Annette Tanner
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Q: How did your performing arts career begin?

I was adopted at 6 weeks old. I am Polynesian, native Maori  from New Zealand, and I have been living in the US for about 25 years. Many years ago, when I was in school, there were only 3 television networks. I went to film school in New Zealand and while I was there, I met a professor who mentioned he always was sending students into these television networks for auditions. He said, “ I feel like I should be paid for this. I am getting people more work than anybody.”  I happened to say “why don't you do it?”, and he said he couldn’t do it on his own, and I randomly said I’d help him. So we submitted students from our school for projects and there was this new prime time  television show called Gloss being cast and our submissions got 7 of the 11 leads. He said “now what are we going to do?” Someone actually has to manage this”. And since he did not want to leave his job, I left school and was ‘suddenly’ an agent. My career was very unintended. I wanted to be a director. I ended up being an agent. New Zealand and Australia always have a very interesting relationship where many New Zealanders worked in the Australian industry, which was bigger than the industry in New Zealand for a long time. So I moved to Australia right before New Zealand boomed and it then became the place of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, etc. Several years into my career as an agent, I was offered to be a casting director, and moved back to New Zealand. I then fell into being a professional photographer because I took photos of the actors I represented, because they couldn't afford to get headshots. I had a knack for it. I was a photographer for 15 years, and won some awards in photography, and met my husband in Australia. He was on a Mormon mission, and we met and I moved to the states. I was still doing photography. I worked in the Atlanta music scene and in the Jazz Community. I worked with Earl Klugh, who is a Jazz artist known for smooth Jazz.  I got to tour with him as a photographer.

About 15 years ago, I happened to be going back to LA, and met someone who was on the mormon mission with my husband. He and his partner had just come off a ‘Lion King’ tour, and they were teaching musical theater in LA, and they said “why don't we put something together”? I had a good friend who was involved in many not-for-profit companies, and she loved the idea of musical theater education, so we put together one-weekend workshop. The 4 of us launched this organization, which they all over the years, stepped away from because there was no money in it. I continued on, and that is how Broadway Dreams was born. I learned everything about musical theater, like an apprentice,  from people in the industry. It is something I do every day now, all over the world, and it's been my life now for 15 years.

Q: What has working in the performing arts taught you about everyday life and how you engage in the world?

It's funny—this pause that we have with this virus has illuminated a lot for me. One thing being that I had no separation between professional and private life. Working in the arts, for me, was all in. That meant I never really stopped. I sacrificed a lot over 15 years. I look back now and realize that, when you are working in the performing arts, you are taught to really listen. And yet, when I look back I think to myself, I listened to everyone except the people closest to me. For a lot of my life, my family was so supremely supportive, and still are, but sacrifice a lot with me not being around. Being in the performing arts is difficult, and running a non-for-profit arts organization is really difficult. It's hard to get funding and be innovative. Even in the 15 years I’ve been doing this, the industry has changed so dramatically so many times that it never occured to me that I could have a separate life. It was just something I lived on a day-to-day basis. It was always all or nothing.

Q: What have been some challenges in your career as a leader in the performing arts world?

Funding. When you run a non-profit, it’s always funding. I have been very lucky. Broadway Dreams has an incredible board of directors.

In terms of challenges I feel like I've been so lucky without a huge amount of challenges. I feel like most of the benchmarks that we set to succeed, we hit. We have a huge scholarship program, so we scholarship close to 50% of all the students we work with. And, we have a full tuition college scholarship for 1 student a year. It is mostly about making sure we get funding. We need to inspire young artists we work with. We work with, on average, 900 students per year.

Q: How do you address diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Broadway Dreams organization?

It wasn't until I moved to the US that I even understood the lack of inclusion, and so at Broadway Dreams, both our teaching faculty and student body is, and always has been, one of the most diverse in any arts organization. I think that's because I am an immigrant too, a New Zealander. We have an incredibly good balance of diversity. And we work towards strengthening that both in our staff, board and faculty every day, it’s so important for students to see success in people who look like them.

Q: How can the performing arts be a platform for social justice issues?

I think that, around the world, we turn to music for anything that speaks to our hearts, and our heart is where social justice change can be made first. And so, strength and storytelling through musical theater is one of the most appealing things about what we do, and one of the reasons I often think about how storytelling impacts peoples’ lives every day. I genuinely believe that musical theater is one of those tools that changes the world.

Broadway Dreams is the organization that was the first Russian-American co-production of musical theater where creatives were on both sides of the table and on stage. Both Russians and Americans—this is the first time in history! We even went to the Department of State on a humanitarian mission to improve the way Russians view Americans, and we do that in other countries as well. I know that we're bringing the world together because the reality is that people in the world don't want to fight and hate. At the end of the day, all anyone wants is to love. Musical theater is the right way to share stories and open hearts to allow people to see. You know, we go into Russia with a diverse group of people, and we leave there having impacted 100 or more Russian artists who have become like family to all of us. Before meeting us, they just didn't know anyone like us. And that is what I love about musical theater; that is what I love about storytelling and music. I am the biggest proponent of what we do, and what we get to do is save the world and bring the world closer together.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Broadway Dreams as an entire organization?

