When she set out from her hometown Atlanta in 1988 to study theater at Northwestern University in Chicago, Debbie Bisno thought she wanted to be an actress. And she pursued the dream and honed her skills with dogged determination. After graduating, she started a theater company called Roadworks with 11 friends, performing plays in studio spaces in theaters around the city. “We wanted to showcase ourselves,” Bisno says. “We wanted to have our own platform to get work.”
As co-founder and producing artistic director, she acted in the shows, but she also managed public relations, fundraising, and planning each season’s line ups. While it wasn’t her original end game, Bisno was learning what it meant to be a producer, and the hands-on nature of up-start non-profit theater gave her the perfect launching pad.
Five years into running Roadworks, she had a revelation. The company was opening a play called Disappeared at Chicago’s historic Steppenwolf Theatre, which should have been the manifestation of a dream. “We had made it. We were finally at Steppenwolf. But when the lights came down on my scene, all I could think about was, I should have put more posters up on Lincoln Avenue,” Bisno recalls. “That’s when I knew I was really done being an actress. It was one of those “a-ha” moments. I wanted to be running the show. I wanted to be making stuff happen.”
For several years, she focused on running Roadworks, continuing to bring artistic and edgy theater productions to Chicago stages. She moved on to commercial theater and had the opportunity to work on The Producers, which originated in Chicago before eventually becoming a mainstream Broadway hit.
Chicago had prepared Bisno to handle everything that comes with being a successful theater producer—identifying talent, finding and convincing investors, securing theaters, promoting shows, and snuffing out fires as they ignite—so she followed her gut (and her heart) to Broadway in 2001, ready to take on the biggest stage of all.
Unlike Hollywood, which has been slower to empower female directors and producers, Bisno says Broadway demands tenacity, talent, and the ability to show investors the show will be a hit, regardless of gender. “It’s about if you have a show that audiences want to see, whether you’re a man, woman, or elephant,” Bisno says. “Do you have a musical from source material that makes sense, and is there a star who can be in it? There’s no particular focus or dedicated effort to produce or promote female writers on Broadway. In fact, most of the plays that have been produced in the past decades have been by men. But it just happens to be that way.”
Her experience in Chicago helped prepare Bisno for the demands of getting a Broadway show from script to stage. Under her production company Bisno Productions, her first play, Grace, starring Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon, debuted in 2012 to great acclaim. “I felt great about it, like Pinch me, I can’t believe it. It was like we had run a marathon.”
Her company was also involved as a co-producer in Annie, War Horse, Hair, David Mamet’s A Life in the Theater with Patrick Stewart, and most recently Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, starring Forest Whittaker.
While Bisno’s production company thrived, an opportunity to lend her talents to the famed and respected McCarter Theatre in Princeton presented itself last year. Known for being a venue for groundbreaking new material, the McCarter Theatre is one of the country’s leading nonprofit theaters. Last year, Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann and Managing Director Tim Shields were looking for a new resident producer, and Bisno threw her hat in the ring, having long admired Mann’s work. On paper, the job looked like a dream, but it was the chemistry between she and Mann that convinced her it could work. She was offered the job and accepted, feeling the timing was right.
“In Chicago, we did a lot of risky plays and material that didn’t start with a celebrity. I had been thinking of getting back to that for about 4 years,” Bisno says. “I always thought I would go back to non-profit theater if the right opportunity came along.”
While McCarter turned out to be that chance, she says even the Princeton gem is not immune to the tectonic shift in theater, resulting in a less patient audience base. “Because of all the choices that people have and that people are able to tailor their own entertainment, whether it’s on their Netflix or their iPads, theater has to be an event now,” Bisno says. Certainly that’s true on Broadway, where productions are being packed with more star power, special effects, and jaw-dropping sets. For example, Bisno Productions co-produced the Broadway adaptation of War Horse, which opened in 2011 and was admired for its use of life-size puppets to depict the horses in the story.
While Bisno is thrilled to see audiences flocking to the muscial Hamilton in droves, she views it more as a one-of-a-kind phenomenon as opposed to a trend toward increasing enthusiasm for musicals. “Lin-Manuel Miranda created something genius, and if anything, I think he truly raised the bar for what musicals are now. The old-fashioned musical isn’t working anymore. I think theater now, whether it’s a play or a musical, has to be an absolute must-see for people to get out of their homes, buy a ticket, and go.”