Carmel High School 2012 grad Joel Kirk said that his passion for theatre was conceived when he was approached by Laura Palmer, then a student director of one-act plays, who recognized his talent and insisted he audition for one of her shows, which he did, and subsequently landed the part. Now, an associate producer for the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Palmer opened the door for Kirk to go on to perform in CHS plays, musicals and with its renowned Ambassadors show choir.
Now a full-fledged producer-director living in New York City, 26-year-old wunderkind Kirk specializes in the development of new plays and musicals. He has worked with New World Stages, Playwrights Horizons, New York Musical Festival, The Lark, New Dramatists, The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture and Hudson Guild Theater, just to name a few. He has guest directed for NYU’s Graduate Playwriting Program, Ball State University, The Julliard School, and Fordham University’s Playwriting Program. A graduate of Ball State University with a degree in Theatrical Directing, Kirk is the Chairman/CEO of Joel Kirk Productions, a company that produces commercial theatre. He graduated in 2015 after only three years from Ball State University with a degree in Theatrical Directing.
His newest venture is one which he hopes will bring the pre-Broadway experience to local theatre lovers. Kirk has founded a non-profit arts organization, Discovering Broadway, which will provide Central Indiana residents with a behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway show during its incubation period.
The organization will host the composer, lyricist, book writer, actors and director of a select Broadway-bound musical for a two-week intensive creative workshop. Typically only taking place in NYC, these events are not made available to the public. During this two-week creative process, Discovering Broadway will supply Broadway artists with creative resources for the musical’s development team to live and work in Central Indiana as they explore the artistic potential of the show and bring the story to first life for its world premiere. The two-week process prepares the show for its Broadway debut and provides an exclusive first look as it culminates with the actors presenting the show, scripts in hand, to its first audience here locally. For the inaugural year, local artists will also have the opportunity to audition to be in the pre-Broadway workshop, as well as take part in master classes and public forums with the Broadway actors and producers.
So that he may realize his ambitious goals, the visionary Kirk has assembled an impressive group of supporters and backers that include high-profile arts philanthropists and patrons, along with an A-list of corporate and community leaders, including the following executive board members: Board Chair Bruce Blumberg, Senior Vice President with Wells Fargo Advisors; David Owens, Corporate Marketing Analyst with Salesforce; and Jill Zaniker, who manages Jeff Zaniker Memorial Foundation for the Arts. Additional founding board members include Karen Barnes, Albert John “A.J.” Allen, MD, PhD, Lezlie Morgan Heath, Lynda Goeke, Laura Campbell, Dean and Becky Glascock, David A. and Victoria Temple, June McCarty Clair, Brian Bondus, Anthony Lazzara, Sam Arce, and Jill Reese.
Advisory board members include Joanna Taft, Brian Payne, Terry Anker, Mo Merhoff, Don Woodley, Leah McGrath, and Kelly Butler Smith. Platinum contributors include Marianne Glick of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Family Foundation, Stan and Sandy Hurt of Indiana Supply Corporation, Don Knebel and Julie Goodman, President & CEO of the Arts Council of Indianapolis.
Learning about the new organization, which launched in September, through social media posts, I had every intention of contacting Kirk for an interview, but he beat me to the punch when he messaged me on Facebook and asked to meet with me. The gesture was indicative of someone who is fearless and also shows that here is an artist and an entrepreneur who is sincere and has great passion for his work. Eventually, I met with the enthusiastic young dynamo, who has an expansive personality, to discuss the formation of his new organization, along with its mission and goals. What follows is an edited transcript of our extensive conversation.
What is the first show you are workshopping and what is the timeline?
Our show will premiere February 14 and 15, 2020. Particulars will be announced later this month at an event.
Whom did you first approach with the idea to found Discovering Broadway?
