Benjamin Weisman is the Director of Development for Playwrights Horizons in NYC and a film and theater producer. His producing credits include the recently released feature film, Ovid and the Art of Love starring Corbin Bleu and John Savage, the Broadway tour of Peter and the Starcatcher, the off-Broadway play Stalking the Bogeyman and the upcoming new musical, Austen’s Pride. Outside of the arts, he is a proud board member for the United Way of Northern New Jersey and heavily involved in a variety of roles (including nearly a decade on the board of directors) with The Marfan Foundation. Finally, Ben is active in Morris County politics, having most recently served as the campaign manager for Christine Clarke for State Assembly in 2019. Ben lives in Boonton, NJ with wife (and fellow Drew alum) Lindsey Godfrey Weisman and an adorable dog and cat.
“There are two ways of being creative, one can sing and dance, or one can create an environment where singers and dancers can flourish.” ~ Warren Bennis
BENEFITS OF DREW
Ben came to Drew because he fell in love with the gorgeous campus and its great political science and theater programs. “When I met Gov. Tom Kean at Drew he said, “Theater and Politics? That’s my passion too”, and I was hooked. I knew this was the place I wanted to be.” Ben thought he might be the next Tom Cruise but he soon realized he didn’t have the talent or the passion for acting that others did. “Someone once told me that if there is anything else in the world you can imagine doing other than acting, do that. If there isn’t, be an actor.” When he got to Drew he was immediately cast in the first two shows he auditioned for but when he didn’t get cast as a lead in the next two years, he said, “It allowed me to find other doors.” Ben was very active at Drew – he was in six shows, his senior year he directed The Diary of Anne Frank, was one of the producers of the Plays-in-Process, Chair of the Drew University Dramatic Society in his senior year, he lived in the Women’s Concerns House for 3 years, was in the student government all 4 years, and the Orientation committee, served as a Student Representative on the Board of Directors for the United Way in Morris County and is now actually back on that Board as an adult.
One of his most memorable mentors was Theater Prof. Joe Patenaude, he was also mentored by other theater department faculty including, Professors Dan LoPenta, Buzz Mcloughlin, Jim Bazewicz, Rosemary McLaughlin, and Chris Cerasso. “There was no better acting teacher and guide than Chris Cerasso.” Lastly, also a mentor was former Governor of NJ and former President of Drew, Tom Kean. Ben still looks to him for advice. “He was one of the first people to know about my film and got involved in it in a meaningful way to help support it. He has shown me what it means to be a good person in life. He showed me that you can pursue both theater or the arts and politics and be really successful. He does so many good things that he wouldn’t want people to know about. I wish there were more people like him.”
Of all of his favorite memories of Drew, No. 1 is meeting and falling in love with his wife, and Drew alum, Lindsey, who he met when she was the stage manager in one of Ben’s shows. Another favorite memory is directing The Diary of Ann Frank. “My great uncle was almost killed in the Holocaust. Each year at Passover he read a passage from a book of letters. Sixteen years ago while he was in the throes of Alzheimers, I read that passage and and sadly he didn’t recognize the words. Every Passover since then I read that passage. It was important for me to do this show in his honor. We partnered with Drew’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study and gave a special performance for school children and they were so moved by the show. I saw the power that art has to move people and to open them up. Elie Wiesel once said, one Anne Frank dying moves us more than 6 million Jews dying because we know Anne Frank. Another favorite memory was living in the Women’s Concerns house and a couple of experiences associated with that house. One was participating in “The Take Back the Night March.” Women walked around campus stopping where sexual assaults happened and told their stories and men would sit in a big circle in Brothers College and talked about our role in perpetuating this culture where sexual assault is so prevalent. Men also told their stories of being assaulted or harassed. Then the men and women would come together and we would share our stories in a big circle. I have never experienced such an open and honest conversation to this day. This happened once a year but in more micro ways it happened every day living in a Women’s Concerns house. Every assumption I had was challenged as a privileged white straight male. I was forced to reflect in a meaningful way about my role and how I can help to create a better world. We had amazing, enlightening, and powerful conversations that I still reflect on today and have helped inform and shape every career decision I’ve made.”
FUNDRAISING | DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZON
You pursued a certificate in fundraising right out of Drew and then went on to get your MBA in Public and Non-Profit Management? What inspired your interest in this field?
