Peggy Koenig
Edited by: 
Allie Taylor

Q: How did you become involved with the performing arts? What has been your career journey?

For the bulk of my career, I've been involved in the media and communication industries and specifically investing in those businesses. I started my career working in magazine publishing and advertising, and then startups of some earlier stage media companies. I think there are different points in one's career where you may pivot one way or another, and because of the people I met, I pivoted into the world of finance and then the intersection of media, communications and finance. I worked for a few years on Wall Street in corporate finance. I decided that because it was helpful for women at that point in the 1980’s to have an MBA, I attended Wharton. After Wharton, I did film financing for Columbia and TriStar Pictures and then I wanted to work more on the operating side of a company. I was introduced to a very well known radio entrepreneur, and I worked with him to put together a number of radio companies in the late 1980’s and early 90’s as the rules governing radio ownership were changing.

I think, to categorize all the things I've always been involved in, everything has been fairly entrepreneurial. That is my orientation. I'm very comfortable in small organizations and startups, and building something from “nothing.” I actually started my own company in the early 90’s working for a variety of media, communications, and finance executives—radio, television,venture capital—and that's where I met my partners who had a group of TV stations that they were operating. I started to work with them initially part time. Through that endeavor, we came up with the idea to start what's called a “private equity company” that invests in media and communications companies. They had a TV group called ABRY, and then we started a private equity platform also called ABRY, and raised a $250 million buyout fund. We built that company over a number of years.  This started in 1993-94.  We created a very substantial firm investing in Media, Communications, and  information businesses. Some of the early investments were in radio and television and magazine publishing and motion pictures. . I've led many investment opportunities. In 2006, my partner and I began to transition to becoming the co-CEOs of the firm.

In the new stage of my career I led teams, raised financing, and used my skills to manage a variety of investment opportunities and identify new investment opportunities. These skills helped position me to position myself for the next phase of my career.

I took a year in 2018 and became a student at Harvard where I enrolled in a program called the Advanced Leadership Initiative. The program takes leaders from around the world who work in different professions, and we went to school full-time  to learn about the world's problems so that we can have a next career focused on social impact. I had already been involved with the Boston Medical Center in which is the safety net hospital in Boston, so health care equality has always been something that I've been focused on. I think this is something that needs enormous focus, and COVID-19 has really shed a very bright light on that. I got involved with Cornell University where I attended as an undergraduate student and became a member of the board. I was just actually elected a vice chair of the University. I'm focused on providing support to first generation students, affordability, research and innovation, as well as an area called “digital life.” When I went to Harvard my focus was on understanding inclusion, diversity, inequality and human rights. I took (a course) called “Narrowing the Racial Achievement Gap,” “The Causes and Consequences of Inequality,” and “Human Rights, Geopolitics and Statecraft.” It was a year of reading and learning.

The goal of the program (Advanced Leadership Initiative) is for the students to graduate and engage in works that involve social impact. [During my time in the program], I attended an Education and Human Rights course, and a professor came to that class by the name of Roberto Gonzales. Roberto is actually the head of the immigration initiative at Harvard. He is a leading Professor on immigration across the world. Roberto had written this book called Lives in Limbo. This book is stories of undocumented Americans that over these last two decades. I heard these stories and they are incredibly compelling and eye opening.  I thought to myself, “What if I turned these stories into a musical?” I can't say that I had any particular deep domain expertise in developing a musical or being a theatre producer. I know business, and certainly I've always been a lover of musical theater, but I believe if you are willing to learn and open your mind you can always achieve in a new profession.   I went to Roberto and suggested the idea of doing this, and he was incredibly receptive. Over a few conversations, we agreed that I would option the stage rights to his book. I then began my journey in developing this property over these last two years.

It was recommended to me that I take a class in 2019 at the Commercial Theatrical Institute in New York.  It offers a 14-week course on becoming a producer. I also took a three day creative producing class in 2019 at the Eugene O'Neill theater in Connecticut. I took other one day seminars, and then continued my education by meeting people and networking and of course, reading. My first step was to try to identify the author who I would commission to write the play. I spent a good deal of time researching people who are both well known and developing Latinx writers.  I started to figure out how to meet them and develop a network of relationships with agents. I selected Christina Quintana (“CQ”).  She is a highly talented playwright, a musical theater author, and television writer. About a year ago in 2019 we met for the first time. She was really pumped about the project, really liked the idea, and we agreed to work together. That was the first person I brought onto my team.

My next step was to identify a composer/lyricist. It had also been recommended to me that getting a director early on might also be something that would be worthwhile. The legendary theater producer Daryl Roth gave me an excellent piece of advice. She highly recommended that I should develop my project for as long as I could on my own without bringing in someone else as a producing partner so it clearly reflected my creative vision. There will absolutely be a point at which I want to have a co-lead producer.  I keep driving the project forward, and because I'm always aware of what I don't know, I feel very comfortable asking people for advice. As I developed this project I also developed a long list of people who had given me advice and counsel that I circle back to when I am not sure of things.  I think of them as my board of advisors.   I also hired incredibly talented production counsel by the name of Carol Kaplan at Loeb & Loeb LLP. She has been really vital as I move forward on this project.