First, I went to the arts leaders to make sure they were all right with me playing in their sandbox. It doesn’t really matter if you grew up here when you start something new and people are already doing exceptional things. I wanted to make sure I was doing something different and something to enhance what was already here. You don’t want to be a bad guy. You want to be a partner. Later, I met with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard and Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness because I knew they were interested in talent acquisition and creating arts initiatives for their respective cities. I am optimistic and a dreamer, but I am also a pragmatist. My experience as a producer is in the world of research and development, so reaching out to these parties first was a necessity.
Why Central Indiana for your organization?
Whenever I would return to Indiana to visit family and friends, I would be reminded of how special it is. As soon as would step out of the airport in Indy, I would think “This is what fresh air smells like.” I would have drinks with friends and family and think, “Oh, right. The beer is inexpensive,” and then I would go see a show like “Bright Star” at The Phoenix or “12 Angry Men” at the IRT or see “Steve Martin & Martin Short” at The Palladium and be reminded about all that is spectacular here. I never forgot that. Often we don’t need new life lessons; we just need reminding.
It makes more sense to do it in Indiana than other places. Indiana has been an incubator town for a very long time. Amateur sports to pro sports. New tech companies have initiated a tech explosion. The Palladium, The Cabaret, The Cat. A majority of the audience in New York for a Broadway show for the first two months is New York-based, every month thereafter over 60 percent are tourists. Clearly, there is a passion for Broadway in Indianapolis. We were one of the early Broadway touring towns.
What excites you about the incubator process?
Unlike La Jolla (Playhouse) and getting the whole production, I am not interested in or excited about that. By the time you get to the production, it’s done. Things are locked in. Shows are tested in the marketplace. That is what Chicago and Massachusetts are for. I am interested in where Broadway begins. In the workshop and the exciting and enhanced concert setting. So many people know the song “Let It Go” (from “Frozen”). It went platinum, but very few people were in the room to hear it first. Same thing with “Bring Him Home” (from “Les Miserables”). They were already in previews when that was written and 24 people heard it for the first time. I am interested in being in rooms where genius is being fostered and all of us get to benefit from that. That is what is missing from education. We learn the basics but not the applications and what the motivation is. If you watch your heroes fail, it does something to you. It inspires you, “Oh, Steve Jobs made a lot of mistakes.” We can all keep going and keep fighting. That kind of perseverance should be tantamount in education. Ninety percent of work in New York is new work. Even a revival is totally new. Being able to collaborate on a high-profile project that’s aiming for Broadway is another kind of education that Indiana’s hungry for.
Will you cast local actors in these workshops?
Every year will be different because every show will be different. Some producers will come having selected the show cast. The first show will include eight high-caliber Broadway actors and ten will be Midwest based. There are ways of getting local people involved, such as local stage managers and musicians. People are so excited and motivated to make those exciting things happen. In many ways because those doors are locked in New York and sometimes I am the one locking them. That’s the irony. When we do workshops here, more people benefit. Producers, writers, directors, and actors in New York want to get out of town. For them, it is a literal retreat. Being in a new place activates creativity in your brain because it is trying to acknowledge all kinds of new patterns “Where am I directionally?” “What’s the weather?” It is actually more creative when getting out of the studios they are in. New York artists love Indiana. Whenever someone has come out and I have given them a tour, they say, “I thought you said there were cornfields?” They have been blown away by the generous humanity of people here. We don’t make eye contact in New York. If you do, you are in trouble. I say this to my board, “There is nothing like Hoosier hospitality.”
What is your job description?
I am the sole employee of Discovering Broadway. I select the show, handle sponsorships, fundraise, do board management, and handle all the administration duties and the financing. There is a role there that gives me footing.
Tell me about your production company in New York and how will you divide your time between managing it and your organization here?
Seventy percent in New York and 30 in Indy. It depends on the board. I have strategically built a board of directors in which everyone knows their role. Everyone knows their expectations and they lead out of their role. The production company I run does producing and directing. I also freelance direct, which means I either direct things that are brought to me or because I like them. We’ll do producing and investing for different shows.
Does working two jobs and spending time in two places split your focus?
