My Career Choice: Leah Michalos – Wearing Two Hats

Leah Michalos is a busy woman. For her management company, Leah is currently working on Beau, a new musical by Douglas Lyons and Ethan D. Pakchar, developed in residence at The Directors Company, which recently debuted to critical acclaim at the Adirondack Theatre Festival. Beau will play a one-night-only performance at Joe’s Pub at The Public on October 28th in conjunction with the show’s album release.

For The Director’s Company, Leah is also currently working on the New York premiere of OEDIPUS: Sex with Mum Was Blinding, a co-production with the award-winning international theater company ODC Ensemble (Athens, Greece). A visceral, modern take on the classic Greek tragedy conceived, written, and directed by 2018-19 Fulbright Artist’s Award recipient Elli Papakonstantinou, this immersive opera will play a strictly limited engagement at BAM Fisher (Fishman Space), in Brooklyn September 25 –29.

Leah Michalos

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?Canton, Ohio might be a football-loving town, but it also loves the arts, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in a community and family that valued involvement in the theater. There wasn’t one event in particular that triggered my interest – it was an amalgamation of my childhood, high school, and various experiences into my adult years.

My sister and I had an entire basement of costumes and props (seriously, it’s a prop master’s dream down there) and I’d write a play, give all the kids in the neighborhood different roles, and then “sell” tickets to the adults in the neighborhood to come watch what we thought to be the greatest play ever put on by neighborhood kids in the history of, well, neighborhood kids. 

GlenOak High School had a strong emphasis on fine arts (you could graduate with a drama specialization diploma), and for one of our senior projects, my theater teacher, Carla Derr, had us imagine creating a theater from the ground up: from finding a building that could house a theater (complete with being required to accurately sketch the number of seats it could hold, and how that would affect our revenue) to putting together a board of directors, choosing what shows will best fit in our season, raising money, how to post audition notices, where to market the shows — basically everything that goes into successfully creating the business of theater. I doubt many high school students are taught how to do that, and while we definitely need a deeper focus on arts in schools, I think we also need to teach how the arts can be a business — before one gets to college. 

Beau The Musical (Photo: Jim McLaughlin)

What about this career choice did you find most appealing? Everything is constantly moving, and one day can be completely different from the next. The business side interests me just as much as the artistic side. I love being a part of the process that brings new work to the stage and seeing ideas literally come to life. 

What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
When I was in college, it didn’t occur to me to turn a passion into a career. I double majored in English and Criminology (yes, criminology – studying the root cause of people’s behavior has proven quite useful!) at The Ohio State University, then went on to get my MFA in writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had different jobs along the way – from a file clerk at a courthouse to raising money for the DNC during the 2004 election, to running a youth arts program in Chicago, to being a wine and travel writer, before finally realizing I could combine everything I had been doing into a career in the theater.

I started as the education director for O’Neill at Yale/Playwrights Theater of New York, heading the “chain-of-mentorship” between professional playwrights, playwrights at Yale, and aspiring playwrights in the New Haven Public School system with the end goal of the festival of plays by and inspired by Eugene O’Neill. After that, I landed as the associate general manager at The Directors Company, and it was there that I was really given the opportunity to grow into the career. The artistic director, Michael Parva, really encouraged me along the way. As the current producing director, I, along with Michael, run the company in tandem, each bringing our expertise to the table. It was there that I learned what it truly takes to be a general manager, and it gave me the confidence I needed to start my own general management company, Michalos Theatrical Management.

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?I’ve always found people to be encouraging along the way. If people are discouraging toward you, you probably don’t need that negativity in your life. It’s helped to have mentors along the way, like Julian Schlossberg, who encourages me to actively pursue my goals, and provide opportunities along the way to do so. 

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?There were plenty of times I faced challenges and said my now go-to line, “I shoulda been a dentist.” But I never acted on that. At the end of the day, I know I’ll be most fulfilled where I am right now. I’ll keep adapting as the business morphs, but I can’t think of another career that will satisfy me in quite the same way.

When did your career reach a tipping point?I think I’m on the brink of the tipping point. Starting Michalos Management has opened doors and brought more people and projects. I’m excited to be fully immersed in this journey.

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?Being a woman in this field is challenging enough. I’ve had to make a place for myself and earn the respect of my peers while continuing to learn and grow along the way. Often times, not only am I the only woman at the table, I am also one of the youngest. It’s hard to speak up and have your voice heard, especially when others in the room call you “honey” or “young lady.” It’s something all women deal with, and we all will continue to fight to be equally represented at the table.

What single skill has proven to be most useful?Being calm under pressure is my single most valuable skill. I once had a producer tell me, “why aren’t you overreacting?! You’re so low-key, you’re practically off the keyboard.” There is always a solution for everything, and coming to that solution in a diplomatic and level-headed way is always the best approach. The drama should be saved for the stage!

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Bringing in all of my productions on or under budget! But seriously, this is a hard one. There is no single accomplishment that I’m most proud of, rather, there are moments within each production I find fulfilling. 

Any advice for others entering your profession?
Being a general manager is not a career where success is just handed to people. There’s no “luck” in it. Success is for those who commit their time and energy to it pretty ceaselessly. Find successful people in your field and learn from them. Make a spot for yourself at the table, and know that your voice matters, and that if you work hard enough, and believe in what you are doing, you will succeed. 

Top: OEDIPUS photo by C Karol Jarek

For more information, go to the websites for:
Michalos Theatrical Management
The Directors Company
The Directors Company Facebook
The Directors Company Instagram
ODC Ensemble