With Jed Bernstein at the helm, Theatre Aspen begins ‘new era’
Hometown: New York, N.Y.
New job: Producing director at Theatre Aspen
Past accomplishments: President and CEO of Lincoln Center; Producing director at Bucks County Playhouse; President of the Broadway League; Tony Award winner for producing “Hair”
Is he a skier? Not yet.
Jed Bernstein has won a Tony Award and has run the largest nonprofit performing arts center in the world, he’s brought a historic regional theater company back from the dead and he’s run Broadway’s national trade association.
Now Bernstein, 62, is taking the reins at Theatre Aspen.
The Manhattan native is aiming to continue the nonprofit theater company’s upward trajectory, hoping to help it find its place alongside Aspen’s most globally renowned cultural institutions and in the theater industry’s national ecosystem.
“I think the aspiration for Theatre Aspen is similar to that of the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Institute — to have a national reputation and a solid and visible, productive place in that ecosystem,” he said in a recent interview.
BROADWAY TO ASPEN
Bernstein’s blue-chip theater resume includes serving as president of Lincoln Center from 2014 to 2016 and producing Broadway shows like the 2009 revival of “Hair,” which won Bernstein a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. He also produced the 2010 premiere of “Driving Miss Daisy” with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave and the 2008 production of “Equus” with Daniel Radcliffe.
But Bernstein has small-town credentials, as well. From 2011 to 2013, he served as producing director of Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and revived the bankrupt theater.
Along the way he also ran the Broadway League — the national trade association for the Broadway theater industry — from 1995 to 2006, shepherding the theater community through the aftermath of 9/11.
Bernstein has taught advertising, marketing and arts management at such institutions as Yale, New York University and Columbia Business School.
Whether it’s Aspen or small-town Pennsylvania or a massive institution like Lincoln Center, Bernstein said he believes that theater and community are inextricably intertwined.
“What they all have in common is the fact that theater — the most accessible art form from an audience point of view — has a chance to play a really important role in people’s lives,” he said. “The first question I ask when I’m talking to people in the community is, ‘What does this theater mean to you? What can this theater do for you?’ … I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between arts institutions and their community.”
Those needs were most evident in New York after 9/11, when Bernstein, through the Broadway League, was tasked with not only bringing crowds of tourists back to the theater district, but with boosting the morale of the city and the nation through his national marketing campaign (you may remember the post-9/11 “I Love New York” Broadway commercial shot in Times Square).
The Bucks County Playhouse, when Bernstein took it over, had gone broke and shut its doors. Bernstein is credited with fundraising to get it back open, remodeling the theater and making it a household name around the United States again — restoring it to its glory days of the 1940s.
“That town took tremendous pride in that theater,” Bernstein said. “That it was able to be reborn was immensely important to that community.”
Colleagues said Bernstein brings a vast and holistic understanding of the arts to Aspen, describing him as an executive as adept at budgeting or fundraising as he is with casting or creative decisions.
New York-based theater director Lonny Price helmed shows under Bernstein at both Bucks County and Lincoln Center. Price, whose credits include last year’s Broadway revival of “Sunset Boulevard” with Glenn Close, said that Bernstein’s depth of experience and expertise, along with his thoughtful touch, trickles down to the work audiences see onstage.
“Jed takes great steps to nurture and inspire the creative team both onstage and behind the scenes,” Price said via email. “At the same time he has a strong understanding of where his production experience can be a useful tool and where the team that he has carefully chosen should take the lead.”
‘WE NEEDED A JED BERNSTEIN’
Theatre Aspen is in an inverse position to where Bucks County was when Bernstein took it over.
Under the direction of Paige Price, who left Theatre Aspen in February, it has been the envy of local arts nonprofits over the past decade. The theater ran a successful $2 million capital campaign to replace its notoriously dilapidated tent, pulled itself out of debt, launched an apprentice program that draws students from around the country to Aspen and launched the Aspen Theatre Festival to workshop new plays and musicals, all while regularly winning Henry Awards from the Colorado Theatre Guild. That came along with partnering with local government to revamp the John Denver Sanctuary and wetlands surrounding the Hurst Theatre.
