Originally published in American Theatre Magazine
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“I’m such a nerd,” laughs Robert Serrell, executive director of the Barrow Group Theatre Company and School, then launches into a detailed explanation of search engine optimization techniques. This is hardly a tangent: SEO is a key to how to Serrell, a former student of the school, rescued the New York City theatre company and performing arts training center from bankruptcy in 2014.
Teaching himself WordPress, Serrell updated the Barrow Group’s website and worked to make sure the school was a top result in various Google searches. The results speak for themselves: Since 2010, when he began as the Barrow Group’s education director (he became executive director in 2014), registrations increased from approximately 320 to 3,600 per year.
Income generated by the Barrow Group’s training program has accordingly multiplied by 10, its debt has been eliminated, and a six-month operating reserve has been amassed. The school has expanded its curriculum, outreach, and focus on diversity, and established a regular production schedule.
“Not only has the school gone from offering a few classes to dozens at full capacity, but its theatre company has managed to produce three shows a year on its mainstage after remaining dormant for nearly a decade,” said Tony Gillan, who has taught scene study classes at the Barrow Group for four years.
Serrell also worked to broaden the Barrow Group’s curriculum to offer more beginning acting classes. This was part of an ongoing mission of diversifying at the school, where a fortysomething hedge fund employee and a 23-year-old college dropout can be found working on a scene together.
“Theatre is about ensemble, and this is a real leveler, where two people in a class together are trying to create a story really focused on ensemble,” Serrell said. “Getting that enrichment and community building is the ultimate in an acting class.”
Serrell’s determination to increase representation is evident in the Group’s board meetings, which previously consisted of three male trustees. Currently there are 15, 9 of them women and 6 men, 4 of whom are people of color. He also focused on programming a more diverse lineup for Barrow Group’s three-show season, which includes The Tricky Part by Martin Moran, the world premiere of Awake by K. Lorrel Manning, and the world premiere of Perp by Lyle Kessler.
“Robert has really rolled up his sleeves and put this formerly mothballed producing company back on the map by introducing plays that are relevant to social issues affecting our world,” said producer Andrew Hamingson, who’s working as a strategic consultant at the Barrow Group. “In addition, he has revitalized a staff that had little gender parity and no diversity.”
Serrell is hardly resting on his laurels: He’s planning for the future of both the organization and its students by adding more youth classes and offering free classes to those without financial means. He also hopes to increase the school’s training to include more film and television to prepare students for more financially stable work than theatre, again incorporating both artistic and financial success in his vision.
“Robert manages to keep an incredible number of plates in the air while always being open to and available for discussion with his staff,” said Harris Cabrera, development manager at the Barrow Group. He’s optimized more than the company’s search engine results, in other words.