Learning the business of show business, by degree
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
As a theatre producer, Adam Blanshay is more used to treading the boards than knocking on boardroom doors. He also has a “very challenging history with academia”. And he is managing the rigours of an executive MBA — where “half the things we are covering are completely new to me” — alongside his work and a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Yet, last month, he marked the halfway point of a two-year EMBA at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School and, far from feeling like an outsider, he is more at home than ever.
Blanshay is from Montreal, Canada. It was his uncle who gave him his first taste of theatre when he returned from a trip to London with a Phantom of the Opera cassette. “I sat in front of the stereo the entire weekend, listening to this incredible piece of art that I just fell in love with.”
But, as a youngster Blanshay felt he had to subdue his love of the arts because it was not always considered “cool”. “Up until this point, I was made to feel like an ‘other’ and bullied in elementary and high school,” he says. “I went to university and finally found myself, but ended up doing theatre and plays and not studying as hard as I should have.”
It was by chance that Blanshay landed in production. In 2004, he moved to New York to take up the role of assistant director on A Woman of Will, starring Amanda McBroom. The show opened in 2005 but closed after a week, and Blanshay moved on to an internship with its producer.
He spent his twenties in New York experimenting with roles. “It was a sequence of going from job to job and trying different things,” he says. Production won out: “a wonderful marriage of artistic development and management, with business, admin, finance and anything that goes with running a company and being an entrepreneur”.
In 2017, Blanshay founded a production company that has worked on a range of projects, including Moulin Rouge! The Musical in London and, on Broadway, the UK touring production of Kinky Boots.
Blanshay has been involved with many award-winning shows, but admits producing can be “taxing”. “It is not always opening night, when you get to celebrate,” he says. “As a producer — like in any executive position — there is a tremendous amount of pressure on you . . . Many a day, all you are [doing] is financing, paying for things and putting out fires.”
It was the business aspect of theatre production that drew Blanshay to the EMBA. “We [producers] do not go to school to learn what we are doing,” he says. “I identified shortcomings in my knowledge base and practice and, through research, established that an EMBA would be a great complement to me as a business person in the theatre.”
But he also wanted a second shot at university. While studying for his double major BA in cultural and theatre studies at McGill university in Montreal, Blanshay says he immersed himself in extracurricular theatre activities. “Part of the reason I wanted to go back to school was for the academic challenge and the discipline that I did not necessarily maximise the first go around,” he says.
Every six weeks, he heads to Oxford to learn about topics from analytics and leadership to operations.
Core subjects such as accounting are obviously useful. But, Blanshay adds, the way the course is structured — with students considering in assignments how the teaching applies to their sector — means that, as an arts professional, he finds value in subjects that may not appear immediately relevant. His assignments have included the economy of Broadway and making the production process more operationally efficient. Elective courses will help him further tailor the programme, he notes.
Blanshay is studying the already intensive programme with the additional challenge of his ADHD. “I’ve always been self-aware of my difficulties, but I only got properly diagnosed when I was offered a place at Oxford,” he says.
“I wanted to have a better understanding of how my mind worked when returning to academia, to enable me to get the tools and support I need to better succeed.”
The school has put in place “an overwhelming amount of support”, he says, including reading software and one-to-one help. “I have an adviser who I speak to on a weekly basis and he is able to work with me to come up with a submission schedule, and a revision schedule and the support that I need to cater to the eclectic way in which I learn.”
He advises students who find themselves struggling with balancing work, a personal life and the EMBA to be open about their difficulties. “I would recommend not being silent about your struggles,” he says. “Talk with your colleagues, the academics and the administration. Get the support that you need to be able to carry the workload.”
Peers are another invaluable source of help. “The cohort and your colleagues are the most unbelievable support network because we are all going through this together; we are all juggling our jobs, we are all juggling our families.”
While “the networking has been priceless”, he says it is the personal connections that have been “instrumental” to his experience on the course. “I marvel at the experience, diversity, entrepreneurship and leadership of my classmates and I have truly made lifelong friends.”
Being an arts professional on an EMBA has been a journey of acceptance for Blanshay. “I am finally back in an academic situation where my colleagues are celebrating and empowering me as a student and as a professional, for who I am, for what I bring to the table . . . that has been life-changing. It is undoing 40 years of psychology, feeling lesser than and not good enough.”