Part 2: Choosing Action – A Case Study with Jana Robbins
Last time, we touch based on the power in choice. In today’s column, we’ll examine choice in action. I couldn’t be more thrilled to present this through example. Joining me, from distance, and yet always close to my heart is friend and collaborator Jana Robbins.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Jana, she is an accomplished producer, director, and performer, who is known throughout the Industry for being her word, and living up to any and all actions for which she commits.
Jana and I connected this past week, and we dove right in:
Chris Massimine: Jana, how do you define success?
Jana Robbins: I define success as being happy with where you are and who you are. When you have that, other circumstantial success doesn’t matter as much. That said, my greatest successes have always come to me. So, again, I would say it’s the philosophy of having the courage to follow your dreams and make choices that keep you moving in the right direction to the attainment of those dreams. Never turn down an opportunity that is in alignment with your goals just because you’re afraid.
CM: Everyone starts the day differently, and how that occurs, in effect, sets the tone of your next 24 hours. When do you wake up, and what’s the first thing you do after that?
JR: I’ve never really been an “early riser,” unless I’ve got an early call on a TV show or film, or of course when I was raising my son, and had to be at a 10:00 AM rehearsal. On your average day I now choose to sleep until 9:30 AM or 10:00 AM. Given that I work out of my home office, (which I did even before the pandemic) I’m at the office the minute I awake, I check my phone, and I get to work. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed keeping my office at home.
CM: Okay, you’re in your home office; you’re digging into work, living your mission. What is Jana’s Robbins’ personal mission?
JR: I discovered my personal mission many years ago while attending the Self Expression and Leadership Program through The Landmark Forum. I have always sought to better myself through attending self actualization workshops and reading. So back in 1996, having just covered Tyne Daly on Broadway as Mama Rose in GYPSY, I had headed off to Los Angeles for pilot season to see if I could get a TV series as well, so that I could come back to Broadway not as the standby, but as the star. I was lucky enough to be cast in two series that were unfortunately never picked up by the networks. So, having not attained the goal, I had set my sites on, I felt a bit lost on what my next step should be.
Back in 1975 I had gained so much from doing EST – the precursor to the Landmark Forum – I decided to sign up again. And boy, am I glad I did. By the end of the seminar, we were asked to write a three-page paper about our purpose in life. Then, edit that down to one page. Then, edit that down to one paragraph. And ultimately, to edit that down to sentence that described your purpose in life. I wrote to be “Presenting theater and film entertainment that not only educates, but inspires us to create a better world.”
I realized that I was fulfilled and fulfilling my “mission” whether I was ON stage performing, or OFF stage directing and producing, as long as the shows I was doing helped to inspire others to be the best they can be, and, again, to help create a better world. Right after that, I ended up producing my first Broadway show Little Women, and fast forward, eventually led to my being a lead producer on Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish).
CM: Let’s go into that for a moment. Fiddler (in Yiddish) was the most unlikely of theatrical successes downtown at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene (NYTF), where I was CEO. Many people said it wouldn’t work. And yet it did! And it continued to do so commercially. You helped me to make that transfer possible, along with your producing partner Hal Luftig. How did that happen?
JR: First of all Chris, you set that in motion by asking me to be on the Advisory Board of NYTF years before Fiddler (in Yiddish). And of course when asking me to meet with you to discuss what the theater was doing and to discuss the idea of having Joel Grey direct Fiddler (in Yiddish)– you were always smart enough to ask me to meet you to talk over lunch, and that certainly is a way to get my attention!
After initially saying “who needs another Fiddler on the Roof,” – Fiddler had just received its third Broadway revival, has been done in every regional theater, let alone high schools and summer camps for decade – I listened to you share NYTF’s vision for the story, as told from today’s worldview, and to be played in the language that the people in the story would have spoken. I knew then it was everything that my Better World Productions (now Jana Robbins Productions) stood for. I knew I had to do it…whether others thought it was commercial, or not.
And then, when you told me that The Wall Street Journal got wind of the show’s success and a possible transfer, you asked if I would be the producer and speak with them. I was thrilled and honored. The day after that article came out, I got a call from Hal Luftig’s office, and I knew we were on our way! We found the perfect theater to hold the production from downtown at The Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living memorial to the Holocaust, without losing the show’s intimacy, and enhancing the look and sound of the show. It was “bashert”.
CM: The world is a very different place than it was 365 days ago. Let’s talk about resilience. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. The rulebook has changed. How have you adapted? How has your work adapted?
JR: Thank goodness that by the time this article is in print, I think we will be just about to come out on the other side of this pandemic. Theater will come back the way it always has and I envision a renaissance – the roaring 20’s all over as in The Jazz Age – only this time it will be the 2020’s! Like many of us, I too have done my meetings via Zoom, rather than in person. I’ve continued to produce, direct and perform via the Internet, as well. Fiddler (in Yiddish) will be back, as well as several other very exciting projects that I’ve been continuing to develop, AND another huge project that my producing partner Haley Swindal, I, and our company Pinnacle Productions, will be announcing in the very near future.
CM: What can you share with folks about Fiddler’s (in Yiddish) commercial future?
JR: Thanks for asking. I can elaborate by saying that we are continuing to work on presenting Fiddler’s (in Yiddish) National Tour, which would have launched this past year at The Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, as well as the possibility of still producing the show, as originally planned, in Australia and, perhaps even China.
CM: The power of creation and choosing your future is very real. You and I share this ideology and have seen it work time and again. How does Jana Robbins create a future?
JR: First of all, be true to yourself and learn when to say “yes” and when to say “no”. A future is created by learning from our past, and choosing to continue to move forward with passion into all the possibilities the future still has in store!
ABOUT JANA ROBBINS
Jana is a Tony nominated as well as an Olivier and Drama Desk Award winning Broadway producer and actor. She’s appeared in leading roles on Broadway in Good News, I Love My Wife, Crimes Of The Heart, Gypsy, where she stood by for Tyne Daly as Mama Rose, and The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife, covering both Linda Lavin and Michele Lee on Broadway and starring opposite Valerie Harper in the National Tour. Jana made her Broadway producing debut with Little Women starring Sutton Foster and earned her Tony nomination for her part in transferring The Kennedy Center production of Ragtime to Broadway. She also held a financial stake in both the Broadway production and National tours of War Horse and Something Rotten. She won an Olivier Award as a producer on the London production of Company, with the current Broadway production scheduled to reopen on Broadway in the fall.
Jana is also the recipient of the Drama Desk, Off-Broadway Alliance and Outer Critic’s Circle Award as the lead producer of Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish). Productions planned for Australia, as well as a National Tour beginning at The Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles are currently on hold. Other Off-Broadway producing credits include I Love You Because and Through the Night (Drama Desk nomination), among others. Shows she currently has in development are The Astonishing Times Of Timothy Cratchit, which recently had its World Premiere at The Hope Mill Theater in Manchester England, and The Jazz Age, which she directed and produced at The Playground Theater in London.
Jana is a recipient of the Jewish National Fund’s prestigious Tree Of Life Award. For more information visit: janarobbinsproductions.com