Paula Abreu

Director of Presented Programming at the McCarter Theatre Center
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Sameer A. Khan


Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive

Jo Reed:  From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I'm Josephine Reed.  The McCarter Theater Center housed on the campus of Princeton University is known not just as one of the country’s leading regional theaters and but also as a performing arts center presenting music, dance, and spoken word  and that’s the focus of today’s podcast.  We're delving into the world of cultural curation with Paula Abreu, the Director of Presented Programming at the McCarter Theater Center.

Paula brings a unique and international perspective to the McCarter, informed by her diverse experiences ranging from her roots in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to her extensive background in production engineering and performing arts administration…a journey that plays a pivotal role in how she shapes the artistic landscape at one of America’s leading cultural institutions.

In today’s conversation, we'll explore this, her first, season of programming at the McCarter, the challenges and triumphs of stepping into a role previously held by a legendary predecessor, and the nuances of curating a diverse and inclusive season.  I spoke with Paula Abreu right before Christmas—So, sit back, and join us as we uncover the art and craft of cultural programming.

Jo Reed:  Well, Paula, we're halfway through the first season you have programmed at the McCarter Theater. And you kind of had this tricky task before you because your predecessor, Bill Lockwood, had the job for 60, that is 6-0 years, and I would have been daunted by that because on one hand you want to honor his legacy, but on the other hand, you also want to put your fingerprints on this.

Paula Abreu:  Yes, you're absolutely right. It is daunting, but I have to say I feel very, very blessed. Bill has been such a treasure, and he has given me his blessing and shared resources.  The last year, while he was still under contract as a consultant, we used to meet every month. He was so supportive and really we had mutually admiration and respect for each other, this all helped a lot. So yes, it's a daunting endeavor that I embarked on, but I feel very lucky. It's also not hard to try to continue a legacy as his. He has such a great taste, he knows so much about music, dance, spoken word, and all the type of programming that we do in the “presented” umbrella. It's really aligned with my taste, my vision. So in that sense, it wasn't hard, but of course, looking at all the history, I'm like, wow, how can I top that, right? But I guess I don't take that as a bad thing. I take that as a very positive challenge, and his support means a lot to me.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I think it's just one step at a time, huh?

Paula Abreu:  Yes, yes, exactly. Sixty years is a lot, yeah.

Jo Reed:  Exactly. For listeners who might not know, give us a little bit of background about the McCarter Theatre.

Paula Abreu:  Oh, yeah, of course. So McCarter Theatre has been around for a while, I think about eight or nine decades, and it's really known as a regional theatre that produces amazing theatre plays, but also as a presenter of performing arts. They've been doing this for as long as they've been doing theatre.  Bill has really established McCarter as a leading cultural institution when it comes to performing arts in the presented world. From classical music to folk, rock, pop, and dance performers who really were starting their careers, and they were brought to Princeton, a small town, and now they have a huge following. So it's really a performing arts center in that sense. It's both produced theatre plays and presented performances, and it's been like that for, like I said, eight decades. It's connected to Princeton University in the sense that we are on campus at Princeton University. We are affiliated with the university, but we are an independent non-profit organization. We run independently, and we have about-- in the presented side, about 45 performances a year, and it's usually five theatre plays during the year, and that's it.

Jo Reed:  45 doesn't, I would not say, "Oh, and that's it." At the end of 45 shows a year, it seems like a huge amount.

Paula Abreu:  It is, yeah, it definitely is. It's constantly, yeah, like every day, we are discussing new ideas, it feels like it's non-stop.  The summer is dark, but it's a very busy time for us because we're planning for the following season or the season after that. So yeah, it's basically non-stop.

Jo Reed:  Can you just walk us through the process of planning your first season? What were some of the factors that you considered?

Paula Abreu:  One thing that I value a lot is the balance across the season. I'd like to have a season that is not skewed, like just one thing or the other, and represent the different communities and art forms, and have a little bit of a taste for each type of the communities around us. And also I bring artists who are established or newcomers who I believe in. So it's basically, it's a balance that I'm trying to achieve, and that, as you can imagine, it's a big puzzle to try and fit the names and the artists that we believe in into the calendar year, the days that we have. But the process is basically, I'm constantly going to shows, trying to pay attention to new projects or new albums or new performances that are coming out, being in touch with agents and managers and artists. Lots of meetings, lots of conversations and then from there, we have a footprint that we're trying to fill and certain areas and genres that we're trying to fill, and that's the hardest part, is decision making. Making decisions and negotiating, and then after several conversations, we finally arrive at a confirmed event and that's a process for each of the 45 individual events and sometimes it's quicker and sometimes it takes one, two, three years to get confirmed. It's just when all the stars have to be aligned. That's basically the process in a nutshell.

