An Interview with Jim Joseph: Opening the Front of the House and Theater Operations to Diversity & Inclusion

Jim Joseph describes himself as an expert in theater operations and an enabler of artistic ideas. He currently works as the Theatre Manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Broadway home of Manhattan Theatre Club. A graduate of Marist College, Jim has worked in many different areas of the performing arts and Broadway, including development, education, marketing, box office and most notably Front of House (FOH) and theater operations. As an arts administration consultant, Jim has worked with The United Palace of Cultural Arts in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City; The Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College; 59E59th Theaters, and The Apollo Theater.

Jim also has worked in the Off-Off Broadway community as a director and producer. His projects have included working with the ground-breaking Latino Theatre Company Vaso de Leche Productions, and with the actress/poet/activist La Bruja on her one woman show, Boogie Rican Boulevard, among others. In addition to his consulting work in theater operations, Jim has served as an adjunct instructor in theatre management and has been an advisor to the theatre program at Borough of Manhattan Community College. I had the honor of interviewing Jim for my Arts and Culture Connections Blog.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

Jim Joseph: The arts have always played a role in my life. My mom loved going to the theater and was a fan of Broadway. She and her coworkers created a theater fund and saved money to buy tickets for a show and go to dinner. My godmother got into performing as an adult up in Rhode Island and did a tremendous amount of community theater. So, growing up I watched her perform in musicals—Chicago, The King and I—and I was enamored. I loved music, singing, and dancing.

In high school, I finally got the nerve to audition for a play, which was West Side Story. It was a perfect storm–it’s my favorite movie and my English teacher directed. Going to see West Side Story at the movies also was my parents’ first date. My family lived this story; they are Puerto Rican and Black. My father’s family is from Trinidad and he was raised in East Harlem; my mother’s parents were from PR.On top of all that, I was excused from football practice if I wanted to audition for the play. And it changed my life.

I then went to college, playing football and fell back into theater as a hobby. I did not go to a performing arts college. But at graduation, I realized I had spent more time in the theater—more than anything else, including the radio station, which was my major. After graduation, I realized I did not have the passion for working in radio as a career. But I did have the passion and I was willing to work as a manager and arts administrator in order to make a career in the theater. I began my theater career as an intern with Richard Frankel Productions.

Donna: How did you arrive at Manhattan Theatre Club?

 Jim: It was a long route. I graduated from college in 1991 and then landed at The New 42nd St. I was fortunate to be there when The New Victory opened in 1995. I had a hand in shaping the theater and helped develop and launch the New Victory Usher Corps Program, which allows youth the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the theater and it provides job training and workshops. After five years, we systemized it as an official program and it is still thriving today. I left New Victory in 2008 and went to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Within a year, I realized I missed working in theater. When I saw an opening at MTC, I applied. I have been working there since August 2009.

Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the arts and in what way?

 Jim: The impact that I have made as a man of color started while working at New Victory. When school-aged kids came to the theater and saw me as the manager of a beautiful theater, it became tangible for them to have different dreams. It made their experience of venturing to a different neighborhood and to a fancy, beautiful building more relatable because someone who looked like them was there to greet them and was running the theater. I witnessed that impact, and I have been fortunate to encounter some of those kids years later and they told me about the impact it had on their lives.

That fueled my passion to see representation and my desire to have that impact in Front of the House (FOH) theater operations, as well as on the stage.That is what will fuel the diversity in the audiences that everyone claims to want; but we also know more has to be done in order to achieve that audience diversity.

Donna: What role has mentorship played in the trajectory of your career?

 Jim: The theater business has always an apprenticeship-based business. Those of us with success in the business have had someone over us who said, “Come here. Let me show you the ropes.” I grew up in a mentoring culture, which I learned from my father, not realizing that’s what it was. He ran our neighborhood swimming pool and hired kids from the community. I did this as an adult, providing opportunities by hiring young people at New Victory. And many young people are now working in the industry in FOH positions. Now it’s taking the ideas and importance of inclusion to the next level.

 Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work, what were the influences?

 Jim: My approach as a manager, I use lessons from my Dad. As a manager in general, I feel I want to make my staff want to do a good job for me. I don’t rule by fear, but I try to create a culture that gets everyone on board, working with a shared mission and vision. And I hope they want to do a good job.