Last year, the company hosted record-breaking attendance of more than 11,000 for its three-production summer season. The Theatre Aspen board recently approved raising the nonprofit’s annual budget to $2.8 million for this year, up from $2.5 million in 2017.
So, Theatre Aspen didn’t need a savior to replace Price. But it did need a Jed Bernstein, board president Kimberly Schlosser said.
“We present an interesting opportunity for someone like Jed,” Schlosser said. “We’ve been on this upward trajectory, but we needed someone like Jed to come along and take us to the next level of success. We needed a Jed Bernstein right now.”
He began work at Theatre Aspen on Oct. 1. In just his first few months, Schlosser said, he’s making an impact.
“I think that he has already raised the bar in our office professionally,” Schlosser said. “He has higher expectations of our staff members and they are willing to meet the challenge. He is a New York City type of leader and businessman and that is serving our staff really well.”
Bernstein was available for the Aspen job because his Lincoln Center tenure was abruptly cut short. After two years at the helm, Bernstein stepped down in April 2016 after an undisclosed relationship with a staff member came to light.
Schlosser, noting that the relationship was between two single and consenting adults but had violated employee policy, said the nature of his departure from Lincoln Center caused no concern with the Theatre Aspen board.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Schlosser said. “We were not concerned about it in the least.”
Asked about his exit from Lincoln Center, in light of the current national dialogue about inappropriate workplace behavior, Bernstein noted it was of a different nature than the incidents making headlines since the fall.
“This was not about the current issues of harassment, this was something rather different,” he said. “I wish it had ended differently. I’m proud of what I accomplished there.”
Along with the rest of the Broadway community, Bernstein got to know Theatre Aspen through Price. The pair have been friends for two decades. During visits to Aspen to fundraise for the Lincoln Center and to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Bernstein attended rehearsals and toured the tent theater. He also bought a brick outside of the Hurst during the 2013 fundraising campaign.
When Price announced she was leaving Aspen to run the Philadelphia Theatre Co. in February, Bernstein said, he took her out for a celebratory lunch in New York. Without an eye on the job in Aspen, he asked about who would succeed her. A few weeks later, he said, as he thought about how much he liked Aspen and the Theatre Aspen program and how fulfilling his time at Bucks County had been, he rang Price to ask about throwing his hat in the ring to succeed her.
“I wasn’t necessarily anxious to take on running another venue, but I was thinking, ‘Gee, this would be an interesting combination,’” Bernstein said.
In July, the Theatre Aspen board reached out to Bernstein and brought him to town. The board quickly voted to hire him.
“It happened very fast,” Bernstein said.
BIG IDEAS and ‘A NEW ERA’
As it enters its 35th-anniversary season this summer, Theatre Aspen is primed to continue on its upward trajectory. But how it might expand its programming and grow from here remains up in the air.
“It’s a new era for us, starting right now,” Schlosser said.
Following the Manhattan-Aspen split-time model that Price used running Theatre Aspen, Bernstein is planning to come to Aspen once per month during the theater’s offseason while working full time in its office at the Red Brick Center from May through September.
Since the fall, he’s been making the rounds in town meeting donors, audience members and learning about Aspen.
“I want to spend as much time as I can getting to know the community, showing my face,” he said. “My commitment to the board was that I want to spend my first three or four months on a listening tour, talking to everyone I can.”
Bernstein was between meetings when we met in a quiet corner of the St. Regis Resort over Christmas week, with Aspen nearing its holiday fever pitch. Santa Claus greeted children in the lobby, a sommelier sabered a bottle of Champagne on the patio and Bernstein battled the effects of altitude as we settled into an out-of the-way couch in the hotel basement to discuss his goals for Theatre Aspen.
By the time the summer season opens in June, Bernstein expects to have chosen some goals and made recommendations for a long-term strategic plan for the organization. Nothing is off the table for the future of the theater, he said.