Jo Reed: I wonder how you coordinate with the theater programming at the McCarter, at the McCarter Theater to ensure a cohesive season for the theater as a whole.

Paula Abreu:  That's a great question. McCarter is pretty unique in that sense. I don't think there are many theaters in the U.S., really, that share the theater space between theater, produced theater plays, and presented programming. And it's hard, because the timelines are different, the variables and what takes into confirming a play is very different than what it takes to confirming a concert. So basically, we're enhancing and evolving our communication between the departments, and it's an ongoing process, right? We meet regularly, we talk about ideas together and we understand each other's concerns and priorities. Of course, deciding when a big theater play that will take six or seven weeks over a calendar is a bigger endeavor, a bigger budget discussion than one presented event, right? But like I said before, different things have different timelines. So sometimes in the classical music world, for example, that things are booked far in advance. I'll confirm something that happens before the theater play, that will happen around that date, is confirmed. So it's really an organic movement and exchange and since I started at McCarter over a year ago, I feel that the process is only getting better, and it's exciting.

Jo Reed:  Who is the audience that you're programming for? Is it middle New Jersey? Is it the Princeton community? Is it the larger tri-state area?

Paula Abreu:  That's a great question. We are programming for, I would say, New Jersey in general, but we do get audience members that come from Philadelphia, from New York, from northern New Jersey. It's more the immediate central New Jersey area, but we're really hopeful that more people will come, and who knows, maybe other states, and maybe some people will fly to come here. I think I heard some people were flying for some of our concerts last year, which was pretty exciting.

Jo Reed:  The first performance that you presented was Patti Smith. So this I want to know about. Why Patti Smith? Why did you elect to start with her?

Paula Abreu:  She encompasses everything that I believe is true about an artist. She's so true to her craft and art form, such a hard worker. And I was very blessed to work with her directly, and the show that she performed was called “Words and Music.”  So it was a very special show where she read some poems and some passages of her books, and she sang her hit songs and songs by other artists. Working with her on that show, like I said, working directly with her, I think, it was just, it was mind-blowing. It was a thrilling experience for me, but also for the McCarter audiences could feel that, that it was a special occasion. She was excited to work with us because she knew it was the first show of the season, the opening of the season, and she knew it's my first season at McCarter and she was so generous to donate some time planning this show with me, but also donate her time to be there on our stage for the first time. It was the first time she's been at McCarter and the first time she performed in Princeton. And she was born in New Jersey, so there's a connection there, she's very proud of her home state, even though she doesn't live here, but she's very proud to be from New Jersey. And the other factor is that she is one of the icons from our lifetime that speaks to all generations, so I knew that by booking her, I wasn't only catering to one specific demographic or one type of audience. The show was amazing. She gave a talk to Princeton University students and some of the community members on the same day in the morning that was also fabulous. People left the room feeling so inspired and so appreciative of having that time with her. So it was very meaningful to have her, and meaningful for the generosity that she gave us as well with making this show a special show.

Jo Reed: I'm so glad you brought that up, Paula, because I wanted to ask you how you worked with the university, with the Princeton community, and then with the regional communities around the university.

Paula Abreu:  Partnerships and collaboration with community partners or universities or whatever that is around us has always been a priority for me. I was very thankful to notice that there was already some sort of structure for that when I arrived. We have someone who is a community engagement manager who is amazing, and then we have a director of a university and artistic partnership, so there's some structure to it. And for me, what I do is basically work with them, with my colleagues, and try and create opportunities to bring the artists who we're bringing to McCarter to connect more deeply with the community or to connect more deeply with the university. In any sort of collaboration and partnership, it's not a one like a quick transaction, right? There are many conversations, we have to understand our partners' priorities and our priorities, but when it happens, the results are usually very gratifying. For example, “Once the Dust Saddles, Flowers Bloom” was a dance performance by Olivia Terpaga Dance Company, it was a collaboration with the music department from Princeton University. They created a whole festival around the date that we had at McCarter, and then the Princeton University presented all the performances aligned with this performance at McCarter. So that was a beautiful collaboration when we all got to present to our communities and bring people into our theaters. So each partnership takes a different form and shape, but it's worth all the efforts because we create something unique together.

Jo Reed:  Tell me a little bit about you. You were born in Brazil, in Rio.

Paula Abreu:  Yes, I was.

Jo Reed:  And you received your degree as a production engineer.

Paula Abreu:  That's correct.

Jo Reed:  What does a production engineer do?

