out this fall. What can audiences expect from it?

Tepper: I’m so excited to share the third volume with readers! The theaters in the third volume are the Belasco, Broadhurst, Edison, Lyric, Majestic, Schoenfeld, St. James, and Walter Kerr. There are more ghost stories than in previous volumes, and several chapters have a specific focus in a way I haven’t done in previous volumes. For example, the Schoenfeld has an extraordinary history of theatre written by women so I zoom in on that a bit, from the fact that the theater opened with two plays in a row written by female artists, to more recent shows like The Heidi Chronicles and Runaways. It was really fun to tackle the story of the Edison, which is no longer a Broadway house. We have one ‘lost’ theater in each book. And then there are certain shows that I was able to interview a number of participants from, that get in-depth sections in the book, from The Producers to Angels in America to Phantom of the Opera to Ragtime. There are also 30-some new interviewees appearing for the first time in volume three, and we’re going to announce who those are soon!

TN: Your career has been extremely successful and jam-packed with fun and exciting projects. How do you maintain such a busy schedule on the regular basis?

Tepper: “I think the key is a good balance of multi-tasking and knowing when you need to focus on only one thing. Also, I rarely if ever procrastinate. There’s so much I want to do that procrastinating just means I won’t get to do something I want to do later, because I wasted time now. That feels very New York; probably a lot of New Yorkers operate that way. That’s not to say there’s not a time and a place for relaxing, letting your mind wander, and doing things that aren’t high octane on a daily basis. But if I’m doing work, I tend to reach a high level of efficiency by never hesitating on a task, and moving quickly and with focus.”

TN: What are some of your aspirations for the future?

Tepper: “I’d like to be able to make musicals I believe in happen in full productions, whether that’s new musicals or underappreciated musicals of the past. I’m excited to make theatre history and the present come together in more unexpected ways, and I am looking forward to working on projects I don’t even know about yet! I’d like to be somehow involved with a new Broadway theater coming to life during my lifetime.”

TN: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to have a career similar to yours?

Tepper: “Do what you love, loudly and proudly and fully, without asking for anyone else’s permission. That thing will turn into your career if you are persistent and proactive in a quest to collaborate, learn, and contribute. Also, you don’t have to only do one thing! Explore all of the possibilities. Figure out what makes you unique and then hone that and tell the world about it.”

Follow Jennifer on Instagram and twitter @jenashtep and visit www.jenniferashleytepper.com for more about information.

Written by Gianluca Russo

Gianluca Russo is a writer, performer, and theatre critic based out of New York.

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