10. 2. 2022

English Version | Jordan Roth: Acting for a Change

by Sara Andrade

 

Except it’s not an act. When it comes to battling for a change, Jordan Roth doesn’t act, he is the change - by being completely true to himself. Because there are those who dress up in a bigger costume than their ego as a mask to avoid looking at themselves but Roth did the exact opposite: he took a look inside and built an outside image that made him be able to look in the mirror to see beyond its style. To see himself.

 

With a thoughtful sumptuousness and a sophistication far from conservative, it's no secret that his wardrobe steals the spotlight at first impression, but talking to Jordan Roth and understanding his journey is realizing that this image is just a business card, mirror of a human being who doesn't throw words on the table just because, he conveys messages. That's why he often lets his look speak for itself: “Expression is celebration. To express something is to celebrate it, to revel in it, to give it light and attention and space and time. That is what we offer ourselves when we explore our own style, when we approach what we wear not just as a way to clothe our bodies, but as a way to express what lives inside them”, he shares with us about Fashion as a reflection of (his) being. It wasn't an easy journey to let the suit speak about the man he is, as he tells Vogue Portugal in the interview below, and there's no doubt that he hasn't finished walking that road yet. He guarantees that “self-expression is a practice, a daily way of being. So there is always a ways to go, because it is something we keep doing. Always a doing, never a done”, and believes that limiting a description, of anyone, is too reductive: “identity is a uniquely slippery construct”, he warns. “As vital as it is to express ourselves, as soon as we name and define our identity, we have identified our boundaries. To say ‘this is who I am’ is inherently to say ‘that is who I am not.’ So even the most freeing of identities is also a box. The conversation I’m interested in having about identity is why we need it so much”, stressing that we are a multiplicity of characters and identity cannot be a static concept, which puts us in a box, which limits us. And if there's one thing Jordan doesn't know, it's his limits— because he's constantly pushing past them with new conquests.

His CV as a Broadway producer earned him six Tony Awards, and many other awards for plays and shows where he is a main player, such as the revival of Angels in America, The Rocky Horror Show as a musical version starring names like Joan Jett and Luke Perry, or the interactive musical The Donkey Show, which ran for six years, including within a world tour. It was his mother, Daryl Roth, also a producer on Broadway, who gave him his theatrical baggage from an early age, then Princeton and Columbia brought him official training, and his love for the métier paved the way for him, with many other parallel tracks: in addition to the awards, he became partner and president of Jujamcyn Theaters, a group of five theaters on Broadway (St. James, Al Hirschfeld, August Wilson, Eugene O'Neill, and Walter Kerr) whose goal is to innovate and break boundaries with unforgettable experiences for both the audience and the artists; collaborated with television programs, was a correspondent for Vogue at a Paris Fashion Week, launched a series on Youtube, The Birds & the Bs, where equality issues are addressed in a children's program format (but aimed at the elderly), not shy away from sharing his insight into both his work and the causes he fights for, in numerous reference publications. Indeed, not including a philanthropist as Roth's main characteristic is to leave out an essential aspect of his being: an active element of numerous organizations supporting the arts, such as The Broadway League, he fights for equality in a series of campaigns and as a member of the organization Freedom to Marry (which advocates the right to marriage for same-sex couples) and the NGO Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which raises funds for the fight against AIDS, just to list a few examples. In the meantime, he created, in 2007, Givenik.com, a service that allowed one to buy theater tickets at a discount and donate 5% of the price to a charity of one’s choice. It is no wonder that in 2019 he received the HRC Legacy Award, given by the Human Rights Campaign (which raises funds for the fight for LGBTQ + equality). Activism is as much a part of his identity as his role as a family man: one might think that, between the performing arts, the awards and saving the world, he would have little time left for more, but Jordan Roth argues heartily that he celebrates family every day and the possibility of enjoying time with them - his husband, Richie Jackson, and their two children (one from a previous relationship of Jackson and the other, born in 2016, already as a couple). For us, to celebrate is also to give a standing ovation to such examples like Jordan Roth.

Your fashion sense is uncanny, but above all, it’s clearly an expression of your identity. How important is it to have the freedom to express yourself and did you ever feel any kind of censorship towards it? 

Fashion for me is a deeply meaningful way to express myself, both an outward expression to others and an inward expression to myself. It’s a virtuous cycle where the process of creating a look and living in it for that day or night allows me both to access feelings and freedoms within myself, and at the same time, to convey those feelings and freedoms to others. I have certainly had periods in my life where I have restricted that - either consciously, by not wearing what I wanted to for fear of how others would judge me, or subconsciously, by believing that more restricted clothes were who I was. When I first started producing theatre, I was only 21 years old, and I adopted a uniform I wore every day: black/blue/or gray Prada suit, white dress shirt untucked (the untucked was my indication I wasn’t a banker) and buzz cut hair. At the time I thought that was my place of comfort, and it was, but that had more to do with what I felt I needed to project than what I felt inside. As I became more confident in myself professionally, I became less concerned with the apparent tension between my professional position and what I looked like. Or rather, I no longer felt that tension, even if others did. I think the process of growing into ourselves is the process of gently releasing our grip on those boundaries that restrict what we allow ourselves to be.

If there’s still a social censorship to being truly ourselves, in all our differences, what do you think contributes to that censorship and how can we overcome it?

Beyond the very real threats to physical safety and well-being that so many are forced to live under, judgement, restriction and shame do their emotional damage when we accept them. So as much as we can point outside ourselves to their sources, and as much as we must work to melt away those external sources, the ultimate power is to work within ourselves on not receiving them, not believing them. But that is the hardest work, because shame is an insidious houseguest.

What inspires you when thinking of a look for a particular event?

