The arts and culture industries remain largely at a standstill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting millions of workers in an already delicate ecosystem. The Broadway Community Project, from industry veterans Greg Schaffert, Tiffani Gavin, Situation Interactive, and Playbill, was developed to shed light on the myriad fields and roles that go into making the curtain rise.
In this new series, we shine a spotlight on the faces you may not see on stage, but are nevertheless critical in creating and maintaining a theatre production. These are just some of the arts workers who have put their stamp on an industry that contributed over $14.7 billion to the New York economy in 2019 and $877 billion in value added nationally; these are just some of the arts workers in need of relief legislation and a recovery plan.
Today, meet Susan Sampliner, the longtime company manager for Wicked. As a liaison between the general manager and the company (including the cast, crew, and various creative and administrative teams), Sampliner fields a variety of day-to-day operations in the office before making an in-person appearance at the theatre right around showtime (at least in normal circumstances. Her previous credits include The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Marie Christine, the 1983 revival of You Can’t Take It With You, and, with New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater), A Chorus Line and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In addition to her current work with Wicked, she is co-chair of the Broadway Green Alliance. Learn more about Sampliner and her work below.
Click here to explore the Broadway Community Project map in full (or submit yourself to be added).
Name: Susan Sampliner
Role: Company Manager at Wicked
What is a typical day like for you on the job?
I work in an office during the day (from 11 AM–6 PM) answering calls and emails, processing tremendous amounts of paperwork (payroll, union reports, correspondence, insurance claims, paying bills, processing ticket requests), and attending marketing and production meetings. In the evening (from 7 PM–9 PM), I go to the theatre. There, I work to represent the producers and general managers by checking in with cast and crew, checking the box office receipts, working with the stage manager and house manager about the operation of the theatre, and coordinating communications with all parties about upcoming events and promotions. Every day is different, and basically shaped by the calls and emails that happen to come in that day, making sure they get answered and processed efficiently and well.
What's your professional life like during the coronavirus pandemic?
It's finally settled down. It took me three full months to tie up loose ends and close the show down after we stopped suddenly on March 12. Now there's a little bit of work (union reports, marketing meetings, handling company requests for information), but I'm doing very little on my show—until we get a return date, at which time all hell will probably break loose!
How did you get your start in company management?
I thought I wanted to be a stage manager, because I didn't know what else there was to do if you didn't want to be an actor. After three years of trying that line of work, I realized that it was not a good fit for me; I didn't like rehearsal or tech or being at everyone's call without understanding the decisions and bigger picture. I switched to general/company management in 1980 by accepting a job at a general manager’s office as a messenger and office assistant. As soon as I got there, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.
Did you have a mentor while developing your career?
I had two great mentors. One was Bob MacDonald, who was the general manager of the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater). At first, I assisted him as his assistant company manager on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, then as his assistant general manager. He taught me how to balance the pressures and demands of the job by keeping a sense of humor and humanity in dealing with the various artists and audience members. The other one was Charlotte Wilcox. She was one of the pioneer women general managers, and she showed me how to be a tough manager and an empathetic human at the same time. She is beloved by both creatives and stagehands, and that says a lot in this industry. She also always has your back; it's her name on the door, and so she takes responsibility for all decisions, whether she made them or you did on her behalf.
What are three skills a company manager must possess?
Ability to multi-task, good with administrative details (writing/numbers), and good with people (artistic personalities and audience hospitality).
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
Most challenging: It’s hard to have boundaries and stop working; people expect you to be available whenever they need you. This has gotten much harder since cellphone and internet. The work is long and hard, and you're never totally caught up or done. Most rewarding: Being thanked by your company for taking good care of them, knowing that they couldn't give their best if you hadn't done everything you could to make it easier for them.
What do you wish more people knew about company management?
That it's actually very creative! People assume it must be dry, boring, and tedious. And it can be. But mostly it's very creative, because the tasks change day-to-day, show-to-show, cast-to-cast, and our contributions are integral to the success of the show.
Do you have a favorite memory or fun anecdote from your time on the job?
Running the auction of the props and costumes when the original company of A Chorus Line closed. We held it onstage and ended up raising $70,000 for the New York Shakespeare Festival. We even sold off one-foot sections of "The Line" itself. It was great fun and a great experience.
How would you like to see your field evolve in the future?
I'd love every company manager to have a full-time associate or assistant. Sometimes we don't, and it's not possible to do this job (at the Broadway level) without a backup person at least through opening night.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the theatre community?
It's a great honor. The field is very self-selecting; there are a limited number of jobs, and so it's really the best people who rise to the top and work regularly. I have been very blessed to work consistently since I started on Broadway in 1980. Other than this current COVID period, I have never been unemployed since I began. My role is one of support. I am behind the scenes, and what I do remains a mystery to many—both inside and outside of the industry—but I take a huge amount of satisfaction in knowing that the artists would be unable to deliver the quality product they do without the work I do to make that possible.
How can people learn more about becoming a company manager?
Take classes in arts administration, contact ATPAM (our union), or intern with a general management company.