One of the things I've learned about the industry is the importance of supporting other people's projects—it's a very collaborative business. Because I have a modest amount capital to invest in shows, here's what happened: Roberto Gonzales, the author of “Lives in Limbo” introduced me to Jose Antonio Vargas. Jose actually wrote the introduction to the book “Lives in Limbo.” He is an amazing writer and advocate and when Jose and I met we hit it off. He also is a lover of theater. He was involved with the show “What the Constitution Means to Me,” and was actually working as a producer on the show.  I invested with him in the show. It turned out to be a commercial and a critical success, and Heidi Schrek was nominated for a Tony for her acting performance.  Jose was kind enough to invite me to the Tony Awards. That was last year in 2019, and it was at this awards show that Sergio Trujillo won Best Choreographer for his work on  “Ain’t Too Proud.” In his acceptance speech, Sergio spoke about how, when he came to this country working as a dancer and young choreographer, he was undocumented. I thought to myself two things: 1) anyone in this room who has already met me is going to think about my project and 2) I need to meet Sergio.  I was able to meet the “Ain’t Too Proud” Producer Ira Pittelman  and chat with him about the possibility of working with Sergio. He agreed it was a great idea to approach Sergio about directing my show.  [Sergio and I] met, talked about the project, and it really struck him as something of high interest.  It ignited his passion!  Sergio became my Directing partner.

CQ wrote a treatment for the play which was terrific. I'm not going to say too much about the story, but it follows a number of very compelling characters, mostly undocumented, living in Los Angeles between 2001 and today..  We have been working on developing the music. I believe we have identified our composer and lyricist, the Grammy award winning composer, Julio Reyes and the talented, Michelle Rodriguez. CQ will be delivering the first draft of the book this summer.

I want to also say that I've been involved with a number of other efforts in addition to the arts. There's a great project that I'm involved in at the Carr Center for Human Rights at The Kennedy School at Harvard. It's basically a redefinition of rights and responsibilities.  The project is led by John Shattuck who was the former ambassador to the Czech Republic. I've also been very involved with the nonprofit Cradles to Crayons, which is addressing clothing insecurity with operations in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Q: How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you and your work? What were your initial reactions and how it has shifted your life?

I think it has shifted everybody's lives. Everyone was housebound, and all the work that you were doing in person with people is being done virtually. This is day-to-day living. I'm now cooking dinner every night. My adult daughters, who are in their 20’s, are living at home with me. It's a great opportunity to be with my grown daughters. I also think it creates a great sense of isolation, and it's very abnormal not to be in physical contact with your friends and family. I feel it's better now as there's a little bit more opening, and people get used to a certain way of being. People get used to this “new normal”, though I certainly don't want it to stay like this. The way this time has impacted my work, specifically “Lives and Limbo,” is that it actually created a great opportunity for me. So many of the artists that work in the theater industry have many, many projects going at once. They have things on stage, they have things they're developing, things they're writing, things they're composing, and time is pressed and limited. And so, during this time, Sergio and I have had this unbelievable opportunity to develop a fantastic collaborative relationship. I mean, I talk to him multiple times a day. That would have been near impossible in a normal time for the industry. I'd say that it really enhanced our collaboration and accelerated the opportunity for us to develop a relationship that would have taken so much longer to develop. So, I think that was just an unbelievably unique and wonderful opportunity.

I spent a lot of time with CQ leading up to the pandemic. We'll see how it goes when we get to the point where we're starting to workshop and table read our show. Everything is pushed back, which will cause this show to have an even longer gestation period, which may be an opportunity. I can't say that it may not be a bad thing, I just don't know yet. But I have been thinking about how it's impacting the agreements that I'm making and the timeframes that we're building in. In some ways, I feel fortunate to have some visualization of what “long term” might be because I need to take it into account as I'm forming arrangements. I think that I've been able to make a lot of contact with people. A lot of people said this is a hard time to build new relationships, and I'm building new relationships. I talked about the deepening of my relationship with Sergio, but I've also been developing relationships with the composer and lyricist.  It will be better when we're together in person, but I do think there is an opportunity to develop new relationships during this period.

Q: How do you think this time could also be a time for innovation? Speaking about exactly what you said, creating new relationships. What may be some positive possible outcomes of this moment in the performing arts?

I think first of all, there's a beauty in slowing down and taking the time to think about things, and not always feeling that you're kind of running from one thing to another. I see it as a great opportunity to reflect and create space. That's actually a word that I would use during this time to describe this period: spaciousness. I think that the focus on race and justice that’s happening now is a great opportunity for change. When you have these kinds of cataclysmic events, there is a huge opportunity for change. The story that I'm hoping to tell was pertinent when I had the idea two years ago. But with every day that goes by, it's even more relevant, because it's all about inequality and injustice. And so to the extent that this period allows us to shine even a brighter light on that, it is  a huge opportunity for change.

I have great hope that people who are my daughters’ age and your age, really are activated, and hopefully will be the generation that really continues to push forward all the changes that we need to see. It's an opportunity to create a workable public health system and it's an opportunity to eradicate healthcare inequality. It's an opportunity to dialogue about rights and responsibilities. What are our rights in today's world? It's an opportunity for political change. I mean yes, you could look at it as a glass half empty. But I don't choose to think of it that way. Clearly it's been devastating. I don't even know how much money has been lost and how many lives have been impacted. You know, theater will be amongst the last to recover, because we have to address how people can sit next to one another in a theater, and the economics are such that if you can't have near full capacity, you cannot achieve profitability. You can't run a show. However, I think we will figure out that it's possible for well endowed regional theaters to start up sooner than Broadway because some of those theaters may be more accommodating to the new physical reality. There will be creative ways to think about producing and showing theatre at other kinds of venues. Ultimately the industry will recover and we will have a robust theatre industry again.  It will take time.  I'm excited for the kind of content that's going to be created coming out of this period, and I personally think that what we're working on is spot on for what people need—they will enjoy it, but it may change their view of how they look at the world.

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