The greatest asset is the continued living in NYC. Relationships are everything. On the other hand, I will never do virtual meetings with my board. Casting is 90 percent of directing. Casting your donors, and board of directors is the most important decision you can make. Reputation takes years to create and seconds to destroy. And ergo, people in Indiana do an amazing job of thorough research, which is another value growing up here. Legitimacy is what we are looking for. One of the first questions in any relationship is “Do I trust you?” I have a special place in my heart for my board members because they all said yes first when the risk was highest and yes when there were so many unknowns. I have a deep, intimate love for my board. No matter what happens five or ten years down the road, they will always be first in my heart.
What is Discovering Broadway’s annual budget?
The budget is a quarter of a million a year, so we are one of the smallest nonprofits working with the highest stage.
So, are you in fundraising mode?
You are always in fundraising mode.
Do you like fundraising?
I do like it.
What do you like about it?
I like that fundraising changes the world and if you really want to change the world, you better learn how to fundraise. Whether you want to raise money for a school in Africa or you want to send people to the mission fields or if you want to get the right candidate to change the world, you have to speak to people’s resources.
Do you depend on your board members to fundraise?
I told them all going into this that the three grievances people have being on boards is they say, “My role is unclear. I am fundraising more than they said I would. And we are meeting ten times more than we said we would.” And I said, “Fundraising will mean a couple of events, X, Y and Z and that’s it. We’ll meet four times a year and no more and your role is X. You and I are artists and producers, so we are trying to curate meaningful experiences and why would someone say, ‘Ugh, why am I on that board?’”
How did you learn about fundraising?
I picked the brains of producers when I first got to New York and I learned about operation agreements, etc. I tell people I don’t need $250,000. I need 250,000 reasons and 250,000 hearts ready to receive it, with all of them being excited and motivated. I am always learning how we can all benefit. The whole story is in my head, but every time I sit down with people, I have to go through history. How did we get here? Where are we going and why does it matter at all?
Does Discovering Broadway have a strategic plan?
Yes, it is a pitch deck…the for -profit world speaking to the not-for-profit world. The plan is to do one show a year and you don’t grow, you just do things better. Everyone has a group mentality in America and the idea is we are not great until we are bigger and my idea is not that at all. My idea is once you grow in some directions, you can never shrink back down to a healthy place. Most nonprofits own real estate or pay for it and they have a big staff, so most of their money goes to staff, so I am very strategic. I cast carefully so the board is empowered and proud of their position, so we can all be motivated to do things together.
What do you love most about theatre?
It reminds us of each other. I call theatre “The Great Show and Tell.” When you write a play or a musical, you are saying, “What do I want to show people? Why do I want to show them? How do I want to show them?” You are asking all of these questions about “What do I want to say?” You are saying half a thing because the other half is the audience. It really is like answer and response. The play says what one plus one is and the audience will tell you if it is 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. I love the Mamet quote, “You can know if the joke you’ve written is funny because if they don’t laugh, it’s a bad joke.”
Ultimately, what impact would you like to make on the Central Indiana arts scene?
I was lucky to grow up in Indiana and be creatively inspired and influenced by IRT, The Children’s Museum, The Cabaret, The Center of the Performing Arts, The Cultural Trail, Harrison Center for the Arts, and Heartland Film Festival. I had the idea for Discovering Broadway because there is no nonprofit in the world that exclusively works with Broadway-bound musicals. This has never happened before. What excites me is that I am now sitting next to the leaders who created and supported the institutions that inspired me as a child and they are the ones making Discovering Broadway possible. And Broadway is incredible and the people in the community are precious to me. The most precious things in our lives are the things we bring home.
What do you hope this venture will accomplish for you professionally? Personally?
I am the luckiest person I know. I get to create a program that benefits my two favorite communities: the Broadway community and the Central Indiana community. Professionally, I am doing what I have always done, having an idea, building the team around that passion, igniting them with a common vision, and mobilizing everyone to conquer the tasks to make something special. There is no ladder in entertainment, there are only the stories you tell and on what scale you tell them. Personally, I get the reward of being in a community with magical people in Indiana, New York, and artists and advocates from around the world.