The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world of live entertainment to a halt. But Brian Moreland, producer of recent Broadway shows including “The Lifespan of a Fact,” “The Sound Inside,” “Sea Wall/A Life” and the pandemic-interrupted “American Buffalo” and “Blue,” doesn’t think the shutdown means curtains for up-and-coming theater professionals.
“I definitely think it’s still a good time to get into the field,” Moreland said. “It’s very easy, when we’re in crisis, to give up our goals, our aspirations, our dreams. We forgo all the work we put in to make it happen, to get us as far as we’ve gotten … So I would tell people to keep going.”
On how to actually build that successful career, he advised: “Look around at your friends and the people you are currently working with, and the people you want to work with and build a community — a personal community. Because I think more than anything else, people underestimate the fact that your community is the number one thing that will move you through the theater business.”
Community was a consistent theme throughout our conversation. In fact, Moreland even took the theme a step further with his own personal career philosophy: “You have to be able to marry every single person you work with.”
He’s speaking metaphorically, of course. But since beginning his producing career in the mid-aughts, he’s learned a thing or two about what makes a worthwhile project — and besides a script that can both entertain and move him, the deciding factor is whether he can work productively with the playwright to better that script. As he put it, good collaborators must be able to do many of the same things a healthily married couple can: laugh, cry, argue and love each other even in the moments when they don’t like each other.
“Sometimes there’s discord, sometimes there are tears — sometimes there’s laughter,” Moreland said. “If you meet a person that’s not willing to take the ride and/or the journey of that evolution, it’s not going to be a good journey.”
Before seeking “marriage” within the creative side of theater, though, Moreland “fell in love” with the arts initially as a performer. His first-ever role was Santa Claus in “Be What You Want to Be,” a third-grade “variety show” at his California elementary school.
“The elves are trying to help Santa save Christmas and all of that good holiday cheer,” Moreland said. “But what I loved about it is that I just distinctly remember enjoying the feeling of being on stage and going through that process.”
He would go on to study theater in high school at the private Idyllwild Arts Academy, and in college at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and later the American Academy of Dramatic Arts back in California. Post-college, he performed in a tour of “Cats,” after which he relocated to his current base in New York and began auditioning there.
And then the Great Recession hit.
Amid the 2007-2009 fiscal crisis, performing ceased to be a viable career for Moreland, and he had to reassess his options in the industry. Broadway investor, dance assistant and associate director were all transitional stops he made on the way to the producing career he holds today.
On what drew him to producing, Moreland quipped, “I’d like to think that I was settled enough to be sitting in a workshop one time and thinking to myself, ‘I can run this better.’ And that’s not true.” Rather, while assisting on a show as a line producer, he realized producing lent itself well to his mental strengths: being able to “compartmentalize and remember” multiple versions of ideas.
That’s not to say his producing career sailed smoothly from the start. He said his first producing venture never got off the ground: “We found the money, we had the stars, we had every single thing you’re supposed to have to make this show happen … except the rights. The estate wouldn’t give up the rights to do the production. And it was very heartbreaking.” However, the failure prompted him to enroll in a short training program at the Commercial Theatre Institute, where he learned more about how to succeed in producing. The additional training renewed his confidence that he could try producing again with a project he was passionate about.
He has since found many. Among his Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional credits, he noted Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man” as the first producing gig that truly belonged to him. He led the project “from the ground up,” overseeing it from its initial development three years ago to its world premiere at Baltimore Center Stage in the fall of 2019, and multiple residencies and workshops in between.
The long process taught him that “you can’t produce a calendar, but you can produce a show,” Moreland said, quoting Lane Marsh, a general manager at New York theater management firm Foresight Theatricals. Moreland explained, “You can aim for dates, you can aim for timelines, but the show will come when the show’s ready to go … I learned that I have to let go of the process.”
Moreland is still working with “Colored Man” to plan for its future life. Prior to the shutdown, he was also preparing for the planned April bow of Charles Randolph-Wright’s “Blue.” It was poised for Broadway, but after repeatedly being told to wait for a theater to become available, Moreland eventually decided to book it in the similarly massive Apollo Theater in Harlem.
That show is also put on hold, but he is continuing to advocate for a longer-term goal related to his choice of venue: the recognition of the Apollo as an official Broadway house.
Though Moreland himself does not have the authority to make that designation, he confirmed that there are “active conversations to make this happen.” He is outspoken about the addition’s potential benefits to “extending the brand of Broadway,” especially if it were to happen during or shortly after the shutdown.
“It would be a great story on the other side of the rainbow that not only does Broadway come back, and not only is Broadway back, but it’s back with an additional theater,” Moreland said. “That hasn’t happened in years.”
His hopes for the Apollo align with his interests as a producer, too. He said he was met with concerns toward housing “Blue” at the Apollo; some worried about whether the Harlem community would be enough to fill the seats. Moreland hopes to dispel the notion of the venue as a solely “Black theater” and show that it’s for performances and audiences of all races.
Similarly, as a Black producer, and as one of a handful of Black producers currently on Broadway, he is not only interested in producing work by and about Black people.
“Good stories are universal. I am just as interested in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ which is one of my favorite plays, as I am in an August Wilson story,” Moreland said. “I wish that there would be an expansion of an understanding of what people of color have to offer other than just the color of their skin.”