Rob Ruggiero | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rob Ruggiero

Background:  

Doubters warned that bringing a big Broadway musical to as intimate a stage as Hartford’s TheaterWorks would be risky. Yet, on June 26 Rob Ruggiero’s spring production of "Next to Normal" earned five Connecticut Critics Circle Awards for best musical, director, actor, debut performer and lighting. Affiliated with Theaterworks since 1993, Rob has been its producing artistic director since 2012. He said the theater is  “extraordinarily supportive, which is rare to find.”

The Mistake:

Listening to others when my gut tells me otherwise.

I’ve directed big and small musical plays all over the country. One of the critical aspects of being a director is knowing how to cast the show, putting the right people around you. There have been times when I have been talked into or pressured into casting somebody I felt innately was wrong for the role. And I’ve always regretted that decision. It always has resulted in diminishing the impact of a show.

Other times I’ve been told I had to have a particular designer. Or told we had to use someone who was on staff or resided in the city we were in at the time. For the most part, when I have had a strong feeling that this is not a good idea, I would say 80 to 90 percent of the time it has not worked out.

There have been other projects where I’ve thought, "Oh we have a lot of budget strain this year, do I think this is wise?" And then I go on to choose a smaller scale project thinking, this’ll be good because I know that we’ll be risking less and it feels a little more responsible. Then the project ends up actually not doing as well as I thought it would.

Doing "Next to Normal" terrified me. I took a big risk with that. There were people who reminded me TheaterWorks doesn’t generally do musicals.  Some of the subscriber base asked, ”Oh why are you doing that?” Still, I knew the Pulitzer Prize pedigree would help the cause. And it’s not a musical with dance numbers. It has a strong profound story, so we made our production about a family struggling with the impact of mental illness. To me, it was just a play with music.

As it turned out, we had the largest subscriber turnout ever for an individual production – even more than "Relativity," which starred Richard Dreyfuss (in 2016). "Relativity" probably had the most single ticket sales, but they were neck and neck. They were both really successful productions for different reasons.  And now my audience trusts that there are musicals that fit our mission at TheaterWorks.

I would rather fail because of my choices than because I followed someone else’s lead.

The Lesson: 

A lesson I have learned over and over again is to trust your instincts. Sometimes advice, however well-intentioned, can be very limiting, especially fear-based advice. There have been times where I’ve made a choice because it felt a little safer and secure and it ended up actually being just the opposite. I’ve learned to be braver and trust my gut and believe in a project—and to trust our audience.

Ultimately, as an artistic leader you chose to lead.  And not everything pays off, but I would rather fail because of my choices than because I followed someone else’s lead.

Also, one of the things I think you learn as a leader is to make sure you get all the information and that you hear everyone’s side of the story before you take a risk or make a judgment. There are a lot of reactions around you—emotions around you. There are those times when I’ve had a reactive response, and usually that lacks a complete global view of what has happened. Now I try to always take a breath and talk to everyone involved and try to hear what the different perspectives are so I can make a really smart, informed decision. My decision doesn’t always please everybody, but at least it’s informed. 

Follow TheaterWorks on Twitter at @TheaterWorksCT.

Photo courtesy of TheaterWorks.

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