Peter Zimmerman is the Director of Programming for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. He’s responsible for booking the majority of the 200+ shows that the Foundation presents each year in two vastly different spaces: a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater (The Filene Center) and a 375 seat rough-hewn jewel box (The Barns). Peter’s a colleague and friend, and we’ve talked often about his path…I’m excited to share his story with you today!
So, Peter; start at the beginning. When did you know that performing was your thing?
Back in the 3rd grade! I played the little drummer boy in my school Christmas pageant – I really wanted to play that drum! And I still vividly remember being on stage, the audience all looking at me… and thinking “I really like this!” I played instruments all through high school – was in the school symphony, played in the pit bands for the musicals, but I was really interested in playing in bands. I wasn’t really planning to go to college: I figured I’d gig for a few years and then be a rock star.
But you went to school – where, and why?
I went to Adams State in Colorado. I initially majored in French Horn performance – got a full scholarship through my H.S. orchestra teachers Craig Bailey and his younger brother Brent Bailey. I really explored everything I could in the arts, and found myself more drawn to the acting side of things. It got to the point where I lost my scholarship because I wasn’t participating in any of the ensembles – I was taking Shakespeare and acting classes (as well as the education requirements that my mom insisted on), and they became my priorities. I was awarded a B.A. in Theater Arts, Speech Communications, Secondary Education and Music. (Editor: Please tell me that it took you more than 4 years to do all that!) I did it in 4.5 years.
Incredible! So, then you’re out of school. What were the Seven Stages of Peter’s Career? (Ok, that riff on the Seven Ages of Man didn’t quite work…forgive me.)
Well, my first gig was as a gravedigger – an important first experience for any arts administrator. (Editor: Seriously? That explains a lot…) I taught for four years in public high schools in Colorado and took the summers to work on my own artistry. I was part of the IATSE crew for the Denver Theater Center, but also acted in the ensemble. (It was a repertory company – talk about learning how to multi-task and prioritize!) Eventually I moved to New York, mostly because I wanted more visibility in Denver, but was told I had to go to NYC to achieve that. I lived there for 2 years and acted – film, tv, stagework, touring -with some real success. But I had some hesitations. My physical type was really common, and I wasn’t a triple threat the way my competitors were; it was going to take a whole lot of work to get me to the next level. And I had a three-year old…the schedule was making it really difficult for me to be the kind of father that I wanted to be.
So, how did you make the jump from acting to presenting?
Remember this: never burn bridges. My student teaching supervisor from college, Ken Foster, and I kept in touch throughout my public school years and my sojourn in New York. That connection got me my first presenting gig, at Penn State, where Ken headed the department. I started a little bit at a time, at first throwing myself into implementing Ken’s vision, and eventually to bugging him for more responsibility. He let me create a children’s theater series – and actually witnessed one of my biggest flops…Peter and the Wolf…don’t ask. He gave me the freedom to succeed OR fail – he was both a safety net and a sounding board, but if I didn’t seek it, it wasn’t forced upon me. And, even after the Peter and the Wolf fiasco, he never chastized me – just asked me what I had learned from the experience.
I cherished his mentorship – I stayed at Penn State for 9 years. I found that I could still be involved in the theater, but could also have the stability I needed in order to have a family.
Heck, I can’t imagine leaving – what could’ve been better?
Well, actually, there was something! I took a job as the CEO/Executive Director of the Colonial Theater in Keene, New Hampshire. (Keene had been a big town during railroad heyday, but when I was there the population hung right around 60,000.) It was a beautiful small vaudeville theater with a lot of character, and interesting programming – The Kinks, Little Feat, the Smothers Brothers, all acts that I got to know when I was there. I LOVED it. It fit all of my skill sets: raising money, grant writing for 2 successful capital campaigns for theater and marquee renovations, presenting live acts and film. We increased our staff and our budget was in the black, so I think I was good for the theater, but the job was great for me, personally, as well.
OK, now I’m totally stymied: were you looking to leave the Colonial? How did you end up at Wolf Trap?
Actually, it was a personal ask from (Wolf Trap President & CEO) Terre Jones. Through some common acquaintances and a star-crossed raffle at APAP, we got to know each other. It seemed like time to take a risk, to step up. And it was a good move – I’ve been here for almost 14 years.
What aspects of your current job/profession give you the greatest satisfaction?
I am a fan of the deal. There’s a price on my head for how much I have to book, how much money I need to make for the organization. Confirming a booking gets me jazzed – closing a deal and following through to completion is the best feeling. Speaking honestly, however, there are lots of amazing acts that get away – probably two for every one that actually takes the stage.
I also loved teaching – I feel that impacting young people is important, and I get a lot of professional satisfaction from mentoring. If I had to go back to teaching at this point, I think I’d love it!
And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting a bit of a rush from being one of the folks that has access to some of the best performers in the world. There’s a status that’s accorded the level of access that I have, and while it’s not the whole picture, I still feel pretty awesome when a performer that I respect calls my cell to say hi.
Indeed! I’d kill for a few of those numbers, myself! So, it’s advice time. What words of wisdom do you have for the next generation?
Make connections: there are geographical ramifications to this business, and it can be hard to advance in the same geographic/organization. Extend your network!
There’s weren’t any Master of Arts Management programs when I was starting out, so I’d recommend talking to a talent buyer who’s in their mid 30s-40s to get the lay of the land. And examine the differences between non-profit and for-profit companies – the cultures are very different, and the goals are as well.
Find out how your current skills overlap with the job you want. For example, I learned budgeting and marketing when I was gigging in college…from there it wasn’t so hard to parlay that into production schedules for my educational theater productions or to Penn State or the Colonial. I learned time management when I was working that rep/IATSE job at Denver Theater Center. It all transfers.
I’d also learn how to say no. In my business, ‘no’ is the 2nd best answer. (‘Yes’ is obviously the best!) Maybe is my least favorite word – decisiveness saves time and money.
As I said before, don’t burn bridges. No matter how crappily you’re treated, suck it up. I have a million stories from colleagues across the nation to back that maxim up, but it bears repeating. Show up early. Stay late. Make yourself indispensible to your superiors