New Executive Director of York Theater is excited for people to be “back in the room”

Maria Grace LaFerrara, the new executive director of the York Theater Company, an Off-Broadway staple, talks about recovering from the pandemic, her unique background in theater-informed business development, and whether streaming will be relevant to York’s future.

| 08 May 2023 | 12:28

Theater has had a tough go of it the past few years, namely because of a global pandemic that shuttered Broadway and Off-Broadway in equal measure. The York Theatre Company–a focal point of the latter scene for half-a-century– faced additional headwinds during these trying times, as its original homebase at St. Peter’s Church on 54th St. and Lexington Ave. flooded in early 2021. Yet with the recession of the plague, The York Theatre is on the rebound, with in-person seats filling up rapidly. Better yet, they have a new executive director with a sterling reputation and plenty of relevant experience: Marie Grace LaFerrara. She spoke with Our Town about how her unique background in theater-oriented business development–not to mention theater itself–will help her shepherd York through a resurgent theater era.

You obviously have some very extensive theater experience. I know the executive director role at York Theater Company involves many business elements–but how are you going to bring that experience to bear during your tenure?

You know, I feel as a theater person–I’ve always said this–it’s almost a calling. It’s something you’re born to do, you’re called to do. I was a theater kid. I loved people, I loved connecting, and I think connection is a big part of having an artistic background. I just loved creating as a kid. Once I found an interest in the other side of it, which was management, raising money, and being a producer–I really enjoyed that. Marrying those two together, it’s sort of the perfect storm of everything that I was ever led to do.

You also have business experience from your time with Ariel Group and the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts. At Ariel, you were part of a development team that had to do with innovation–how are you going to use those kinds of skills? In what ways do you think York Theater can innovate?

Usdan is a teaching institution that’s been around for 50 years. The culture of giving that surrounded Usdan, the essence of teaching the students to be an audience member as well as a performer–what we instilled in the kids was this love of art. It’s obviously something that’s very akin to what York has always had as part of their legacy, which is fantastic. I think it’s very parallel. I worked at Usdan for 10 years as a director, and I even sold their programs. I was very involved on every level, both on-stage and business-wise. Ariel Group is a really interesting fit as well, because they are a training and development company that actually bases their teachings in acting technique. Also, everything I learned at NYU, to teach people to be authentic and connect with each other–that gets to the core of who you really are. I feel like everything has led me up to this point, because it all seems like Kismet a little bit.

Training is obviously a big through-line in your previous work. What makes York’s training program unique–or what draws you to it–and are you going to change anything?

I was actually saying this earlier today in a meeting–I’m a big proponent of taking what works and leaving the rest. I’m obviously very new to all of this, and I’m learning a lot about what the programs consist of. I think there’s a lot that is stellar and golden, and we will keep it. I think the pandemic has led to a lot of changes in the training area. Kids, you know, their schedules are different and their availability is different. Maybe they’re a little more introverted after the pandemic. So I think those are things that we may have to deal with, and maybe have further reach within the training program. It’s actually one of the pieces that I’m most excited about, because I think it’s very important to have a basis in the arts when you’re young. You can take that throughout your life, whether you end up being a part of the artistic community or whether you just go on to become a teacher or a lawyer. I think York has done a great job, and I’m really looking forward to doing a deeper dive to see exactly how we can grow on that and add to it.

Streaming is something that is prized. That’s definitely a form of innovative or more new-school content creation. Whether it’s [York streaming programming] Idol Chat or Unsung, how much do you think that streaming will be a part of York going forward?

I mean, I think streaming is important. I think innovation is important. I think the reason it’s mostly important is because the pandemic showed us that we can really multiply our audience. We saw with all the Broadway gems that were given to us over the pandemic–and the things that York did–streaming had a much further reach. Everyone wants to be in the room, but there’s no reason to stop that further reach. We haven’t really gotten into specifics of how we’re going to do it, but I would love to eventually see our shows on widespread streaming services. Broadway HD Is a big thing now. We had a musical benefit during the pandemic in response to the flood and leaving St. Peter’s, which was wildly successful. We streamed it.

At this point, what’s the state of theater operations regarding COVID-19?

Things are back! They’ll continue to get back to the levels of 2019. We just ended a run with Vanities the Musical and, you know, people came and it was great. [New York] is loosening up on certain protocols. We felt very lucky that we’re back in the room because, as Lin-Manuel Miranda would say, “you need to be in the room where it happens.” I think that everybody–the artists, the musicians, the theatergoers–we’re all very excited, because there’s a certain energy that you can’t get unless you’re in the room. All the other stuff is icing on the cake. We’re also very excited to be in our new space, too, which is St. Jeans for now.

We felt very lucky that we’re back in the room because, as Lin-Manuel Miranda would say, ‘you need to be in the room where it happens.’I think that everybody–the artists, the musicians, the theatergoers–we’re all very excited, because there’s a certain energy that you can’t get unless you’re in the room.” Marie Grace LaFerrara, executive director, York Theater Company