Paula Abreu:  So, production engineer or industrial engineer, I've seen both terms to describe what this degree is. It's basically, it's the type of engineer that is focused on production and, for example, assembly lines in a factory. We study a lot of economics, a lot of thermodynamics, and logistics. Both my parents are engineers, and it's not that challenging for me to deal with math and physics. So as a young person, I was like, "Okay, I'll just follow this and I'll figure it out,." But it gave me an education and a way of actually looking at the world that is very helpful. I feel that I look at some-- even life problems or work challenges. I had some sort of training that is analytical, but at the same time, problem-solving, directed, and it gave me some of the skills that I'm thankful for. Of course, when it comes to curating and artistic selection that is not directly applied, but in general, I think it helps me a lot at the job that I do today.

Jo Reed:  I would think logistics would be key to the job you do today.

Paula Abreu:  That's very true.

Jo Reed:  But it also gave you the ability not just to travel, but to live in different places around the world. You spent years in Angola, for example

Paula Abreu:  Yes, yes. So I was born in Rio, and I was lucky when I graduated from production engineering. I was hired right after to work at Accenture, a consulting firm. They needed a workforce and staff in Angola, in Africa and I remember, I think I was 23 years old, and I was very excited with the opportunity, and it really opened my mind and my heart in a way that I didn't expect. As you can imagine, Brazil is a very, very large country, similar to the U.S. A lot of the culture that we consume in Brazil, it's just inside Brazil, or culture from the U.S. Like Angola, Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, and so we speak the same language. We have a lot of things in common, culturally, in terms of food, of styles, of music, many, many things. It goes way back and deep. As a Brazilian, and this was about 20 years ago, I had no idea of all these connections, and it completely changed my life, my perception of life and culture. And when I came back to Rio, I was determined to explore that and work with that and that was the moving force that threw me in the artistic world, working with culture and arts. I really like to think of myself sometimes as a cultural diplomat. That's not what I do, but I love creating bridges of understanding between cultures, and exposing people to new art forms, or new culture. Definitely my career is not a line, like a direct line trajectory, but I'm thankful for each of the experiences that I lived. After Angola, I traveled, I had the opportunity to travel, I came to New York. And from New York, I traveled to many different parts of the world that kept only expanding my life vision and mission to work as a curator who cares about this type of culture exchange.

Jo Reed:  You had a decade of experience at Summer Stage and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. But you also worked for the Red Hot Organization and many other nonprofits. I wonder how that work in the nonprofit world has influenced the way you're programming at the McCarter.

Paula Abreu:  Even before I worked in these places, I have a degree in performing arts administration from New York University. That's how I actually landed in New York and I had no idea if I was going to stay here after that or go back to Brazil. But it was great. It gave me a deep understanding of how the nonprofit world works and it's a very unique model to the United States, right? Like Europe has their own way of investing in culture. Brazil, a different way. So there are different models and it was very beneficial for me to spend two years immersed in learning about the mechanisms and how this world works. Then working at the Red Hot Organization, I worked briefly at Lincoln Center, then Summer Stage for 10 years. Those first two years at NYU gave me, I think, the foundation. But really, the biggest learning was working in the field, like you said. The United States market, in terms of presenting art, is very unique. I feel that especially Summer Stage, because I was there for 10 years and Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, it was like going to a university. I learned so much from the perspective of presenting as a nonprofit, but also presenting free public programming to one of the busiest cities in the world that has a lot of offerings. How do you stand out with competition? Also, that everyone wants to come to New York. So dealing with that, so many requests, and different types of artists and partners. So it was intense, I have to say. There were 10 years that I was working very hard, but I also learned a lot. And it's one of those things, like I think only in New York, right? I'm sure there are other opportunities like that in many different places of the world, but I feel very fortunate that I had the chance to work in a space like New York.

Jo Reed:  Well, I also have to point out you're not only presenting 80 some events at Summer Stage, but you're doing it in 13 different parks around New York City.

Paula Abreu:  Yes. No joke.

Jo Reed:  It’s a good thing you know logistics, Paula.

Paula Abreu:  Yes, definitely. You're very right. And it's funny, people may not realize that, but each of the neighborhoods, they're so different, right? If you go to the Bronx and Staten Island, they're completely different. And Brooklyn and Queens and we used to go, when I started there, we were going to at least two or three parks in each of these neighborhoods and the parks were distant from each other. Each park had its own peculiarities or communities around them with different types of demands and wishes. That was a huge learning curve for me, for sure and logistically, of course, if you think that, I wasn't directly involved in the production of Summer Stage. I was more in the programming side. But of course, I was involved with bringing artists from different places, dealing with weather issues and the stage, it was a mobile stage going from park to park. Sometimes, we faced so many different types of issues of dealing with all of that. Like I said, also, I'm ready to deal with-- When I face an issue, that's the other thing, you have to move quickly. In this world, we work with live music or live performance, right? There are going to be issues all the time. To me, it's like, okay, try to figure out what happened and move forward. I try not to spend too much time or energy on things that are not productive. Summer Stage, it's an intense job, for sure.