Donna: What were the challenges and how arethey addressed?

 Jim: There are challenges that are day-to-day. On the other hand, I have been fortunate in my life to only have experienced one blatant incident of racism. But every day, it’s dealing with the micro-aggressions that are always a challenge. For example, people not relating to me as the person in charge when they ask to speak to the manager. People assume I am a security guard when I stand in the lobby.These types of micro-aggressions are what I have to deal with regularly, but I rise above it. More than anything else, I set the example of professionalism.

Micro-aggressions exist in this business. in the arts, and behind the scenes, as well. People of color aren’t allowed to fail. At the same time, there is a certain amount of pressure and responsibility that we feel. To be recognized as doing a good job, people of color must do twice or three times as much as our peers a lot of times. It’s a constant struggle to present myself a certain way and to be recognized a certain way, so as not to give anyone the opportunity to criticize or chip away at my armor.

I am able to sustain this demeanor because I had great parents who were very supportive. They are first-generation Americans. I am the youngest of 9 cousins. My generation was the first to go to college. My parents said we were supposed to go because it’s the American dream.

It’s also tough not being raised in an environment where success is measured by job changes. It was tough early on to understand this and deal with the expectations of my parents and other family members who were concerned that I couldn’t keep a job. They didn’t understand that when a show closes you don’t have a job. But I am lucky to have continuously worked with different institutions since 1995, so that has not been an issue for me. When I speak with students I tell them I am proof that you can make a living in the theater.

Donna: What are the trends you see in diversity and inclusion and who is doing it successfully?

 Jim; I have to give credit to the regional theaters. Last summer American Theater Magazine wrote an article about transition in power in theaters across the country, and how this is an opportunity to inject new blood in to the industry. Some of the regional theaters are taking that to heart and are looking for the right candidates to lead them in order to be prosperous in the 21st century—filling leadership roles with women and people of color. In NYC, it’s a tough nut to crack. The leadership of the major non-profit theaters have been in place for a long time and, because of their success, they have maintained their positions. I am hoping the transitions of leadership within the regional theaters will impact the commercial theater stages as well.

I recently spoke at the 2018 TEDxBroadway, and I proposed a version of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” named after the late Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The “Rooney Rule” mandates that NFL teams interview at least one, qualified candidate of color for every available head coaching job. This broadens and increases the pool of candidates and exposes the owners to wider circle of qualified people.

We have to acknowledge that folks know who they know; they hire who they know. But hopefully, this idea could systematically help those barriers come down.There isn’t a governing body for Broadway like the NFL. The Broadway League is a trade organization for the Broadway theater industry. However, that should not prevent the Broadway gatekeepers from adopting the spirit of the “Rooney Rule”during their hiring processes.

Ultimately, every producer is a business owner and can do whatever he or she wants with their business. No one can tell them what to do. There is still hope that they not only will do what they want, but they also will do what is right.

Unfortunately, playwrights of color with success in this industry still aren’t elevated to commercial opportunities. Lynn Nottage has been writing plays for 20 years and she is the only female playwright to win two prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. Yet, she did not make her Broadway debut with the critically acclaimed play Sweat, for which she won one of the Pulitzers, until 2017. Given Lynn’s body of work, that’s shocking!

If a writer has a show on Broadway that doesn’t give a return to investors, but producers believe in his or her talent, the producers will still back that writer’s next play. On the other hand, you have writers of color, who have artistic successes and have gone on to commercial runs that are not as financially successful. And who are not given another opportunity. I feel that commercial producers don’t know what to do with writers who don’t come from the same background as they do. That’s frustrating.

 Donna: What will change this?

 Jim: If I had an answer, I would be a really rich man. All of us in a position to influence have to keep plugging away. The tide is turning in our society away from marginalizing people of color. Eventually, the tide will turn over fully.

Donna: Thank you Jim.  I am always impressed with my colleague’s positive vision and efforts towards creating access to the arts. Jim is great and clear about his mission. His mentorship is so important and an example of the necessity of building long term initiatives that can transform the lives of young arts administrators. Jim’s work in theater continues to be an example of how we can open doors and create pathways for people of color to have significant roles in theater.