Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, who most recently was executive director of The Acting Company in New York City, started virtually Nov. 1.
| 1:31 p.m. November 4, 2020
West Orange Times & Observer
During the time of COVID-19, a lot of things changed — many times for the worse. But every now and then there comes a change that might actually work in a person’s favor.
That very thing happened for Elisa Spencer-Kaplan.
“I was looking to make a change,” Spencer-Kaplan said. “Obviously there is a lot of change being forced on the arts and culture sector by the pandemic, but it was really giving me an opportunity to re-examine what I wanted for my life as an arts leader and for my family.”
Looking for a change of pace quickly ramped up to actual changes when she was told about the Garden Theatre by a few of her colleagues who recommended she apply for the open managing-director role.
Spencer-Kaplan was impressed by what she was told about the theater — and specifically about how it had managed to keep operating during the pandemic in a safe manner. There was also the fact that the theater is known for its musical productions, and that was something she wanted to get back to.
“I’m a great lover of musical theater, and it’s something that I haven’t had as much opportunity to work with recently,” she said. “I’ve been recently at The Acting Company, which does mostly Shakespeare and Shakespeare-inspired work, and my heart and soul is in musical theater, so to be able to bring that back into my working life was something I was really excited about.”
Spencer-Kaplan applied for the job and had an interview over Zoom — a process that she said was a bit surreal — before ultimately getting the job.
The new job — which Spencer-Kaplan started virtually Nov. 1 before she goes in-person a month later — will utilize her skills in arts administration to help keep the theater running strong financially.
“In essence, I’m overseeing everything but the art, and then as far as the art thing goes, I’m working with Joe Walsh to make sure that we’re working in lockstep to achieve the artistic goals,” Spencer-Kaplan said. “I always start with the art — I think that’s paramount. … ‘How can we realize this vision? How can we make it the best version of itself?’
“So then my side of it is building a strategy, creating a strong financial plan that can help that to happen, creating new fundraising opportunities and building effective marketing strategies,” she said.
Although she is now in the administrative side of the art world, Spencer-Kaplan originally began her time in the arts as a singer.
Growing up in Minneapolis, she performed with the Minnesota Opera’s children’s chorus. That love for performance continued through her high school years and ramped up when she attended Carleton College, where she discovered non-musical theater. It was there where she fell in love with theater as a whole — including arts administration.
“I joined the college’s student company (The Uninvited Company), which was all student-run — we all lived in a house together and would spend our (time) making theater for the community,” Spencer-Kaplan said. “Part of that was budgeting our shows, marketing our shows and doing a little fundraising — I’d go around town with my tin cup out and ask for support from our local businesses. Out of that process, I kind of discovered the administrative side of the field, and that I really liked it.”
Following graduation, Spencer-Kaplan found herself at the Guthrie Theater on a fellowship before being accepted into the theater management master’s program at the Yale School of Drama.
After finishing the program — in which she spent time as company manager for the Yale Repertory Theatre and managing director for the Yale Cabaret — Spencer-Kaplan left for New York City and enjoyed time at a few different theaters before landing at her last role at The Acting Company.
Now that she’s in her new role in Winter Garden, Spencer-Kaplan is setting her sights on what she and the theater can do to make sure it thrives in the future.
“First and foremost for anyone in the arts right now is making sure things remain safe as we perform,” she said. “I know that the board and the staff have really big ambitions to increase its presence in the region and nationally, and I’m really excited to be a part of that effort.”