Runyonland, Broadway’s Youngest Producers, Reimagine the Business of Theater

Thomas Laub and Alyah Chanelle Scott of Runyonland Productions are the youngest lead producers on Broadway. Now going into Sunday’s 77th Tony Awards, they are nominated in the Best Revival of a Play category for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate” and Best Revival of a Musical for “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” starring Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad.

Already winners for their work on “Parade” and “American Utopia,” Laub founded the company in 2018 as a theatrical production company dedicated to the hyper-local — “all-regional with little insular producing cells in different cities,” he told TheWrap — while partnering with local theaters and educational institutions in Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; and Detroit, Michigan.

“We started realizing that these hyper-local stories really held an appetite,” Laub said. “And they would potentially outsell some of the touring offerings that were coming through, and we would see dialogue about them in a really exciting way that felt like proof of concept of theater that is relevant to people right now.”

Chanelle Scott, an actress best known for her starring role on Mindy Kaling’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” had a similar awakening to the business of theater on a national scale while touring with “The Book of Mormon” fresh after college.

“I started asking a bunch of questions, wondering how much money does a tour make, and how did these audiences get marketed the show and how do they come to the theater?” she said.

Their creative instincts, curiosity and business savvy brought Chanelle Scott and Laub, who met while studying at the University of Michigan, back together after the Runyonland founder convinced her she was a true producer at heart.

“We’ve been working together ever since to try to sort of do that thing of learning the rules, learning how it’s made, so that we can figure out the way we want to change the rules. What rules work and what spots we feel like we can hone in and be problem-solvers and take the form to the way we want it to go,” Chanelle Scott said.

Added Laub: “We so often say you can’t break the rules until you know the rules.”

The pair spoke with TheWrap ahead of Sunday’s Tony Awards for this week’s Office With a View to break down their innovative approach to theater-making, the importance of transparency in all facets of the craft and business and more.

You’re talking about this idea of learning the rules to eventually find out which ones you want to break. What rules along the way have you found yourself breaking?
Thomas Laub: The first and my biggest piece of the puzzle here has always been transparency, a focus around financial transparency. We’re entering a phase, a macro trend of these shows being riskier than ever. And with less production recouping their investment than ever, how can we make accurate and justifiable promises to our investors in terms of how we shepherd their investment? How can we be most transparent with how we do that? How can we share the most information without compromising any part of the show? So we want to be collaborative.

And I think that that’s not just from the show to its stakeholders, it’s also to other producers. The environment between producers has historically been so exclusionary and opaque in how that communication was processed. And we have so many producers who are on a myriad of different projects who we love swapping thoughts with. I like to think that it’s a generational shift of the idea of the rising tide lifts all boats. If we all do what’s working, we’ll all come out ahead.

Have you come up against any biases in terms of your experience or in terms of your perspectives? 
Alyah Chanelle Scott: Luckily I feel like we have not. We’ve worked with people who have been very kind and shepherded us into the space and fully opened the door. In theory, you hear a lot of generational Broadway as such old hats, but I think people are open to the idea of learning new ways as the world is shifting so much and the model is shifting so much. You know, how do we get young people to that theater? How do we get them interested? I think people’s minds are opening up.

T.L.: We’ve always tried to show up for our partners, and I like to think that’s at least reflected in the generosity and inclusion that they’ve shown us. I wish we had this dramatic story about, hey, they slammed the door in our face – they really didn’t. We’ve both certainly experienced our fair share before we stepped into the producing world of, wow, I sure wish that didn’t happen like that. But it boils down to we have some really wonderful partners and mentors that we owe everything to.

A.C.S.: I also think there’s a level of respect. We are such history nerds. And above all, we care so much about the future of the industry. When everyone enters this space with real love and care for artistry and the responsibility of what we’re all there to do, and we’re not there to point out flaws, and we’re not there to say you’re ignorant, or you’re not doing this properly. It’s like, how can we all work towards the common goal? And I think we find more often than not everyone does sort of have the same common goal.

These two projects you’re Tony-nominated for are very different, but how do you feel they encapsulate the ethos of what your work is all about?
T.L.: We like to come back to “bold and unapologetic” as the centering force for what we want to do. And I think that that goes back to the shows that we’ve coproduced, as well. So we always like to say that, you know, though “American Utopia” and “Slave Play” are very different titles with very different audiences and intents, they both are bold and unapologetic and communicate their point in a different way. And I think that, you know, that comes back to this for us, as well.

“Gutenberg!” spoke to the amazing kind of joy of creation that I felt like Alyah and I both feel so intimately and it’s just a love letter to the theater and is a love letter to Broadway and those are artists. It was just such a truly joyful experience and the rotating guest list only made it more and more of a fun frenzy. And then going over to “Appropriate,” it’s no secret that Branden Jacobs Jenkins is a genius, and it’s no secret that this play is really a masterwork and a modern American classic on what we unintentionally take with us from our families before us. It’s not “you can’t take it with you,” it’s “you have to take it with you.”

A.C.S.: They seem so different. But the experience you have leaving, it’s a very similar feeling. It’s escapism, and it’s also just such a joy in the storytelling.

In terms of maintaining an innovative business approach to your producing work, what do you foresee being the biggest hurdle that you personally are addressing via Runyonland?
T.L.: First of all, every time we do a show, even if it’s not our own show, we learn a little something. “The Wiz” is the perfect example of that. The way that they capitalized that pre-Broadway tour and Broadway together as one entity to take advantage of multiple tax credits, to take advantage of guarantees on the road, I thought it was so smart. And in a copycat entertainment industry, we can only strive to be the best copycats and give kudos where it’s due. So that was amazing to just be able to watch and understand that business model, especially as we handled the sales and ticketing component revenue management for the tour from the Runyonland side, which was a lot of fun.

But then I would say a good example of another method that we’re looking at to try to accelerate returns in a notoriously hard industry is the financing of the tax credit. We are going to be the first to finance against the new New York City Musical and Theatrical Production Tax Credit. So often now, especially post-pandemic, as this tax credit has been implemented, you see shows that have returned 80% of capital to investors and have recouped on paper because they’ve received a tax credit that would get them over the hump to, say, 125% of recoupment. But that’s going to take two years for investors to see that money. And so often investors in an industry already rife with financial opacity and a lot of risk, they’d rather that money in their pockets tomorrow. And so we’ve partnered with Blue Fox Financing, who has come in and is going to finance the New York City Musical and Theatrical Production Tax Credit. So if I gave an investor a choice and said, hey, you know, you’re at 80%, do you want 125% in two-and-a-half years, or do you want 120% tomorrow? A lot would choose tomorrow. And it’s just a tool, right? It’s not ubiquitous, it’s not waving a magic wand and finding a solution. But it’s just another tool to make sure that we are doing right by our investors, by our stakeholders. And every time we can accelerate a return in a situation that makes sense, we are. And so just a little example, obviously, but we’re trying to push forward where we can and find those opportunities to do right by our investors.

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