Producing a Second Career: Starting a Nonprofit Theatre Troupe

by Sara Davidson

It took Marcia Seligson a few false starts before she found the next act that was right for her.

 

Sara Davidson is the best-selling author of “Loose Change” and other books. She worked for years as a journalist, novelist, TV writer and producer—but at age 57, her life fell apart. She aged out of Hollywood, her children left for college and the man she loved walked out. “I’d hit the narrows—the rough passage in the next part of life.”

When Davidson decided to write “Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?” she interviewed more than 200 people who have grappled with the question: What's the next part of life about? In this excerpt, Davidson profiles Marcia Seligson, who burned out on her career as a journalist when she was 44 years old. After considering a number of options, she had launched a second career as the creator of Reprise!, a successful nonprofit musical theatre company in Los Angeles. 

 

The actors onstage are singing the love duet from Brigadoon, but Marcia Seligson can’t let herself slip into enchantment. With a week to go before opening, she has to fire an actor, replace the lead dancer who just sprained her ankle, and find a chiropractor for singer Debbie Gibson, who hurt her back and needs treatment. “Live theater is dangerous because there are no retakes,” she says, “but that also makes it thrilling. I just wish I’d started this when I was younger.”

Marcia created Reprise!, which produces three classic American musicals in Los Angeles every season, when she was fifty-seven. It was an immediate success; in 2004 Reprise! had the highest resubscription rate of any theater in Los Angeles. But Marcia, who’d been a writer who disliked writing, spent more than ten years fretting and circling before she came up with the vision for the company. On a Monday, a nonworking day for Reprise!, Marcia and I are sitting in the loft/office of her condo in Marina del Rey, looking out at the ocean. “When I’m talking to people on the phone in New York, where it’s snowing, and I look out the window and say, ‘Oh, my God! The dolphins are going by,’ you know what they say? ‘F*** you.’ ” 

We laugh. Blunt and gregarious, with blue eyes and a pleasingly zaftig figure, Marcia speaks with comic hyperbole. During a recent bout with the Atkins diet, she says, “I lost ten pounds, then I ate one piece of bread and gained it back.” Marcia and I have been on and off diets since we met in the seventies, when we were both writing for magazines. By any measure Marcia was successful: She was constantly working and had lucrative book contracts. “But I hated the isolation. I loved doing research and learning about things I didn’t know. But after writing my brains out, I never got much feedback,” she says. “What I hated most was the drudgery—day after day, month after month, sitting alone in my room.” The crisis that forced her to quit writing came after she got married at forty-four to Tom Drucker, a psychologist and management consultant.

False starts

They were offered a contract to write a book together, Good Marriage, about successful long-term marriages. “The arrogance! We’d been married a minute and a half and knew nothing,” Marcia says. “And our writing styles were different and we didn’t agree on anything.” They had a friend, a therapist who lived nearby, and they’d call him and say, “We’re having a conflict. Are you free?” Marcia says, “We spent more time on his couch than we did on the book.” They wrote 150 pages that Marcia felt “weren’t any good. Our editor left the business and nobody wanted the project. I told Tom, That’s it. I’ve gotta do something else.”

She considered going to law school and becoming an advocate for women’s rights, and also thought about “becoming a shrink. But then I realized, you’ll be back in a room alone with crazy people telling the same story over and over. I thought I might be good with groups or in a kind of therapy where I could say: Here’s what you should do. Leave your husband, get a job, get a lover, and stop kvetching!” After pausing to laugh, she says, “That’s why I love being a producer. I get to tell people what to do.”

Her husband, Tom, proposed that before going back to school, she should spend a year with him as a psychological consultant. Marcia worked with him and enjoyed it but kept being lured back to writing. An editor would call with an assignment, she’d write it and complain that she hated doing it. Tom told her to just stop. “Give yourself time to do nothing. See what happens.” Marcia says she tried that for three months but “I didn’t come up with anything.” 

She loved gardening, so she called a landscaper and said, “I’m thinking of changing my life. Could I follow you around for a couple days?”

She also toyed with starting a soup business. “I was going to be the Martha Stewart of soup.” The ideas came and went, but what she knew was: “I didn’t want to write another f***ing book.” Her doctor referred her to an executive career coach, Marta Vago, who questioned her about what she was good at, what made her feel inspired, and was there a time when she couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and start work?

The first thing that came to Marcia was the time she’d spent producing benefit concerts for the World Hunger Project. “I loved creating something out of nothing, surrounding myself with talented people, and doing work that made a difference.” She liked running from appointment to appointment and managing a staff of three hundred volunteers. Marta told her she was a natural producer, not a natural writer who wants to sit alone in a room with her thoughts. “It’s amazing you’ve stayed at it this long,” Marta said.

“What did I love?”

They began looking into what she might produce. “What did I know about? What did I love?” Marcia had grown up with music—playing piano, singing, and going to musical theater. She’d majored in music and sung in the collegiate chorale, and her family had invested in musical shows. “As we talked about it, I had this idea for Reprise!”

Marcia called friends who were actors, and they loved the idea. “If they’d said, ‘It’s dumb, it’ll never work in L.A.,’ I wouldn’t have done it,” she recalls.

“But there was never enough musical theater in L.A. There were only touring companies, and they didn’t do the great old shows.” She began inviting people out to lunch, asking for advice. “I put one foot in front of the other for six months. I had no idea how to start a theater; I didn’t even know stage left from stage right. If I’d known how complex and hard it would be, I’d never have had the balls to try it.”

People asked if Reprise! would be commercial or not-for-profit, and Marcia said, “I don’t know.” She put together a board of directors who advised her to make it not-for-profit and found a performance space—which is difficult in L.A.—the Freud (pronounced “frood”) Playhouse.

And then, she says, “two magical things happened. I decided I needed to have stars and approached Jason Alexander.” He’d become a household word playing George Costanza on Seinfeld, but Marcia knew he loved to sing and dance and had won a Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. She called him cold, told him her idea for Reprise!, and asked if she could take him to lunch. He agreed, and she said she was putting together the first show. “Is there a Broadway musical you’d like to do while you’re on hiatus from Seinfeld?”

Jason said he’d always wanted to do Promises, Promises, which had been a hit in 1968 and was the only musical Hal David and Burt Bacharach


by Sara Davidson | Monday, April 13, 2009 | Career Change, Nonprofit Jobs

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