So there’s an incredible quote that I love and so much ties back to Drew. My sophomore year, the tradition was when you’re on the orientation committee, co-chairs would decorate the doors of the orientation committee members with a “Welcome Back.” One of the co-chairs had found this quote by the philosopher Warren Bennis who is known for his leadership studies. His quote goes – “There are two ways of being creative, one can sing and dance, or one can create an environment where singers and dancers can flourish.” So I came to college thinking I was going to be the next big thing. I was ¾ threat, a decent actor but could not sing or dance, but there are other ways. So when I didn’t get cast for a couple of years, I thought okay, what else do I want to be doing. I started a volunteer center when I was in high school and I started helping to produce this Plays-in-Process reading series and I realized I could do this producing thing. It didn’t have to be my words and I could bring people together to tell a story. I realized that I also enjoyed raising money. I began to think what I wanted to do post Drew. I took that quote and extrapolated it out to other industries. I worked for a shelter for homeless women in Boston. I wasn’t the one working directly with these women but I was the one helping to raise the resources so we could be doing it. I realized you need both to be successful and I can help create the environment. That’s become my personal and professional mission over the years. Am I creating an environment where by ABC, good things can happen? That’s how I got into fundraising for the non-profit sector. I knew there were things I wanted to learn about the science of fundraising, because fundraising is both an art and science and that’s why I did the certificate program. Then I began to see if I really want to rise up through the ranks in my non-profit organization fundraising, I needed to understand the business terms funders were discussing like corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and budgeting and I didn’t have more than a passing familiarity with these terms. I knew if I wanted be as effective as I can at the craft of fundraising, I needed to understand business more, I also needed to understand not only the non-profit sector, but the government sector, the public and private sector and that drove me to pursue the MBA.
You’ve been at Playwrights Horizons for almost 4 years? What do you do as Director of Development and what are the highlights of your work?
I’m in charge of overseeing all aspects of our fundraising that includes all the revenue we are raising from individuals, from foundations, corporations, and government. I supervise a team of six staff members and I am responsible for all revenue and expense projections and managing our budget, etc. As part of that role I also sit on the senior leadership team of the organization. It’s been an Interesting year to say the least. We just passed a year. In that role I am cultivating and managing my staff and making sure they have whatever tools they need to be successful, building relationships with donors, and making sure we have the resources to let the artists tell their stories. It’s an exceptional organizational with lots of amazing people. A highpoint was when we did musical last year called Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson which a month or two ago won the Pulitzer Prize. Was I involved in the artistic side of it? No. But it’s exciting to be part of a theater that took a chance on this show that was so deeply personal for the writer, and see it get this recognition and success was just an exceptional moment. Also, when I get to see members of my team do well, close that gift, or hire someone who is so excited about what this organization meant for them, or to be at our gala, to take a step back and watch people raising their paddles to support something that matters and knowing that we helped create that environment. Good non-profit organizations like Rosie’s Place or Playwrights Horizon are truly communities that say, this is a mission and this is a gap that we see and we’re going to do something about it. When I see that it really inspires me and I see that in the shows that Playwrights Horizons chooses to do, how we choose to work with writers, and I continue to see it in how we are responding to the moment that we’re in right now.
BEN – PRODUCING OVID AND THE ART OF LOVE
Let’s talk about the wonderful film you produced called Ovid and the Art of Love. Is this your first stint as a film producer?
In film yes. I was an Associate Producer in a few plays. I was involved in raising money for the Broadway tour of Peter and the Starcatcher and the off-Broadway play called Stalking the Bogeyman, and my wife Lindsey and I are also co-producers of a musical called Austin’s Pride that hopefully will come to Broadway in a year or two.
What attracted you to Ovid and the Art of Love? When did you realize you wanted to produce it?
The writer, Esmé von Hoffman, and I went to high school together in Boston. We were having dinner one evening and she was told me about the screenplay she had written. She had made a short film version of this film called Ovid in the Gutter and she asked me to read the screenplay. A third of the way through on a plane back to L.A., I sat back and thought this is great, so different and unique and really powerful. I called her and said we need to talk. We realized maybe we can do this together, get a cast, and the money. She’s a real visionary as a writer and director and crafted a story that was really unique. She was committed to doing it in Detroit and I saw it as a real opportunity to get the community involved. We worked with a number of different community organizations. It’s almost entirely a local cast and crew to make it true to Detroit. Detroit becomes another character.
As the producer how involved were you in casting, editing, directing, etc.
I was involved in all the elements of producing it. As a producer you have your hands in everything. Esme was not only a great director, but a great editor too, so I trusted her artistic decisions. I saw my role as helping to manage the crew and the cast, helping to make sure everyone had the tools to be successful, that I raised the money for it, shepherding it through, figuring where we would have our world premiere, and identifying our sales agent. We had a north American deal and now we’re working on a foreign sales deal so we can bring it to more people. We are also working with our publicist and our social media team to figure out our strategy of how to get it to more people with a limited budget.
What were some of the challenges of filming in Detroit?
We filmed 6 or 7 weeks with a local cast and crew. One of the challenges was that as a smaller budget film we couldn’t build the perfect set. We had to make sure that first and foremost our cast and crew were safe. There were areas of buildings that were safe and some were not. I don’t think it’s any different than concerns in other cities. Overall filming in Detroit was one of the most amazing experiences. Without exception, the people I met there were some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. I wish more people had enough love and passion and respect for their cities as the people do in Detroit.
Did you and the director, Esme Von Hoffman, have a similar vision for the film?
One of the things about producing is knowing and respecting the people you bring on and knowing that you’re not an expert in everything. Did we discuss scenes and moments? yes, absolutely, but one of the things about her is that I wouldn’t have signed on to do this movie if I didn’t believe in her artistic vision. I completely believed in her and the end result speaks for itself.
