Staff Q&A with Michael Rose

Michael Rose works every day to make sure all productions offered at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts are meaningful.

“Theater should provide insight and touch on topics that go beyond what’s just presented on stage, so that when you leave, you have subject matter to be thinking about afterward,” Rose says. “It’s not just one and done.”

In almost two decades since Rose took the helm as director, the Annenberg has presented more than 200 fully staged “issues and ideas-oriented” performances by more than 30 theater companies. These included Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” early in the show’s touring history; the Globe Theatre of London actor and director Mark Rylance’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure;” the Gate Theatre of Dublin’s productions of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” “Watt,” and “Endgame;” Tectonic Theater Project’s “The Laramie Project,” about the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard; Scottish playwright David Greig’s “The Events,” about a mass shooting at a choir practice; and Toshi Reagon’s recent production of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.”

Dance performances have included the likes of Twyla Tharp, Pilobolus, Philadanco, and Dance Theatre of Harlem; plus hundreds of jazz, blues, world music, and classical music performances by artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Nancy Wilson, Tito Puente, Take 6, Hugh Masekela, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Esperanza Spalding, Jon Batiste, James Galway, and Philip Glass.

When Rose joined Penn, he brought more than 20 years of experience with him from Stockton University’s Performing Arts Center and Rowan University’s former Glassboro Center for the Arts. Now, after 18 years running and growing the Annenberg, Rose will hang up his hat come summer.

His next endeavor? “My wife and I are planning to move to Vermont permanently and just do things very differently,” he says. “Maybe join different organizations, do some consulting.”

He jokes, “Probably not instruct skiing.”

The Current caught up with Rose to discuss how he got into running performing arts centers, his biggest accomplishments throughout the past years, and how the Annenberg has evolved under his leadership.

Q: How'd you get into running these centers?
A: Very much by accident. While completing my Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Michigan, I had been teaching at a small liberal arts college, then accepted a position in 1974 at Stockton as the assistant to the president. Two years later we opened a performing arts center and soon after that I was given the opportunity to manage that program, which I thought would be fun. And, as it turned out, I’ve been managing performing arts centers ever since.

Q: A lot has changed at the Annenberg throughout recent years. What have been your biggest accomplishments?
A: I think part of this is that Penn transformed itself over those years, under two presidents. Under Dr. Judy Rodin, Penn decided it needed to open itself up to the city, which Penn’s exterior architecture most visibly had defended itself against. So when I came in, that was part of and, indeed, under Dr. Amy Gutmann, has continued to be a core element of her Penn Compact 2020 addressing accessibility and engagement. That has meant presenting programming that would connect to the community and at the same time connect much more across the curriculum and across the campus. I think significant changes in programming have been growing jazz and world music in a substantial way over the years.

Q: Let's talk about the Annenberg in general.
A: This is a major urban university-based performing arts center presenting broad music, theater, dance, and children’s programming, and serving large constituencies—university, nonprofit, and outside audiences and groups—for largely different kinds of programming throughout the year. The programming we present needs to be challenging, needs to be of high quality. It needs to be interesting, and it needs to be engaging in ways that would cause people to ask questions. That’s less so obviously in terms of music than in terms of theater. But in terms of theater, we don’t present ‘Cats,’ we present theater that deals with issues and ideas. ‘Cats’ has merit, but it’s just not the kind of programming that we’re doing.

Q: What's your programming like?
A: What we're looking to do is to present programming that has this kind of breadth, but at the same time has an international focus that is broadly inclusive or broadly diverse, because the idea of the University in general is that it wants to be as broadly encompassing as it can be. Thus, for us, our focus in terms of music is largely jazz and world music. In terms of theater, it’s classic and contemporary theater. In terms of dance, it’s contemporary dance and culturally specific dance. In terms of children’s programming, it’s a broad range of programming that is again of high quality and not talking down to kids, as exemplified by our school day Arts4Youth programming and our annual Philadelphia International Children’s Festival, which is, at 32 years of age, the oldest children’s festival in the nation.

Q: Tell me about the different theaters within the Annenberg.
A: The Annenberg Center has three spaces in the one building. The Harold L. Zellerbach Theatre seats 937, the Harold Prince seats 211, but it can be modified to seat 239, and the Bruce Montgomery seats 100. They have the same common backstage area. They all share the same dressing rooms, the same green rooms, rehearsal spaces, and the like. In terms of the building itself, it’s a 45-year-old building, which still faces inward to the campus. We currently combat that problem by hanging large exterior banners on Walnut Street, but in the long run we are looking to transform the building’s brick Walnut Street wall through its replacement with a transparent fretted glass façade and an exterior escalator entrance.

Q: What's the audience base like here?
A: It’s very broad. It consists of campus audiences—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—who come in from probably about a 45-mile radius in general. And these audiences, we are proud to say, are among the most diverse of any performing arts venues in the city. Then obviously a lot of effort goes into bringing West Philadelphia audiences in here. We have a program called West Philly Rush where we make special efforts to bring in the local community.

Q: How have you upped the programming at the Annenberg since you've been here?
A: When I came here, we had gone from an institution that had largely dedicated its venues to theater. The Philadelphia Drama Guild occupied the Zellerbach Theatre for 35 weeks a year for 15 years straight. That space was hardly available for other purposes. The Harold Prince Theatre was occupied by the Philadelphia Festival of New Theater for 20 weeks a year for 10 years. When they both disbanded, it opened up our spaces for lots of other purposes, particularly for much greater numbers of Penn’s student performing arts groups, which bring great energy, diversity, and life to the building.

Q: How have your worked to spruce up the Annenberg?
A: The Annenberg Center is in the middle of a transformation to make us more modern and competitive. We started the process roughly 15 years ago through grants and gifts from our overseers, their foundations, and the University that made the building more fully accessible. These provided wheelchair platforms, sound, lighting and rigging upgrades, and new seating in the Zellerbach Theatre and new carpeting throughout public spaces. With the introduction of the Center’s new brand identity, Annenberg Center Live, we’ve devoted energy to enlivening the patron lobby experience with electronic signage, a portable stage and pre-show student performances, hightop tables, and enhanced concessions, including alcoholic beverages before, during, and after most public performances—student performances excluded.

Q: What's a typical workday like for you?
A: I spend a lot more time on the phone than most people. I like using phones still. I spend a lot of time doing email. I tend to walk around the building a lot. I like to drop in on people’s offices because I think face-to-face is really important. I meet with the senior staff and other staff continuously. Right now, we’re in the process of putting together the next season. Once the season is together, I monitor how we’re doing.

Q: You are retiring this year at the end of June.
A: Yes, my wife, who is an assistant dean at Penn Law, and I made that decision back in October. We have a house in central Vermont, near Killington, west of Woodstock, and we’ll be moving there permanently this summer. We both love skiing, and our kids love skiing, and our grandkids love skiing. And we kayak and enjoy doing all kinds of outdoor activities.

Q: Any parting words?
A: I leave with very fine memories. It's a terrific place to work, wich an extraordinary staff. We’ve gotten historically really great support from the University. There have been situations where a great artist or theater company was available and we were able to go to the University and get some subsidies to help make engagements like the Globe Theatre’s ‘King Lear’ 2014 residency and the 2008 Pennsylvania Primary ‘Colbert Report’ possible. These kinds of opportunities don’t happen in little theater companies in the city. We have the University behind us and that’s always been extremely important, as it provides us the strength and stability that allows us to look to the future with real confidence.

Michael Rose