Back in the 1980s, a young, eager theater intern named Andrew Kato worked as a waiter at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter. Today, he runs the multi-million dollar regional theater on that site, having in November been named producing artistic director and chief executive of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
With that promotion comes a 10-year contract to oversee the fundraising and construction of a bold $25 million expansion of the not-for-profit playhouse complex. Recently, Kato sat down with Hap Erstein to discuss the future of the Maltz Jupiter – the largest regional theater company in the state of Florida – and his role in it.
Erstein: From a very young age, you knew that you wanted a life in the theater, didn’t you?
Kato: Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a producer and have followed that dream all the way through. Given my skills set, this has been certainly better for me than working on Broadway was. Because I’m able to fully utilize my skills set here in a way that I wasn’t in New York.
Erstein: Ten years ago, you were hired as the Maltz’s producing director, to shore up a dysfunctional theater.
Kato: Right. My job in my very first season here was to improve the overall functionality of the organization. When I arrived, the notion of production meetings didn’t exist.
I think this promotion was a way of acknowledging a 10-year commitment that they’re making to me, in that we have some big dreams that we want to accomplish. I think that they felt that it would be helpful to have someone in place for those 10 years to meet those goals. So I felt it was time to continue the dream, moving forward with the goal of becoming a great regional theater in our country.
Erstein: Under you, the Maltz has become known for producing large-scale, challenging musicals like Les Miserables and Billy Elliot [now running through Dec. 20]. Do you expect to keep tackling such mammoth projects?
Kato: Everything that we do here is strategic. The notion of doing large-scale Broadway musicals and doing them well, re-envisioning them, is part of the plan and will continue to be so.
But it is not about size for its own sake. I think it’s about serving a piece well. In Billy Elliot, we’re working on a show that focuses on the truth. We decided that all the embellishments that were on the show would be removed. The large Maggie Thatcher puppet and all of that has gone away, because they probably wouldn’t have had the resources to do that in their little mining town. So the storytelling has become a little more truthful and intimate.
And also frankly we don’t have the money to be able to do what has been done (in London and on Broadway). With Billy Elliot, they had three Billys at any given time and they put them through a training camp for a year. Well, we don’t have that advantage. We have two Billys, because it’s good protection for us. You can’t do this show without Billy.
I feel our financial resources are almost held against us in a pejorative way. When this theater was first formed, we put this place together with Scotch tape and paper clips. It’s really on the heels of some excellent work that’s being done, which provides us with the opportunity to do the shows correctly and to pay people correctly. It isn’t by accident that this is happening. We go out into the community every year to make sure that our ticket base is where it is. Fundraising is a tremendous amount of work, as is our audience development.
Yes, we will continue to do large-scale musicals, the things that allow us to grow and become secure. To have a subscriber base of 7,600 subscribers for a town the size of Jupiter, that’s twice as much as the oldest regional theater in the country — Cleveland Playhouse with 3,700 subscribers.
In the last two years, through earned ticket revenue, we were able to pay down $100,000 of debt to this organization. That’s responsible shepherding of a not-for-profit.
So even though we do shows with 37-member casts, like Billy Elliot has, you would be shocked at the decisions that are made on whether a show gets resources or not. People don’t really understand what goes into putting on a show and to a certain extent, they shouldn’t. Our job is to make it look effortless.
Erstein: What are the goals of the $25 million expansion program you are launching?
Kato: I’ll tell you what the objectives are. One, expansion of the Conservatory of the Performing Arts. We’ve simply run out of room there. We feel like we could serve more of our community if we had more space. We want to double the size of the Conservatory.
The second objective is, with my connections to Broadway, is to have facilities backstage where we could launch pre-Broadway and national tours. I think that’s completely achievable if we have the facilities to do that.
What patrons see is that the seating is comfortable, the lobby is beautiful, but backstage is completely underserved. If we’re hoping for more national-level exposure, we’ve got to better in terms of how the actors rehearse. We’re bringing actors down here from New York or Chicago with a promise of sunshine and then we put them in a room that used to be the kitchen of the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre. And the dressing rooms are literally cramped.
And then finally, we would like to have a second space here of 199 seats.
Erstein: Would it run at the same time as the mainstage?
Kato: No, our deal, which has been passed by the town and the commissioners, is that we don’t run them at the same time. We don’t have the parking and also we’re not going to have the staff for that, to run two theaters at the same time.
We would use it for plays like Zero Hour, which we ran in the shoulder season (of 2010) with an audience that looked meager in our theater. It would have looked great in a 199-seat house. And for developing new work. We’ve done a little bit of that all the way through, but I’d like to have the room to do a lot more.
Erstein: Is there a regional theater anywhere that you are modeling the expanded Maltz Jupiter on?
Kato: The comparables are other LORT [League of Resident Theatres] B theaters of our size. They all have second or third spaces, they’ve all had pre-Broadway shows. For example, there’s the Long Wharf, Cleveland Playhouse and the Geffen Playhouse.
