The Flea Theater’s producing director Carol Ostrow lived many fascinating lives, each perhaps worth a memoir as they have encompassed everything from being a young aspiring actress to founding theaters to having tea with the Queen of England. A Pittsburg native, she graduated from Vassar College and Yale School of Drama, performed for five years and decided to switch gears to become a producer, which was only the first career shift in her perpetual search for challenge.
“As a young actress I was often cast in regional theaters outside New York where there was nothing to do during the day, so I helped stuffing envelopes and photocopying,” Carol recalls. “I saw the hum of producing and realized how late in the game an actor came, and also how replaceable he or she was. Losing a designer or a producer was a disaster, but finding another actor was not a big deal.”
Then a drama professor at Vassar invited her to teach a class where she was thrilled to work with what she descries as “an incredibly talented group of people.” On her reverse commute from New York to Vassar, she began thinking of approaching acting in a different, almost holistic way – not just seeing an actor’s own part, but rather viewing the production effort as one big whole. She founded the Vassar Powerhouse Theater, which is now in its twenty fourth season with productions that have successfully appeared on Broadway and Off-Broadway, including Tony Award winners Sideman by Warren Leight and Tru by Jay Presson Allen and the smash-hit hip-hopera The Bomb-itty of Errors.
In search of a new endeavor, Carol joined the Classic Stage Company right after the organization lost its founding father, Christopher Martin. “Christopher was quitting a lot and one day he quit one time too many,” Carol humorously tells the story of how she made the theater rise out of ashes. “The Board accepted his resignation and then the assistant director quit too. There was only an intern.” Carol planned the new season with three new directors, one of which—Carey Perloff, she later chose to keep, and proceeded to meticulously eradicate the company’s debt. Next year, she produced The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jim Simpson, Elektra, directed by Carey Perloff, and became an OBIE-award winning producing director. “The Classic Stage Company was such an inspiring place to work in,” Carol says. “For me, the physicality of the space has to work – and that space was fabulous, it was magic!”
By this time, Carol was a mother of twin girls, so spending nights and weekends on the set and figuring budgets in her office was taking its toll. Instead of opting for a career break, Carol solved that impediment by embarking on yet another adventure. In 1988, when her twins were fifteen months old, she moved her family to London, where she became a financial consultant to many theaters. “No one in London knew how to raise money,” she reveals. “They all work for the government, they are not used to raising money.” Soon, Carol was offering her consulting services not only to theater productions, but also to art foundations, including the British Museum (BM). “It was almost an antithesis of my prior work,” she laughs. “Before I worked for live theater, now I worked for dead things! But the curators were great – they had incredible knowledge of civilization. Plus there were all these intrigues going on at the museum – it was really interesting!”
Carol recalls her time in London with great affection—she and her husband made many friends and travelled all over Europe. She also started American Friends at the British Museum, an ex-patriot community. One of her great successes was raising money for the relocation of Collection of The Americas from the Museum of Mankind into what had previously been a library collection. “The game in England was to be presented to as many royals as possible,” Carol shares the intricate details of her British incarnation. “The royal patron at the BM was the Queen, who had to match the money we raised, so she personally congratulated us on doing a great job.” A sudden British accent in her voice, Carol quotes the Queen, “‘I knew I had to match the funds, but I didn’t expect to match them just so quickly!’”
Buy that time Carol was already a mother of four; her two younger children had been born in London and she felt it was time to go home. She returned to Pittsburg where her children reconnected with the family, while she reconnected with her high school friends. She taught theater at Chatham College, and organized benefits and fashion shows. “I gave back to the community that raised me,” Carol says. “It was a good thing to do.” But of course, restless as always, she couldn’t stay too long in one place. Her husband got an offer from the Canada-based air space transportation company called Bombardier, which manufactured plains and trains, including the New York City subways cars, and the family embarked on yet another escapade, this time in Montreal.
Six years later, after teaching theater at McGill University and perfecting her French (although Carol insists it’s still far from what the French consider fluent), Carol came back to New York, to call it once again a home. “I realized my children were being raised as subjects rather than citizens,” she explains. “My oldest daughters were ready to start high school and I wanted them to feel like they belonged.”
The timing of the family’s move could not have been harder—they returned to New York at the end of August 2001. “I moved here with the kids, while my husband stayed in Montreal for the time being.” Carol tells the story. “After September 11th, he couldn’t get a plane to fly to New York for almost a week—even at Bombardier!”
It was a difficult time for everybody. The downtown area was in terrible shape, many organizations were closed. People were moving out of the city. The Flea Theater was at a turning point. Started as an experimental space, it was ready to be transformed into an institution—a real theater company—but that required funds, efforts and experience. It was a challenge, so of course Carol jumped on it—and stayed for good.
For the past nine years she has been The Flea’s producing director and, together with Jim Simpson, produced a gamut of shows such as A.R. Gurney’s O Jerusalem, Post Mortem, Mrs. Farnsworth (with John Lithgow and Sigourney Weaver), Anne Nelson’s The Guys (with Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver), Elizabeth Swados’s Kaspar Hauser and JABU, and many others. She reads every submission The Flea receives.
She also produces for The Bats—the resident acting company founded to give new talent a start, which The New York Times called “the fuel in the theater’s engine.” A few Bats have made their appearances on Broadway so during auditions the lines of young eager actors wrap around the block The Flea is on.
Answering the question of how she managed family and children during such a demanding, ever-changing career, Carol shares some interesting insights. Since she was gone many evenings, the family meal wasn’t dinner—it was breakfast. “I always set my breakfast table the night before when I got home,” she says. “Also, we always did things in packs. We all got our haircuts together, did our shopping together, and shared our thoughts and opinions with each other.” She insisted on her children knowing their historical Jewish heritage. In addition to her busy professional life, she is also a trustee to the Central Synagogue, one of the oldest congregations in New York City.
When asked why the independent theater became her true passion and whether she sees herself ever moving to Broadway, Carol shakes her head. “Off-Broadway is very entrepreneurial. I like working with individuals who think outside the box. I’m not sure I’d be as successful with people who only see one slice of the pie.” She smiles, and adds, “But of course, I like to see my plays going to Broadway. And one day winning a Tony!”
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Petrarca on the corner of White and Church. Excellent homemade food; we feature the place in our theater program. We saw each other through the tough times of 9/11 – and we both made it.
Favorite Place to Shop: Loehmann’s
Favorite New York Sight: Driving down Fifth Avenue in a bus or taxi, watching the Metropolitan Museum of Art melt into Central Park.
Favorite New York Moment: Twilight in the fall. The sky is the same exact purple that you see in theater sets—it’s a very romantic color.
What You Love About New York: New Yorkers, their energy and drive.
What You Hate About New York: New Yorkers, that edge and the wrong sense of entitlement. It’s a great city, but you need to earn the right to live here.
For more information, go to www.theflea.org
Photos from top:
Sigourney Weaver, Carol Ostrow and Vicki Reiss, Executive Director of The Shubert Foundation
Carol Ostrow and Jim Simpson run the auction at Tribeca Performance Arts Reception
Carol Ostrow with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at Tribeca Performance Arts Reception
Carol Ostrow and playwright A.R. Gurney, whose World Premiere Office Hours begins performances at The Flea September 18
Exterior of The Flea Theater