December 9, 2020

New Local Production Company is All About Collaboration

IT STARTED AT MCCARTER: Their pre-COVID connections to the Princeton theater center provided the impetus for four colleagues to start the production company princetonVIRTUAL. From left are Alison Cote, Perry Jones, Cheryl Mintz, and Seth Mellman. (Photo by Mara Isaacs)

By Anne Levin

Like most every performing arts organization, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center was sent into panic mode when the pandemic hit last March. Theater operations and live performances ceased. The theater, music, and dance seasons were canceled.

But a gala farewell tribute to departing artistic director Emily Mann had to be converted from a live to virtual event, and members of the production team were drafted to help. Thanks in large part to the efforts of longtime Resident Production Stage Manager Cheryl Mintz, Production Stage Manager Alison Cote, and Network Support Manager Perry Jones, the gala was a hit, watched by some 17,000 people.

Little did the colleagues know that working on the project would eventually lead them to create a virtual production company. Videographer Seth Mellman, whom they knew through Mellman’s wife, McCarter’s former Producing Director Mara Isaacs, soon joined them. Since that gala, the four principals have been busy creating virtual productions for such clients as The Jewish Center Princeton during the high holidays last fall; The Suppers Program; a gala for Theater J in Washington (headed by former McCarter Associate Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr); and the Stage Managers Association. They have recently made princetonVIRTUAL official.

“We realized that it made sense to be one company instead of four freelancers,” said Mintz. “What we’re doing is using our collaborative theater skills and bringing them to projects. The amount of work that goes into the journey is enormous. We’re looking at it as a collaboration, like we do in the theater. Rather than going for a slick, technical package, we’re listening to our collaborators, understanding their mission and artistic goals.”

PrincetonVIRTUAL lists virtual event consultation and direction, event management, live and recorded camera work, pre-recorded segments, live speaker coaching, and IT management among its offerings. “Because we are a very collaborative team, we also strive to make the participants feel really comfortable in what they’re going to be saying,” said Cote. “We have virtual coaching sessions. We want them to feel good, and know we are there to help them. Guest speakers can have a rehearsal with us.”

In addition to her work at McCarter, Mintz has worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and for the Spoleto Festival USA and Italy, and New York City Opera. Cote has managed productions for Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, and the Public Theater. Mellman’s credits include the Grammy and Tony awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the MTV Music Video Awards. Jones, who is married to Cote, has been IT manager at The Prudential Center in Newark, and currently works at the Support and Operations Center of Princeton University. He has also provided IT support and his Zoom expertise for the American Repertory Ballet Company’s virtual classes.

Keeping up with the technology is an important part of the challenge. “It was the Stone Age of Zoom when we started this,” said Mintz. Perry added, “Each event is different. Each customer wants something different. And Zoom keeps changing and getting better, so we can do smoother transitions.”

The experience has stretched the four partners creatively and opened them up to new experiences. Mintz, Cote, and Perry said they plan on resuming their work at McCarter once life returns to some semblance of normal and performances begin again. “There could be situations in the future where there is a kind of hybrid,” said Cote. “ We’re all missing live events, and we still want them to be very much a part of our lives. But we’re recognizing that this is also an avenue that is probably here to stay.”

Mellman credits Mintz for much of the operation. “Most of this comes from Cheryl,” he said. “I do full time TV work – the Tonys, the Grammys, the Kennedy Center Honors, as stage manager. What she does is very organic. So when we do an event, you get the feeling that you’re part of it. You don’t feel like you’re just watching another YouTube video. You feel an attachment to it. That’s one of the ways we’re trying to separate ourselves from the other companies.”

Mintz is equally complimentary. “I have learned an enormous amount working with Seth,” she said. “And the fact that Alison and I have had each other during this pandemic has been extraordinary. What we are doing at princetonVIRTUAL will only elevate what we do when we go back to the live venue.”

The partners are looking forward to projects that are in the planning stages. “We are doing a private event for a distinguished rabbi, but that’s all we can say at this point,” said Mintz. “It’s all about connections. We just keep getting recommended. We’re in discussions for three future projects that are extraordinarily exciting endeavors that reach across the country, the East Coast, and the county. But we can’t say more.”