What we have that they don’t, or maybe not as strong as us, is the endowment. We fully funded that two years early. The credit for that goes to the Maltzes, who announced a three-to-one match. We raised $2.5 million to their $7.5 million. In time, that will be like an annual gift. None of that money is intended to be used for this build-out, in terms of capital. But it will mean for us is commissioning new work, more scholarships, a new play festival.
Erstein: The Cultural Council has proposed a one-cent tax to go to arts organizations in the county. Would that be a big factor in the expansion and when construction could begin?
Kato: It is, it absolutely is. It’s critical to all of us taking those next steps. $25 million is a huge amount of money. There have been a few people who have self-identified, but no checks written yet. Our job is to inspire people to what we could become. It’s going to be up to the community ultimately whether this is something they want to invest in. They have shown us in the past that they really care about this organization, that they like what we’re doing.
Erstein: Your audience embraces those large-scale musicals, but sometimes they reject your play choices, like last season’s Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s profanity-heavy Pulitzer Prize winner.
Kato: I feel like we’ve been relatively populist in our programming. And occasionally stick our necks out. I love Glengarry as much as I love Hello, Dolly! They’re different challenges.
One of the goals for doing Glengarry Glen Ross was frankly to stretch our audience a little bit. And educating them, because that’s part of our mission. So we did what we could to prepare them, to warn them about the play.
Interestingly enough, you know what they didn’t like? It wasn’t the language, a lot of them didn’t like the play. I got a lot of letters saying, “You warned us about the language. You’re right, I didn’t like the language, but I didn’t think it was a very good play.” Which is their opinion. It did win the Pulitzer Prize, but they don’t care about that.
I think it would be foolish to not have your strong reasons for doing the work that you do. I can honestly say in the 10 years that I’ve been here, I have not produced anything that I don’t like. And I am super-clear that the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s season is not Andrew Kato’s season per se. In other words, if money were not an issue in finding the balance of what a producer does between art and commerce — if that were not a concern of mine — the season would be very different. There are many other things that I would do selfishly, but I have a different responsibility.
Erstein: So how do you get John Q. Musical Lover to try plays and enjoy them?
Kato: You do them well. There are five shows in the season. You don’t have to like all five shows, but all five shows have to be consistent in quality. They have to be well-done. That’s the goal.
My number one responsibility early on was to get this place secure. To make sure that the doors would stay open. So you’ve got to occasionally be sneaky. You put Glengarry in the season, and you warn them, you do everything you need to do, but you know you’re going to take a bit of a hit, one way or the other.
Erstein: What did you learn from producing Glengarry Glen Ross?
Kato: To occasionally be bold. And I think there are people who haven’t been coming to our theater — who attend Dramaworks or other types of theater — who appreciate that kind of play. So you can actually gain some audience that way. And that variety is important for the livelihood of an organization.
Erstein: How does a typical day go for you? How many hours go you spend at the theater?
Kato: Twelve, maybe. I probably average eight to 10 meetings a day. A lot of hat switching, meeting after meeting, which makes for a very fast day. That’s what I like. People ask, “What else do you do outside of theater?” and I’m embarrassed to say, “Not much.”
Erstein: Do you make time to see the work of other theaters besides yours?
Kato: When I can. I’m going to go see History Boys [at Palm Beach Dramaworks, now running through Jan. 3] on opening night. I certainly see theater when I’m in other cities. I just saw Daddy Long Legs in New York. I see every show at the Shaw Festival. I travel to London and I typically see 13 plays there. I see everything that’s nominated for the Tony Awards. It’s an obsession really, a busman’s holiday.
Erstein: Last season, you directed The Wiz. With your work on the theater’s expansion, will you have time to direct productions in the future?
Kato: No, I think I will. I’m really more interested in the development of new work. I’m speaking to Rupert Holmes about a new piece that we’re going to do. I have my eye on (Miami playwright) Chris Demos-Brown, I really love his work. We’ve done two of his readings here. I’m really attracted to talent. John Mercurio (Academy, Through the Looking Glass) and I have an idea for another musical.
I like directing, but it’s oddly not that different from the other skill sets. The only thing that’s specifically different is working with actors. The more you do something, the better you get at it. From a producer’s standpoint, since I do that every day, I consider myself highly advanced in that area. Directorially, I think I would be a freshman director, but with the right opportunities — which I could give to myself, I guess, if I were an egomaniac — I would grow in that area.
But again, my eye is really on making this a great regional theater and I love supporting other directors. My job is to make sure that they have what they need to do their great work. But I’m also down there with ideas, giving them notes. But my notes are always, “This is not a directive. But this might be helpful to you.”
Erstein: Here’s a rude question. How old are you?
Kato: I’m 51. It’s a good time for me, because I think it will take 10 years to get everything done that we want to do. Really the next five years is getting the facility into place. The five years after that is building the national reputation and getting those opportunities for national work here.
Erstein: What’s your best argument for why area theatergoers should see the work at the Maltz?
Kato: Consistent quality of work. I don’t know that you’re going to love every play’s subject matter or playwright, but I think people would consider that the work being done here is of a certain level. It’s not up for one show and down the next. We get good artistic teams, we cast well, we have a production level that is high.