My Career Choice: Barbara Pasternack – Artistic Director, TheaterWorksUSA

Barbara Pasternack has been Artistic Director of TheaterWorksUSA since 2000, assuming that position after the company’s founder, Jay Harnick, retired. TheaterWorksUSA has led the Theater for Young and Family Audiences movement in New York City and across North America for over half a century, creating exceptional, transformative theatrical experiences that are accessible to young and family audiences in diverse communities throughout New York City and North America.  Since 1962, the 501(c)3 not-for-profit has captured the imaginations of 100 million new and veteran theatergoers with an award-winning repertoire of over 130 original plays and musicals. The company produces high caliber, engaging theater that fosters an appreciation for the art form amongst expansive audiences, giving all generations something to enjoy, and supports creative and performing artists in their continued professional development, providing platforms for creative expression at any phase in someone’s career.

Pasternack has developed and produced almost 100 original plays and musicals, creating a critically acclaimed, diverse repertoire of family entertainment. The shows reach millions nationally each year, and TheaterworksUSA is an established brand, valued by educators, parents, and industry professionals.

Barbara has cultivated artistic relationships with hundreds of new and established writers, directors and performers, including Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen),  Bobby Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez (Frozen), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), Marta Kauffman and David Crane (Friends), Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx (Avenue Q), Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime,Seussical), Alex Timbers (Beetlejuice) Tony Phelan John Lloyd Young (Jersey Boys), and many others.

An accomplished dramaturge, Pasternack has optioned, commissioned and produced musicals and plays based on a variety of well-known literary properties including Little Women, which later was expanded and produced on Broadway, Sarah Plain and Tall, which was selected for the Eugene O’Neill Festival and later produced by the Dallas Theater Center, The Giver and Red Clay, which were later expanded and further developed by regional theaters, and  the critically acclaimed off-Broadway run and North American tour of The Lightning Thief – The Percy Jackson Musical.

In addition to sitting on various professional panels, Pasternack has been a longtime Lucille Lortel Award Nominator,  serves on the selection committee for the  Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat, and has taught at the NYU Graduate  Musical Theater Writing program.TheaterWorksUSA  has developed and toured family shows for nearly the past 60 years, They are gearing up to present the world premiere of Dog Man The Musical (which has the elementary school kids all aflutter). 

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I am not sure if I can point to one event. My dad was an actor. Before he got married he did summer stock and even some Off-Broadway work. When I was a kid, he was still doing community theater acting and had his own puppet and magic show. He and my mom had an incredible library of musical theater cast albums. I remember sitting in our basement listening to them, reading the notes on the back of the album covers and imagining what was happening on stage. I knew I wanted to be a part of the theater world. I can’t say I knew I wanted to be an Artistic Director at that point. But one summer I had the opportunity to produce a season of shows I had written and directed at a really crappy crafts village in the Catskills. It was terrible and wonderful all at the same time. We had to drum up business at bungalow colonies, and local camps. And I think I got mono…but I produced a season of three shows… I think that experience was pivotal.

What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I loved putting all the pieces together. I loved using all of my creative skills. I loved developing new work with new writers. I loved bringing stories to life.

What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I have a degree  in theater and education – my parents made me do that so I would have something to “fall back on.” I interned for a season at the Empire State Youth Theater in Albany. But  I think the best training I had was just doing. I convinced institutions to allow me to create new works programs. I wrote, directed, programmed, taught.

I started at TheaterWorksUSA, when I was quite young, as Assistant Artistic Director. I probably got the job because I was a sort of “jack of all trades,” but hadn’t focused on one. I not only learned from Jay Harnick, but was given a lot of free rein to commission and develop and produce new musicals – sometimes as many as four or five a year. That was really an education!

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I think people were encouraging. Getting the job at TheaterWorksUSA was not easy, but once I got it, I was encouraged to take a leadership position.

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
When I graduated I did experiment with other careers. I worked in publishing and event planning and even had a page one byline in the Wall Street Journal. But any time I was about to be promoted and that promotion might take me in another direction, I would quit and go back and do theater.

When did your career reach a tipping point?
I guess the tipping point was when Jay Harnick retired and I became Artistic Director. Once that happened, I stopped thinking about alternate careers.

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
When I was first starting out, I was often the youngest person in the room, and the only woman with a lot of white-haired men. I had to overcome being afraid I would not be taken seriously, or not speaking up for fear my ideas would be wrong. I had to find the courage to speak up, be confident. 

What single skill has proven to be most useful?
My ability to be a creative problem solver.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Well honestly I am most proud of raising a kind compassionate, loving, sane, smart, creative daughter who still likes to hang out with me. But professionally, I think I am most proud of my ability to spot, hire, encourage and support  emerging talent. .. young artists who have gone on to make real contributions to the industry. Though I haven’t won a TONY, many of the folks I’ve given first jobs to, have. I’m proud I was able to give them a creative home, an audience and a paycheck. And I am proud of  their accomplishments.

Any advice for others entering your profession?
Learn as much as you can. Initiate projects. Ask Questions. Get a mentor. Be fearless. Don’t be afraid to fail.

For more information, go to the website for TheaterWorksUSA.