Jo Reed:  Well, now you're at the McCarter, not 13 Parks, but it's one theater. It's more centralized, smaller in terms of audiences, I would imagine. That has to be, I'm sure in some ways, a relief, but still an adjustment and it sort of opens the doors for different kinds of opportunities for you, no?

Paula Abreu:  Yes. Yeah, it's definitely a different challenge, right? It is a smaller market, if you think that way. It's a theater of 1,000 seats, two theaters, right? 1,000 seats and 307 seats, those are our main theaters. Some people may think, "Oh, why did you move from the center of New York to go somewhere?" It's a regional market. I think it's as challenging, but in different ways, right? Because I love the idea that we are serving a community here that doesn't have all that New York has. In New York, what we're trying to do is curating shows that, like I said before, that stand out from the competition and bring things that other venues in New York are not bringing. Here, we're introducing a lot of new artists to this community that doesn't get a lot of the artists that New York or Philadelphia gets. So it's a different challenge in that sense. And being in a theater that is an actual theater, like it's not outdoor in the park, has its benefits, but also its challenges. Now we have a theater that needs staff, like the ushers and people guiding people to their seats and there are tickets, also something that I didn't have to deal with before. So there are different issues and things that I have to take into consideration when planning a concert or a show. But what I love about McCarter is that our staff is excellent. From backstage production to front of house, the artists-- they all love coming to McCarter, and the audiences also have a great experience and that to me, being part of an organism, there's more structure. Like I said, different challenges, but also different possibilities. Like what I had with the experience I had with Patti Smith, for example. I don't think it would have been possible somewhere like Summer Stage, where the artists would come to perform in our space. It's usually a more transaction type of relationship. They come, they perform in a park, and then they leave. In an environment like McCarter, inside the Princeton University campus, with so many amazing community partners, it's usually more time, more resources, and interest to develop something more meaningful or more deep. Like a talk, or like a week residency and things like that. So I'm excited with these types of opportunities as well.

Jo Reed:  Okay, I'm not going to ask you to choose your favorite child, but I wonder if any of the performances that you've presented so far has been particularly meaningful for you. And let's leave Patti Smith to one side, because she was the first, and she's Patti Smith.

Paula Abreu:  That's such a hard question. It's a very hard question. I'll highlight “The Sound of Black Music”, who we just had a couple weeks ago. They are a group of amazing jazz musicians who came together with this project of performing music from “The Sound of Music”, but with an Afrofuturistic take on it. So it sounds very jazzy, soulful, and even gospel and it was such a joyful performance and I got this feedback from a lot of people: they came to the theater not knowing to expect. What does “The Sound of Black Music” mean, right? But they left mind blown. They were beyond imagination. They really did a great job. I was very happy with that one.


Jo Reed:   I’m not going to ask you to go through your roster of upcoming shows—we’ll have a link to the McCarter in our show notes, but I did notice that you have not one but two National Heritage Fellows coming, so thank you very much. We love our program. You have the Legendary Ingramettes in February, and then you have Zakir Hussain in April.

Paula Abreu:  Yes, yes, and we're very excited to present both of them. The Legendary Ingramettes, they're going to be here for the first time. We saw them in New York during Global Fest.  And I love gospel music in general, but they are just amazing, and the whole legacy of the family and the way they perform on stage, it's very magical, very uplifting. So I hope people come check them out, and Zakir has been at McCarter many times. Everyone loves him. He's such also a generous soul, an artistic genius, and we're happy to have him back.

Jo Reed:  I wonder how you approach risk-taking in selecting particular shows or artists to present in a season?

Paula Abreu:  It's a very organic process, if I can say. Of course, the direction of how much risk I can take or not, it doesn't even come from me, right? There's a board of directors, there's a whole organization, and I have to achieve certain goals when it comes to financials and ticket sales. And of course, one of the reasons I joined McCarter is because it is an institution that has presented artists when they were beginning their careers or art forms not known to the community and it's part of me. I love the idea of introducing new artists or new art forms. Of course, it has to be a balanced type of risk. I have to have some of the shows that don't meet the financial goals. I offset that by some shows that are very successful in terms of ticket sales. So it's a balance. At the end of the day, I try to keep a balance of shows that are sold out, which shows that don't perform that well. But of course, I don't program shows not to perform well, right? When I program a show, I trust that they can sell enough for us to have a joyful audience enjoying their performance, but that's part of a performing arts center. I think part of our job and mission is to introduce artists, like I said. So I will continue doing that and taking some risks. I'm very glad that we can do that.