I’m always telling a story - which isn’t to say a fabrication, but rather a narrative. And the fundamentals of story often begin with person and place, so the context of the event is often a jumping off point for the look. What physical space/aesthetic will we be in, what show/film/etc are we celebrating, what cause or organization are we honoring. And what does that spark in me. From there I look for pieces that unlock something in me and help me express that spark and story.

You’re a renowned and awarded Broadway producer. What were the biggest challenges you faced throughout your career? And what were the wins/moments you celebrated the most (big or small)?

Being a theatre producer is holding in your hands the impossible tension of both blind faith and clear-eyed realism. It is floating in the clouds of the impossible at the same time as you are grounded in the realities of the actually happening. That’s the daily challenge for all of us. The shows that thrill me most, both as a theatre-goer and theatre-maker, are the ones that defy logic and common wisdom because they feel like something we’ve never experienced before. That’s why they look like they won’t work at first, and that’s why they do.

Tell us a bit about your role in Jujamcyn Theaters and what your main goal as president is, please. What's the legacy you'd like to leave behind?

I have always been excited by expanding the canvas of Broadway. The stories we tell, who tells them, what they sound like, what they look like, what they feel like. And beyond what’s onstage, what it feels like to come to the theatre, whether to see a show or to work on a show, is something all of us at Jujamcyn have been dedicated to. We want everyone to feel that they belong here on Broadway, that they are home here.

You move in an area that’s the top for theaters, but do you feel theater should be celebrated more, there should be a bigger spotlight on it?

The more we shine light on the theatre, the more it can shine light on us. The theatre has been a place of great refuge and celebration for me and for so many others. But of course there are so many more who haven’t had that experience, and I wish it for them. Because theatre happens in one specific place, it is often looked at as a local story, as opposed to a film or TV show or album that can be seen and heard all over the world. But ultimately the world is made up of localities and the act of theatre-going, the art form of theatre-making in all the many places, large and small, that it happens in every night around the world, is a shared global truth. 

You’ve created and starred in a youtube series called The Birds and the Bs, which follow the format of a children’s TV show. But it is in fact a show for every age, mainly adults, actually, would you agree? Why so, and why did you feel the need to launch something like this? Is it easier to talk about serious matters in a seemingly lighter way?

Exactly, The Birds and the BS was a children’s show for adults, because at the time we made it four years ago, it felt like we as a society had forgotten all the lessons we learned as kids, and that’s only gotten worse since then. Part of the point was that the way we talk to and about each other had gotten so crass and mean, so in the show, we used shock value humor to grab the attention and then to talk about the complicated grey we find ourselves in.

It's clear that you want to make a positive impact in this world - in what you do, how you dress, in what you are. Do you feel more and more the need to be an activist in all you do and get involved with?

Activism is embedded in everything, or rather the possibility for activism is embedded in everything. At its core, activism is taking action to effect social change, and while those actions can be big and far-reaching, they can also be in our every day. And social change happens one heart and mind at a time. In our current world, we can all follow one another, so even the smallest actions can have meaningful impact to someone you may never know. What you say, what you do, what you wear may soften a heart, bolster a spirit, change a mind.

And do you feel your unapologetic style is also an expression of it, even if subliminarly?

I am so moved when people share with me that watching me be me helps them be them. That we can offer to each other a daily bit of permission, encouragement, inspiration to continue to expand the boundaries of ourselves, to live into the self we imagine. It’s not “where’d you get that coat,” it’s “where’d you get that feeling.” And that’s something we can all have.

How hard was it, for the Theater business, to endure these pandemics times and what needs yet to be done to overcome all the hardship?

As it was for so many all over the world, this was an excruciatingly difficult time for everyone who makes theatre and the people who depend on theatre to support themselves and their families. The financial, emotional, physical and mental wounds for so many will take time and support to heal. Unlike in many other countries that have long histories of government support for the arts, our governments are finally just beginning to recognize that the arts are a very significant part of our economy as well as our societal fabric. We need that support to continue at the federal, state and local levels across the country to help all arts workers and companies not just recover from this pandemic but thrive well into the future.

Was there any bright side to these quarantine times - for instance, in Portugal, culture and entertainment and arts were perceived as most important for mental health as they were a way of enjoying time spent at home. Did you feel this happened as well in the US? Through all the hard times, this helped renew the appreciation for the arts - theater in particular?

One of the strangest things about this time was that the very thing that makes theatre theatre - gathering in physical space with a big group of people to have a communal experience - was the very thing we couldn’t do. So as a result, for so many people, coming back to the theatre has become a way of affirming all that we missed. A symbol of stepping back into life, into community, into celebration.

This issue is themed "celebration". And you’ve won four Tony awards, which are, I imagine, plenty of reasons for celebration. What was it like to get them? Is it somewhat of a reward, recognition for such hard work? Or the biggest recognition comes from within? (Or a bit of both?)

When I was little, my mother and I would watch the Tony Awards on television after seeing as many of the shows as we could. I would imagine myself there, I would imagine what it would be like to be on that stage. And every year I get to even go to the Tony Awards, let alone take one home, is a celebration for me of that little boy’s dream. At its core, the Tony Awards is a celebration of Broadway, of all the shows and everyone involved in making them. A celebration of our shared love for theatre magic.

What’s your reasons for celebrating, on a daily basis?

Every morning that my husband and I wake up with our five year-old gives me reason to celebrate all day.

What do you think the world doesn’t celebrate enough?

Each other. We’ve gotten so great at tearing each other down, criticizing, shaming and blaming. Especially people we don’t know. For as many reasons as there are to judge one another, there are reasons to celebrate one another - if we allow ourselves to look for them.

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's Celebrate Yourself issue, published february 2022.
Full story and credits on the print issue.