A theatrical producer wears more than just one hat. Yes, he is a financier, but he is not merely the stage world’s equivalent to an investment banker. He is also—at times—a critic, a midwife, a promoter, a supervisor, a mediator among numerous parties, and least recognized—an advocate for their local theater community.
Washington should feel fortunate that it has an advocate like Charlie Fink. Since presenting his first local play in 1999, the former AOL executive has built an impressive track record as a producer, forging relationships with the area’s leading venues and employing many leading local actors.
In this town, known for its extensive list of professional theater companies, an independent producer is an anomaly. The financial spigot does not run as open as it would elsewhere. Yet, Charlie Fink, over a decade after his first production is still standing and (sometimes) thriving. Some wonder what motivates him to walk a path unusual to the milieu he works in. Last week we had a brief conversation.
Why don’t you start by telling us what you’ve got going on at the moment?
Charlie Fink: This year, my New Musical Foundation is putting on two musicals that will run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre from July 14 to August 14. The first one is Who’s Your Baghdaddy; or How I Started The Iraq War. This is a new musical by Marshall Pailet. The other one is called F#@king Up Everything. This one debuted in New York at the New Musical Festival in ’09. The producer is a friend of mine, and I’ve been wanting to do it in DC. This will be our chance to enjoy it.
This area doesn’t have many independent producers like yourself. Why did you choose DC as your home base?
It’s like regional theater here. DC has a lot of professional not-for–profit theater. You, in fact, have more choices than just about anywhere—Seattle and other good theater towns have less than we do. We also have this big national institution that is the Kennedy Center. So it’s easy to work here, and I want to work where I live. The only difficulty is the fact that there are very few authors who live in Washington. If you look at the shows we have put on, all the writers are from New York.
Your route into the theater has been an unusual one. You go from a technology company to the stage world. There’s not an obvious connection, and that leads me to believe that you had some connection to theater before.
When I was starting out, I went to California and worked for Disney Animation in the ‘80’s. I had a wonderful time there. It was a great place for someone in his ‘20’s to work. We were inventing the animated musical with “The Little Mermaid,’ “Beauty and the Beast” and such.
Why did you go from there to AOL?
It was the story of our times: the movement of our entire culture onto the Internet. I had some good years there. When the music stopped, I asked myself “What am I doing” and I moved on. That said, I left with enough money to live on, but not enough to put on shows by myself.
Why did you start producing plays?
When it was coming to an end at AOL, I was working at American Greetings in Cleveland, flying back and forth. At this point, I was about to move on, and I had to ask myself “What is entertainment?” I didn’t want to do movies, because producing film is selling film. When you look at how much money they spend promoting a film, you don’t want do that. With the kind of theater we’re doing, you don’t really need to advertise, and I don’t need to feel like I have to make back a huge budget. My goal is not to make money, but to lose money as slowly as possible. I can’t spend a lot on my productions; resources are finite.
So you consider this a “labor of love?”
Yeah. It’s not a for-profit business. I can’t do this for anything other than the love of art and artists. I want them to do well.
Some years ago you produced Sandstorm. Would you care to talk about it?
I adore Carolyn Griffin. She taught me a lot. It was like being in grad school. I lost a lot of money, but I learned a lot. I liked producing it. Only through art do we really realize where we’re at at this moment. It’s like when all the movies about Vietnam came out right after the war.
Are you satisfied with the theater scene in DC?
DC will continue to be a terrific place to produce theater. Its proximity to New York is a part of that. You can get really good casts here, at least for regional theater. It’s an ideal situation for me, made more ideal by my relationship with Fringe and Woolly Mammoth. Still, it is regional theater. Commercially, my goal is to take these shows and put them in a place where they can be picked up commercially.
I’m not a commercial producer: I can’t raise $ 8 million dollars to put on a show, but sometimes a show I do goes commercial. Super Claudio Bros— a show I did recently– got picked up by Dreamworks Theatrical and is in development as a Broadway production. I want, then, to prepare these plays for a chance to move on to that kind of success.
To succeed, a musical needs a lot of friends. I’m like an elementary teachers of musicals. I give them the tools they need to thrive. I’m trying to prepare them for middle school.
That’s a good quote. Want to add anything else?
Well, I think DC has been terrifically supportive. There is an infrastructure here for what I’m trying to do. It’s good not competing with 500 other producers. We have a good theater fabric here. The fact is we have a lot of people from New York who come down here to see the shows. They come all this way because they know they’re getting quality shows with good actors. That makes it a good story.