Jo Reed:  And this sort of piggybacks on what you just said about measuring the success of a season, what benchmarks you might use.

Paula Abreu:  That's a great question. As you can imagine, every non-profit, the non-profit business is very different from the commercial side of things, right? In commercial,  The goal is to make money, right? In the non-profit world, we have a mission, and the benchmarks should be associated with the mission. Some of the benchmarks are financial, of course, but others are developing audiences, engaging community. They are more fluid; but it's my first year at McCarter, and it's also the first year of our new executive director. Our artistic director started, I think, only two years ago. So we're in a new era at McCarter that we are lucky to be establishing all these new benchmarks and creating the model that we see is our vision, our goal for the future. Also, coming back from the pandemic put a lot of challenges for us to deal with. We have our own benchmarks now, but it's an ongoing process of fine-tuning them and having the board also agree and work with us. I feel that we all have a very aligned view and sense of where we want to get to, and I'm thankful for that. I'm sure all non-profits go through this process, and it's challenging. Deciding on the exact benchmarks that all the stakeholders are satisfied with can be a challenging process.

Jo Reed:  Again, I know this is your first season, but at the same time, I know you don't plan a season just for the season. You're looking ahead to what the long-term vision of the program is, and I'm just wondering how-- It's a hard hug, and I'm wondering how you manage that.

Paula Abreu:  Yeah, it is. It's hard to plan. Right now, I'm super focused on 2024-2025. I'm planning next season, but I'm also looking at-- it's going to be our centennial in a few years. I'm already thinking what would be the right way to celebrate McCarter and its centennial. I'm thinking of the artists who I bring today, what could we expand on in the future and bring them back with? I feel that I'm pushing and pulling with my mind all the time. What will bring a return immediately versus what should I invest in now for the long run? 

Jo Reed:  Finally, what's your favorite part of this job? It has so many components.

Paula Abreu:  I have many favorites, but one of my favorite things is really the people. People are so friendly and supportive, and there's a sense of camaraderie. Especially coming from New York, where things can get a bit tough, people are genuinely excited about the artists that we're bringing, and they are into teamwork and making things successful for all of us at McCarter, so that really moves me. The other part of it, if you don't mind, McCarter is a home for so many artists. From the pop world to classical to many artists. We have photographs on our walls with their thank you notes, and some of the thank you notes are so deep and meaningful. They took their time to write this, and it's moving to see that, so to continue the legacy of a theater that is beloved. But there's this community that has such a huge importance in the field in general, but also in New Jersey. That's also one of my favorite parts of working at McCarter.

Jo Reed:  And I think that's a really good place to leave it. Paula, thank you so much, and congratulations on halfway through your first season.

Paula Abreu:  Oh, my God. Thank you so much, Jo. I really appreciate the support and opportunity to talk with you. Thank you.

Jo Reed:  Not at all. It was my pleasure.

That was Paula Abreu, the Director of Presented Programming at the McCarter Theater Center—you can check out the upcoming schedule of events at We’ll have a link in our show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps other people who love the arts to find us. We’d love to know your thoughts, email us at For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine reed. Thanks for listening.

A conversation with Director of Presented Programming at the McCarter Theatre Center Paula Abreu halfway through her first season on the job!  Abreu took over from her predecessor Bill Lockwood who ran the program for 60 (yes, 60) years. We discuss the balance between honoring his legacy and introducing her own vision, some history about the McCarter Theatre Center, its connection to Princeton University, and its unique role as a cultural powerhouse. (The McCarter Theater Center is known not just as one of the country’s leading regional theaters but also as a performing arts center presenting music, dance, spoken word and more.) We talk about the process behind planning a season of presented programming, ensuring diversity in art forms, and the representation of different communities; how the two strands of programming at the McCarter coordinate to create a cohesive season; and the importance of partnerships on and off campus in enhancing cultural experiences and creating deeper connections. We also discuss Abreu’s journey from Brazil, experience as an industrial engineer, years of traveling and living around the world, on her masters’ degree in performing arts administration, subsequent work at NYC’s Summer Stage and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, and how all these diverse experiences inform her approach to programming. She also shares her approach to taking calculated risks in selecting shows and artists and the challenge of planning for both the immediate and future seasons.