On Monday night, October 27th, the lobby of Woolly Mammoth Theatre was mobbed and moving among the crowd in a blue checked shirt, outstretched hand ready to welcome each person, was the man of the moment. He knew he was there on No Rules Theatre Company’s gala evening to receive an award. Little did he know that some of his favorite performers had been busy rehearsing a surprise.
Charlie Fink, corporate brandmaker for Disney and the like, who famously left his executive post at AOL for a life in theatre, has won this year’s RuleBreaker Award from No Rules. Why? Artistic Director Joshua Morgan explains: “For as long as I have known Charlie he has been a RuleBreaker. The more I learned about how he got to where he is it became clear that he was never one to follow. He trusted his heart and impulses and has subsequently paved the way for so many artists. From visual artist, corporate America, father, philanthropist and independent producer, Charlie fit the bill as the 2014 recipient of the RuleBreaker award.”
Sandstorm at MetroStage was where we first met him. From that first production, he turned to producing new musicals. In DC, through his New Musical Foundation, he has given us Fringe favorites Super Mario Bros., F#@king Up Everything, and Who’s Your Baghdaddy (receiving a full staging by No Rules at Signature Theatre next spring.)
We last talked to him in 2011, as he was working on those two musicals. It was clearly time for another visit.
Lorraine Treanor: Do you consider yourself a Rule breaker?
Charlie Fink: I never set out to be a rule breaker, I just operate where there are very few rules. My New Musical Foundation is one of the few non-profits in the country exclusively producing new musicals. I make no deals with the artists, I take no rights. We are in a consensual artistic relationship from which either party can walk away from at any time. Others don’t play the game this way. That’s their choice. I don’t see myself breaking rules. I am making new rules.
No Rules just created a musical based on your life. How did that feel? And are you itching to produce it?
The musical comedy Charlie’s Life as a Musical, which opened the gala honoring my work, was written by Eric Tiper (author of 2013 Fringe Winner One Night in New York) and the RuleBreaker gala’s director Matt Cowart. I was totally surprised, slightly mortified and extremely flattered all at the same time. My wife Jane was in on it. It was a very affectionate and complete roast. In one scene Joshua Morgan (playing me in a bald cap) gets a bag of money from AOL and the lyric is something like “you’re fired! take this big bag of money and make musicals!”. I will put the video up on You Tube as soon as I can.
When you look at a new script, what tells you “I’ve got to bring this to life?”
The passion and commitment of the authors is paramount. I deeply believe in that and have learned to trust it. Of course the subject, storytelling, and the songs all have to be great, and the show has to have a hook that allows me to talk about it in compelling ways, to motivate collaborators, theaters, and audiences who have lots of other, safer entertainment choices to make.
Bring us up to date on your projects.
I’m producing the all new Who’s Your Baghdaddy? by Marshall Pailet and AD Penedo with No Rules at Signature in May, 2015. This is the show of my life. When people ask me “why musicals?” Who’s Your Baghdaddy is the answer.
I’m leading the producing team for One Night in New York. We’re looking for an off-Broadway theater for a long term rental (something that does not exist in DC).
I’m Vice-Chairman of the board of the New York Musical Festival, which is entering its 12th year.
I’m teaching social media marketing at Sarah Lawrence in New York.
Finally, I’m starting a new digital media project, which is taking most of my time at the moment (more below).
You once told me it’s impossible to be an independent producer in Washington. Still true?
There’s no infrastructure here for an independent, no rehearsal rooms to rent, no theaters to rent, unless you go out into the far suburbs, where you can’t attract an audience. When I work in DC, I am entirely dependent on the largess of companies like Signature and Woolly, who have all been incredibly supportive and generously share their rehearsal spaces/black boxes with me and other companies at a non profit rate, when available.
There’s the rub. When available. They built those spaces to support their own ambitious seasons. And they rent them out for corporate events at high prices, which helps support their work. Unfortunately, this reduces availability. And I’ve bumped (humiliatingly) on short notice for deeper pocketed clients. Also the DC non-profit rates charged, while generous by local standards, are triple the cost of comparable space in midtown Manhattan. One thing that has mitigated this unfortunate situation is DC’s Capital Fringe Festival, where I have produced over ten shows since 2005. The musicals tend to get first class venues like Studio Theater and GALA. The show times are a bit ridiculous, and the ticket prices next to free, but this is a way to throw up a show at little cost, promote it, and see what you’ve got in front of a paying audience.
What’s missing in contemporary theater?
That’s such a big question, and there is no one answer. Let me make the following observations instead:
(1) There is not enough government support for the arts in our country; our culture does not value what we do. This makes our work much, much harder and more expensive. This is not true in other first (and many third) world countries.
(2) As a result, theater is way too expensive for regular people to see
(3) In DC, we have an embarrassment of riches: an incredible professional not-for-profit community unique to our city, which ironically makes our situation worse, because there is way too much theater chasing way too little audience. Mike Daisey, the monologuist who makes Woolly Mammoth his second home, workshopped a show there called How Theater Failed America. I agreed with his observations, but not his conclusion. Theater has not failed America. America is failing theater.
What advice to you give to young artists?
The first thing I ask them is: what kind of an artist are you, really. What do you value? Do you want to be famous, or do you want to work? You have to know yourself. This determines where you go and how you choose to live.
Second, you go into the arts with eyes open, knowing you need a day job to survive, so don’t make the mistake of fighting the world because you’re an artist and someone, somewhere, some fantasy producer or other daddy figure, owes you a living. That’s the way to defeat yourself before getting started. This is the life you are choosing, and all of the benefits and all of the sacrifices are fully disclosed up front. Theater gives you a life, it does not give you a living. You can unchoose it at any time. Theater does not care. Theater is so much bigger than we as individuals can ever be. It was here before us, and it will be here after we’re gone, struggling to explain the human condition.
Third, you have to be working. If you are an artist you will work in someone’s living room or on the sidewalk. You must find a way. Always be working. Things come to those who work, not to those who wait. This is why so many young actors start companies.
Fourth, find great material. If you are not good at finding great material, find someone who is. Great material attracts great people. Great people lead you to more opportunities. Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
Finally, go the extra mile for people, especially your colleagues in theater, and in the arts generally. You are not competing with them, you are living the life with them. Love, and be loved. Even if you are a genius, people have to like you, people have to want to be with you, people have to think of you. This is how careers are made. This is how showbiz works. You compete with yourself, not your colleagues. You need them to succeed and bring you along. If you go the extra mile, they will. Most of the time.
I would add producers, theater companies, artistic directors, agents, and managers arrive after you do, and not before. We are all, in a sense, order takers, not career makers. We want to bask in your glow, but we are not going to make you glow, or discover you until you show yourself through great work. You have to set yourself on fire.
P.S. For the past 18 years, Charlie Fink has been emailing a quote of the week to a huge list of subscribers. He is about to replace that with a new website Quotecards.co. Why? “A picture is worth a thousands words. And email is so 1999,” the rule maker explained.
This week’s quote is: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Cicero