Joe’s Pub Director Shanta Thake talks with Pollstar about the 15th anniversary of the 187-capacity New York City venue and how she and her staff work with artists to create shows that you will not see anywhere else.
As a venue that’s part of the city’s Public Theater, Joe’s Pub has hosted artists ranging from Lou Reed to Neil Sedaka to Richard Thompson and was where Adele and Amy Winehouse made their U.S. debuts. Known for having excellent sound as well as for its intimate atmosphere, Joe’s Pub has given many acts opportunities to push the envelope of their creativity.
Staying on top of it all is Thake. However, running a non-profit venue in New York City wasn’t necessarily part of her show-biz dreams while in college.
The stage at Joe’s Pub in New York.
Was director of Joe’s Pub along the lines of what you wanted for a career choice?
No it wasn’t although I do think I had something similar in mind. I went to school to be an actress. I would always tell my mom that my ideal life would involve occasionally singing in some sort of hotel bar. So I created an upscale version of that for myself.
How long have you been with Joe’s Pub?
I’ve been there for 11 years, almost since the beginning. I came in in 2002. I worked at the Public Theater right after I graduated from college and was in New York pursuing my acting dreams. I got an internship at the theater under George Wolfe who was the artistic director at the time. When I realized I really loved working on the administration side and found it equally creative and a better use of my specific talents, I realized I would rather work in music than in theatre.
What are some of the differences running a non-profit venue such as Joe’s Pub compared to commercial venues?
It’s hard for me to speak for other nightclubs. I’ve only worked for one non-profit, but I would say … the basic difference … is that we’re mission-driven. We’re not primarily looking at the bottom line although, obviously, that’s a huge part of it. But we are driven by these ideals.
For us that means really being in touch with the city of New York, trying to understand what we can provide. We take very seriously the idea that we are to reflect the city of New York and allow people to hear their own voices on stage. … That means a diversity of programming. Our artist support [is]more in-depth than at most music venues in terms of the time and attention we spend with [an act]. [We’re] really working with them to grow their careers, to the point where we really think of [them] as more [like] artists in residence versus somebody just coming in and leaving. At Joe’s Pub we really try to have them feel that they’re part of what we’re doing here in this bigger vision, and that we’re here to support them and not the other way around.
Who are some of the artists living in the New York area that tend to call Joe’s Pub home?
We’ve really grown this avant cabaret scene in New York. Bridget Everett is one of the artists we have upcoming who we commissioned to create a new work. She is incredible, amazing … has one of the best voices and is just this hilarious, out-of-control artist. Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz is her bassist. [Tony award-winners] Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are helping to shape the show and write music with her. So she has this all-star collaborator list and it’s been really fun to work on and see her develop that. It’s just using so many of these different elements of who is Joe’s Pub, from the highlights of all these different fields – Broadway, cabaret, hip hop – to create this show she’s calling “Rock Bottom.”
Martha Redbone [is another] we’re working with. [She] has a roots project but she is an amazing soul singer who’s delving into her Appalachian roots music. Ethan Lipton is a playwright/singer who we commissioned a show with who ended up winning the Obie last year. Anything from Bright Light Bright Light who are a great indie pop group that have been growing in New York. … We do a little bit of everything.
So you’re actually creating events with the artists than providing a room for their New York stop on a tour?
We started a commission series a few years ago, [so] we’re heading into our third year. It’s been amazing. We’ve commissioned artists such as Allen Toussaint and Angelique Kidjo, Abigail Washburn … really trying to get a wide swath of artists. … That’s really been a result of looking at the sort-of-crumbling music industry and seeing that these artists really need live shows … and honing these skills. Not that Angelique Kidjo needs help on her live shows, but allowing them another set of tools or another story to tell in a longer-form narrative. So we work with them on creating new work, new material, having them think outside of what they have been doing but also focusing on what does work about their live shows, what makes them such special performers and giving them something else that they can use as an income stream down the road.
Ethan Lipton’s show is a great example of one that ran here. We commissioned it, it had a couple of shows, the Public Theater picked it up and we did six weeks with it. Now I’m going out in a couple of weeks to The Gate in London where it’s going to be running for four weeks. That is something he would just live and dream before. And having the band out on the road for that amount of time is really exciting.
And to be able to sit down someplace and have a resemblance of a life. In our conversations with artists and seeing how the world is turning, I think just being aware that to be a musician in this world is so difficult and what are things we can do to help. I think that changes depending on where you are. Where we are and what our singular skill set is is being able to use the resources of the Public Theater and Joe’s Pub and being in New York and having this amazing cabaret place, I think we’re able to do it in a very specific way. It’s been an amazing experience to see these artists challenge themselves and use these skills in a way they can keep bringing in some money.
What are some of the more memorable performances you’ve seen at Joe’s Pub?
Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lou Reed. Lou has been coming to Joe’s Pub often over the course of the last 15 years. One of the most amazing moments we have … Rachel Fuller put together this series with [her significant other] Pete Townshend … and we did those at Joe’s Pub. We filmed a series … one of them was Pete and Lou Reed on stage singing together.
I think having Allen Toussaint … really being able to claim he sort of restarted his career as a performer after producing for so many years. [And] after Hurricane Katrina [to] find a home at Joe’s Pub … and grow as an artist.
Adele is a good one. We had her U.S. debut.
Did you know then that she was destined to be a huge star?
I think there was no doubt. I had heard about her from my friend … who was working on signing her at the time. … She came in and she had a cold. We were getting her honey and tea. The minute she opened her mouth I think everybody was aware we were in the presence of something very special.
The same thing with Amy Winehouse and her U.S. debut. Janelle Monáe was, like, running on top of our tables. Like taking the air out of the room. Joe’s Pub has one of those stages … when artists are on stage, because of the proximity to the audience and the way they feel supported here, they feel like they own this space. There is this feeling of comfort and intimacy that makes it possible for some of these moments to happen.
Are artists calling you? Is there a waiting list to play Joe’s Pub?
There is a waiting list. We book about 800 shows a year. People are always saying, “How is that possible?” But if we could book 1,000 shows a year, we would. There are so many amazing artists and so many different genres we’re trying to tap into. Again, if we’re trying to reflect the city of New York, what does that mean?
There are limits, obviously, to what we can do. But artists want to play here all the time. We also try to set up a number of residencies and help these artists to grow. It’s always a question of balance and figuring out which of the local artists are coming in, what are the regional touring artists coming in, who are the legendary artists looking to try something new. When we say “diversity” it’s also a diversity of area in career … and how we’re supporting each of those differently.
It’s always juggling. Trying to figure out who goes where, how to keep it all moving forward and still stay true to what we’re supposed to be doing here.
The view from the stage at Joe’s Pub in New York.
When you have an artist playing Joe’s Pub as one stop on a lengthy tour, do you still work with the act to make their performance unique compared to other stops on the tour?
Yeah. We have staff that are specifically dedicated to the artist. I’m not sure how it works at other venues but I think we do have a pretty robust system for how small we are. From the moment we book a show we have constant contact with the artist. We’ve heard from many, many people that that is very rare. … We really make an effort to reach out and make sure that they feel taken care of and supported – like we are their staff.
You have something coming up that I don’t think anyone is doing. You’re inviting people to come in and draw a concert. What’s up with that?
I’m so excited about that. We’ve had an archival artist here at Joe’s for six years, Michael Arthur, who has been such an integral part of our family. He started just coming in and drawing. Part of the deal we made with him was he could come in, have free tickets to any show, just share with the artist what he drew. It’s been so rewarding for Michael, for us and for the artist. It’s been incredible to see the moments that he has captured.
But I think he would say he’s grown as an artist. He has basically a similar story to a lot of musicians and theatre artists that have played Joe’s. He feels like he’s been supported and has grown and has had the ability to take his work to the next level because of the support and space we have given him. Michael has gone on to do so many amazing things. He’s working occasionally at Lincoln Center.
He’s busy now and we can’t really count on him to be at all of our shows. So we thought this would be a cool opportunity. Michael plays with a band. By “plays” he draws while this fun indie folk band based in Brooklyn, Balthrop, Alabama, plays. He’s sort of telling his own story while they’re telling theirs. It’s fun so we’re going to … have Michael drawing the performance that’s going on and then we’re going to have about 30 people in the audience also drawing. They’re submitting their work on Tumblr. So we’ve been doing this contest through Tumblr for people to submit their live performance drawings. We’re inviting them to the show and getting a chance to meet them. We’re hoping to do for visual artists what we’ve been able to do for Michael and what we do all the time for musicians.
So is this a better gig than being an actress?
[laughs] It’s definitely better for the world at large that I’m in this job versus. trying to be an actress.
Many companies are planning way in advance, even years. This being your 15th anniversary, are you already talking about what you’re going to do for the 20th or 25th anniversary?
What would be the fun in that? But actually we are. We’re having a big meeting to really think about what is Joe’s Pub and who have we been? I think it’s been really fun for us to look back at 15 years. Especially for some of the newer staff members who are really trying to figure out what is our story, who do we want to be and what will Joe’s Pub look like in 50 years? What does it look like in two years? I think that story is one we’re really excited about and we don’t take it for granted. To work in music and have this incredible space and to work for an organization like the Public – we’re in a unique position. But I think we’re all aware that this industry changes all the time and we have to be continuously excited in order to stay vibrant and to maintain our place within it and make sure we’re doing the best work for our artists.
I think we’re all really excited to see, like, what we think the future holds and hopefully we’ll be able to adapt to all the fun things that come at us along the way.
“We take very seriously the idea that we are to reflect the city of New York and allow people to hear their own voices on stage.”
Please visit JoesPub.com for more information.