Tisch alumnus Richie Jackson ’87 (BFA, Drama), Executive Producer of Nurse Jackie and Co-Executive Producer of Shortbus, has established a fellowship program in conjunction with the Tisch Office of Career Development to assist alumni make the transition from the classroom to a life-long career in the arts.
Richie sat down with the Tisch Alumni Relations Office to talk about his career in the arts, and why it’s so important to give back to alumni who are just starting out.
What was your career path like after graduating from Tisch?
I started producing when I was a student at Tisch and knew that was the discipline I wanted to explore. My first job out of Tisch was working for a General Management firm Gatchell & Neufeld. I started there answering phones. I became the house seat person and was in charge of all the shows they had. It was the best job I ever had and allowed me to meet many people working in theater. I was asked to be the assistant company manager for the touring company of Cats. I had just started dating someone and said I couldn’t leave New York. My boss discouraged me from doing so. My partner, BD Wong, and I were then together for 15 years and have a beautiful son together, so I never doubted that decision. I knew my life decisions would come first.
BD had just won a Tony for his performance in M. Butterfly. At the time, he was being poorly represented and I became that spouse that everyone hates. Agents would call and I’d talk to them and ask questions. I realized then that I could be an agent. I thought I could be an agent and get a better sense of the business, and a better reputation in the business, and that would help me produce later. I interviewed a lot – no one would hire me even for mailroom jobs. I made extra money by reading scripts for movie studios and was a babysitter. I was eventually hired as the receptionist for an office called Innovative Artists which had only one agent in New York. They told me I would never be promoted, but I took the job. Ten months later, I became an agent at Innovative Artists. I worked there for 12 years and helped grow the company.
I then got back in to producing and opened my own production company – Jackson Group Entertainment. I was the Executive Producer on Showtime's Nurse Jackie and Co-Execuvite Producer on the film Shortbus. My husband, Jordan Roth, and I produced the Broadway musical A Catered Affair.
Right now, I am in early development on a couple of projects, both are TV series.
How has your training and experience helped work with your fellows?
I think there are things I did right and things I did that I have learned from. The thing I did right was put my life first. Committing to a personal life is something that I think everyone should do. If your personal life isn’t fulfilling and happy, nothing else matters.
The thing I learned from, and that I would say for people to watch out for, is that I was an agent for 12 years and I lost sight of my original goal in becoming an agent. I was supposed to do it for a short period of time, meet a lot of people, and then produce. I stayed in that job for 12 years and that was too long.
As for my training as an actor, I use it every day. I don’t feel like I went to the wrong program. It teaches you to listen, it teaches you to communicate, it teaches you to be able to take an idea and share it with someone in a way they will understand. The acting training was a real piece of my education and my career.
With your work life, you have found time to commit yourself to the fellowship program. Why is this so important to you?
I had a fantastic experience and education at Tisch and I have friendships that I made there that I still have to this day. And I’ve worked with many people I went to school with. I have very positive feelings about NYU and Tisch.
What I didn't have when I graduated was someone to go to for advice and I didn't have money. Those two years where I had a really hard time finding a job, I interviewed a lot, and I kept coming up short. No one would hire me. And I remember after being turned down the 20th time, I called the producer I interviewed with and asked for help. I asked ‘why am I not getting hired? Can you tell me what I did wrong?’ She told me she did not have the time and wouldn’t know what to tell me anyway. I told myself that I would never do that to anyone who came to me for advice. I’ll never get into the playground and close the gate behind me.
You can't consider yourself successful if you aren't helping someone else get where you are.
I think part of our responsibility for people working in the industry – any industry – is to help someone who wants to be where we are. You can't consider yourself successful if you aren't helping someone else get where you are.
For people like me, who have had success, our experience is currency. You should use your experience to help other people. I’m having a great experience doing this. I really enjoy the relationships with the fellows, I enjoy the process of picking them because I get to learn about all the work the applicants are doing. Working with the alumni office has been really gratifying as well. I encourage people to think about the currency they have and how they can use it to help the people who are just graduating and starting out.
Is there anyone you go to for advice now?
My husband, Jordan Roth, who owns and operates Jujamcyn Theaters. I don’t do anything in my business without his input.
