If you’re looking for a nine-to-five job where you can make a good living, it isn’t producing theater,” Paula Wagner says with a grin. “That’s not what it’s about.” What it is about for Wagner—the Hollywood super agent who helmed the career of Tom Cruise, produced blockbuster franchises and even ran a studio—is telling a story, albeit one that doesn’t come with a $200 million price tag.
“I don’t see it as apples and oranges,” Wagner says, comparing film to theater. “It’s more like oranges and lemons. It all starts with the written word and, businesswise, the concept is the same.”
A Hollywood sensibility is apparent in her shows. Wagner’s inaugural production was The Heiress, featuring Jessica Chastain, followed by Grace, starring Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon. This season, she’s producing Mothers and Sons (opening March 24), Terrence McNally’s latest, starring Tyne Daly as a mother who reconnects with her dead son’s partner. It fits her sensibility perfectly.
“I want a play to be about something,” Wagner says. “I don’t care if it’s a classic, a tragedy or a comedy—you have to say something to the audience. I want authenticity and I want character.”
Character’s something she knows, having herself worked as an actress (including a USO tour of Guys and Dolls). But it’s the business skills honed offstage keeping her afloat and guiding her new path. “I have a number of things in the works,” she says. “I’m developing a musical, I’m developing new plays, I’m working on revivals. I probably have seven or eight things in the works, but it takes time.”