I love how timely the film feels. I feel the script was brilliant in showing how ancient Rome can easily be compared t0 our current political scene, including the references to socioeconomic inequality, political hypocrisy, etc. Was this intentional?
Imagine Occupy Wall Street but in Ancient Rome where people are demanding a better life, more opportunity, etc. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Esme wasn’t making a film about oppression. We made a film about Ovid and his world but it’s not hard to imagine Jamal sitting there in Detroit reading this book and imagining Ovid’s world against the backdrop of his world. You don’t have to change much to make it work. What would Ovid be writing if he was alive today? Going back to the Diary of Anne Frank. Seeing those kids and watching them understand. This is one of the things that art can do that nothing else can do. This is why art will always be a central part of our society or needs to be. If I go up to someone and say, I want to tell you why xyz is wrong, they may or may not listen, but if I say, here’s a movie, a book, a painting, a song, or a play that is going to force you to look at these people’s lives from a different perspective, then people will see something about themselves up there. This is why I talk about equity in representation in the arts, because it’s so important for people from all different backgrounds to see themselves in art.
Before this project were you familiar with the poet Ovid?
I knew of Ovid because I studied him in high school but I didn’t know him well but through this film I did get to know him very well. He’s an every man. He’s an incredible writer but he’s not an exceptional person. He recognized the power of words to tell a story and exact change. And he used this to great impact. There is still so much we don’t know about his life. Why was he exiled? He was up against the hypocrisy of the ruling class. This is still out there in the world today. He would be surprised by some of the things in the world but some things would be very familiar.
Besides a wonderful introduction to Ovid, what do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Words matter and can be our most powerful weapon, stand for what you believe in, be true to yourself, and love takes on many different forms.
Are you looking to produce another project?
Not right now. Playwright’s Horizon is a real focus for me. I know the theater community can come back strong.
Are you interested in directing one day?
I am interested in directing theater again but not film. I don’t have that certain skill set film directing requires.
ADVICE FOR STUDENTS
What advice would you give Drew students who are interested in breaking into film production?
Film requires a lot of hours, is very stressful, and difficult. You can have all the talent in the world but how you respond to stress is more important than your talent. Find people you work well with and start doing things together. No one is going to hand it to you. Build your team. Also, find people who are doing things you’d like to do and reach out to them, and not just when you need them. In the best case scenario, they will get back to you. Don’t underestimate how much people enjoy hearing from people and enjoy talking about themselves. Make that cold outreach on Facebook or send a LinkedIn message. Build relationships with people before needing something from them. If someone chooses to watch our film, send a note, introduce yourself and say congratulations. Send your best. Now suddenly, if I hear from you again, I’ll remember you. This matters.
What advice would you give Drew actors who want to be successful in theater?
Without exception, the best actors I know are the ones that understand theater. You have to know It’s not just about acting. You can get up on stage and say all the words in the proper way but if you don’t understand what it took to get that light hung up above you or what that person in all black is doing stage right or what the person in the back with the headset is doing, if you don’t truly appreciate all the aspects of theater, you will not be as successful. People want to know you have the character. As a fundraiser, when I come across an actor who understands why we are fundraising and what that means, I get a huge smile on my face. Understand the industry.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Politics. I think there is a good chance I will run for office one day. The question is do I want to be a campaign manager or the candidate, but diving deep into politics is something I would like to do.
If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow where would you go and why?
We were in Italy last summer and we spent the day up on this mountain with this family of truffle hunters and they made us this incredible three course lunch that included cheese from their cheese cave and homemade pasta. Right now I would like to be back on that mountain with those sheep and the best scrambled eggs I ever had in my life. This was in Umbria and an on-line experience you could book. We stayed in Assisi and drove 45 min. into mountains, parked our car by a church and followed the family up to their house. This was one of the most amazing days I ever had. We finished with dinner in Assisi in a restaurant (Locanda del Cardinale) with a glass floor that showed a 2000-year-old mosaic floor. We also saw the wine cellar of a Cardinal’s house. There’s a chance Ovid had dinner there. It was a moment of feeling so connected to our past and our future. I would revisit that day.
Is there a fun fact or hobbies you would like to share?
1. I am a huge food and wine lover. There is a line from a play where the character gets up on the stage and says, “We were those people who we would hear of a chef doing something interesting with a Cornish game hen and we’d get on a plane to go there.” If I could afford it, that would be me. Whenever we go anywhere my first thing is what is one Interesting food experience I can have there that will be memorable.
2. I also love politics. I was a campaign manager for the NJ Assembly race which was a great experience. If I’m debating politics with someone ideally with a glass of wine over a fun dinner, this is what I love.
3. No matter how long I live in NJ I will always hate the Yankees and I will always be a Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, Celtics fan. I bought a face mask and it has all 4 Boston team logos on it.
You can rent Ovid and the Art of Love on Amazon. See HERE