How was your first year of the fellowship? Would you change anything?
It went really well. We got a lot of interesting applications in a variety of disciplines and it was a competitive group of people to choose from. The goal of the fellowship was to give money to them, with no restrictions, to do with it what they wanted. They can pay back loans, they can stop waiting tables on the fourth night of the week so they can have one night off to see a movie or read a book or work on their project, they can pay for headshots, finish their film, or take a trip.
The other goal was to get the fellows together, for me to be able to answer questions, give advice, but also take the group and create a cohesive support system for themselves, so that after the six months were up, they would stay in touch and I think that worked really well. We put together a group that was hungry for advice and direction, but were also very open to meeting each other and supporting each other.
What do your meetings look like with the fellows?
We opened the program with a cocktail party. I invited Tisch alumni who have been out in the world and are working and successful – Amanda Lipitz, Jessica Hecht, Moises Kaufman, Chad Beguelin. Their sole purpose in being there was to show the fellows that you can go from Tisch and there’s a direct line to a career – they started where I was and they are each successful in their own disciplines. I wanted the fellows to see that we want everyone to succeed. The community and industry is excited about new people. Part of why I started the fellowship was that I wanted these people to know that I care about them, about their challenges, obstacles, and that I validated their aspirations. I think it was able to give them a safety net – it was fuel for them to go for what they want. Someone who is in the industry is saying yes, I’m here to cheer you on.
We always ate lunch. Food is a big part of what I do. Sometimes I would bring in topics to talk about but sometimes we would just start talking and it would be very free flowing. For example, someone said they were about to interview directors for their new theatre piece and were afraid to tell someone no. And that was an opportunity for me to say ‘don’t ever give up your power. There’s power in hiring and power in saying no to somebody. This is an opportunity to really seize your power.’
Would you advise your fellows to put their personal life first as you did when you were first starting out?
Yes. I talk about that a lot. When somebody has a conflict between life and their work – and this came up in one of our meetings – I think always putting your personal life first, the health of your heart, and trying to feed your life in that way will only make your career and your art better. If you only care about your career and work, it is a very difficult to have a long, sustainable career because you become obsessive and worry about it constantly. Do what’s best for your heart – love, create relationships, feed your personal life in a way that is best for you. Your relationship to your work life will be healthier and you will be able to withstand the ups and downs of this very difficult and challenging career.
Do you have any other advice for people in the early stages of your career?
The advice I would give the people who are graduating is to think about what it is that they’re good at. What are your attributes? What do you need to improve? And what are you afraid of? What are your aspirations? I think if you make these lists and look at them – if you take what you’re good at, improve at what you need to get better at, and you put some effort into challenging yourself on your fears, then you’ll figure out the steps to get to your aspirations list.
There are things you can do every single day to achieve your aspiration. Make a long list of aspirations, high in the sky and smaller goals. When I went to NYU, I had a list on the back of a journal and I wrote down every single thing I wanted to achieve. I remember it had: find a boyfriend, have a New York City apartment, star in a Broadway show, get a briefcase. And if you check off something every single day towards those aspirations, you’ll feel accomplished. You don’t have to star in a Broadway show in order to have that be your first win. Your first win is getting the briefcase. Get the stamps to mail your manuscript. The best way to help yourself feel like you’re accomplishing something is to make a list and go step by step each day accomplishing even a little something so that you can say ‘OK, today I did something for my career.’
If you could go back and do one thing in your career differently – what would you do?
I think I lost sight of my own potential for a short period of time and I think I would do that differently. Having now co-written two scripts – pilots that were sold – I think I would have enjoyed doing that earlier. Had I kept my eye on my potential and made these lists I talked about, I think I would have maybe transitioned earlier. So as I tell my fellows – watch your potential. If you don’t think it’s being utilized every day, you’re either in the wrong job or you’re not steering your own ship the right way.
Will you change anything for the next group of fellows?
We did a really big evaluation of the fellowship. We met with the the Tisch Office of Career Development, who helped put this together, and we talked about what worked, what could be improved. And so far, we’re going to keep it exactly the same. I’m happy with it.
Only the first 100 applicants will be accepted so apply today!