“Is it a place that becomes famous for developing new work?” Bernstein asked rhetorically. “And if it’s new work, is it plays or musicals? Is it a place where the creative quality level just continues to rise? Is it a place that becomes famous for working with celebrities and people of national reputation? All of these things are possible.”
Partnerships with other arts organizations and beyond served Bernstein well in New York and at Bucks County. He scored a coup for the Broadway League, for example, when he teamed with the NBA to produce the 1998 All-Star Game halftime show at Madison Square Garden. So he’s casting a wide net looking for new ways Theatre Aspen can team with other Aspen institutions in the arts, the tourism sector and in the ski industry.
“I want to find those kinds of opportunities and moments and get Theatre Aspen embedded even more deeply into the community,” he said.
Bernstein wants Theatre Aspen to have a presence outside the Hurst Theatre and year-round.
“When I think about Theatre Aspen as a brand, it transcends what happens in the venue,” he said. “What Theatre Aspen can contribute to this community and what it can achieve is not limited to those 90 days in the tent.”
Some ideas, such as finding a year-round performance space or developing a touring company to take Theatre productions around Colorado, have been floated regularly in recent years. Bernstein is still evaluating those and many other ideas. He suggested possibilities like staging a production over the Christmas-New Year’s tourist boom time, or in the springtime, or developing an intimate cabaret-style series, or maybe moving the Aspen Theatre Festival out of September and into a different calendar slot.
“All of these things are up for grabs,” he said. “I want Theatre Aspen to be relevant for more than three months per year. We want Theatre Aspen to be contributing to the excellence of this community for more than three months a year.”
Making that happen will be dependent on outreach, Bernstein said.
“You have to be willing to reach out and grab people by the scruff of the neck and say, ‘Here’s what we’re about, but we also need to know what you guys need,’” he explained. “What happens outside of the theater is going to be as important, if not more, as what happens inside.”
As Bernstein settles into his job, audiences won’t likely see any major changes at Theatre Aspen during his first summer season.
“My feeling about this summer is ‘Do no harm,’” Bernstein said.
The company has announced a three-show lineup for 2018, with productions of the musicals “Ragtime” and “Godspell” and the play “Our Town.” The program signals a minor tweak to the summertime formula of the past decade, which typically included one marquee musical, one small-scale play, and a children’s show. The 2018 lineup drops the children’s show, picks up a family-friendly musical production in “Godspell” and includes a larger scale play than usual.
Recent summers have seen fewer performances of the children’s shows, along with smaller audiences and decidedly lower ambitions than the other titles in repertory at Theatre Aspen.
“I don’t think the third show should be a stepchild to the other two,” Bernstein said. “I want all of our shows to appeal to a large range of people. I think the third show should be a show that family audiences can enjoy.”
While dropping the children’s show, the company will be expanding its education programming for kids this summer and increasing the number of performances by the Theatre Aspen School to continue serving its youngest audiences.
Choosing the classic “Our Town” for its play also signals what may be a slightly new direction for drama at Theatre Aspen. The company’s plays have leaned toward small casts — mostly one-man shows and two-handers like “Fully Committed” and last summer’s “Sex with Strangers.” By contrast, “Our Town” has 24 roles to fill.
“With the plays, I think we have the opportunity to also be ambitious,” Bernstein said. “I don’t think the summer is time for ‘Death of a Salesman’ and dark dramas, but I do think it’s time for plays that are familiar titles, plays that might lend themselves to celebrity casting, plays that entertain as well as inspire.”
And “Our Town,” the classic Pulitzer-winning play about small-town life in early 20th-century America, most would agree, is an apt selection for Aspen.
“Talking to people who have lived here a long time, it makes me think of ‘Our Town,’” Bernstein said.
He’s trying not to shake things up too much in his first season. But Bernstein hopes, before long, Aspen will see his impact on the theater and the community.
“Nothing would make me happier than to put forth an exciting view of how this theater can grow and thrive over the next couple years,” he said, “and then on the 40th anniversary to be able to say, ‘Look what happened!’”