Very early on, I think March 16th or 17th, we decided to offer free online programming. We have been doing that 5 days a week, for two hours a day since March 17th, for the dreamers around the world. We didn't know a thing about how to do online programming. We learned as we went. We figured out what works. I did not plan to do digital programming, but have been very successful. Next week will be the 6th week of doing art 5 days a week online. Usually we have between 100-470 participantes from around the world in class.

We got back from Germany March the 4th. We were doing a humanitarian mission for the US Department of State in Eastern Germany, where there is a lot of anti-americanism. We did a concert at the US ambassador's home on march 3rd in Berlin, and the crazy part is that he invited all these people to this concert at his house with broadway artists, and a week and a half before we got there, he was appointed by Donald Trump as the Interim Director of Intelligence for the US. So, he wasn't even at the concert. He had to go to DC, and the concert went ahead and was successful.

We did a lot of international programming this year, in New Zealand, China, Germany and we were due to be in Russia in April, which has been postponed. US programming doesn't start until June 1st. Nothing has been cancelled yet for the US programming, but I suspect it might be. We will probably have to go digital and we have now learned how to do it, doing these zoom classes for the last 6 weeks.

Q: How are your faculty teaching? Are they able to teach online?

The difference is that everyone has been volunteering to do it—we have not charged for the classes. With so many people losing their jobs, we didn't feel it was time to ask for people to pay. So, we do the programming for free. Almost all faculty have taught classes. Myself, Matthew Scott, Spencer Liff do it everyday. Everyone else has joined multiple times over the last six weeks.

Q: How have you seen the musical theater world come together and react during the COVID19 pandemic?

They are very supportive of things like our online programming and people are volunteering to teach. A lot of people have been doing concerts at home, and teaching vocal lessons or dance lessons online to keep them busy. It's been crazy that people have had the busiest, most creative lives, and all of a sudden, all jobs are cancelled.

Q: What do you think this pandemic creates space for during this time? How can artists use this time to perhaps do something new and be innovative with this time?

I am great friends with several choreographers, and it has been a time for them to create and think ahead.  Spencer Liff has spent the last several weeks listening to cast albums and re-imagining them. This is something that he wouldn't usually do unless he was choreographer for that show, but now he gets to listen to all these albums and come up with so many ideas. He has filled pages of notes with new ideas from many shows. He has re-thought how he would like to do so many shows, and I hear that from so many other performing artists who are writing music. I have a friend who is a costume designer who has been doing sketches. I think people are letting their creative juices flow in a way we never would have before. I am trying to think of ways to keep artists busy should our industry not recover in a fast way. What can I do to keep them busy? Instead of asking “what are the solutions”, I ask what could we do that might work in the parameters of what we are faced with.

Q: What have you been working on during this time? What do you see the summer months to look like if this continues?

I have been working on digital programming: programming the artists, creative content, education, everyday. We work with Broadway On Demand and podcast networks to see how we can provide streaming for their platforms. Also, a company from China that has artists doing TikToks to sell merchandise, helps artists get income. I feel as busy as I've ever been.

In terms of the summer, I did not make any decisions until the beginning of May. Things change so dramatically week to week. Our programming kicks off in June. We have been in touch with all our partners in the 8 cities we are supposed to be in. I anticipate some will cancel, and I suspect we will do online. I hope we get to do some in person.

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I go to all countries, and I am so disappointed that the arts are not funded or respected [in the US] like they are in other countries. In Russia, families go to live performing arts events in the same way that people in the US go to the movies or to sporting events. If I could imagine anything, I would like more support for live theatrical events. However, with this pandemic, the fear is: “are we able to go? Can we sit next to someone?” We, as administrators, need to think outside the box. How can we present live entertainment in a safe and equally satisfactory way? Maybe with more outdoor programming... I can't believe a broadway theater would not have seats filled. I think there will be a different, post Covid-19 world. It will be nothing like we have known prior to this lockdown. I think that the inability to gather in places in the same way we did before will last for the entire year. My guess is that we will be able to be in groups of up to 50 people, but I don't imagine they will say you can have 1,000 people in the theater. I just can't and don't see that right now.

Q: What improvements and changes would you like to see in the performing arts? With or without the virus?

I want to see people come together and support one another more. Our community is made of a few groups of friends who all stay together. They don't really work with other people. I get that, because you know who you know and you know they can do it, and I get that. But I would love to see people giving more opportunity to fresh faces. I wonder if there will be a lot of artists who don't emerge from this because they realize there are more important things in life for them and the struggle is hard. This is potentially more opportunity for fresh faces. Honestly, I think the education and healthcare systems in this country need a major overhaul. This might be something that disrupts education as we know it, and I hope it will disrupt healthcare in this country as we know it.

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