As dusk set in on an early December day, Josh Gladstone and Kate Mueth were found settling in for a long-winter’s nap at their rustic barn-like home in Springs. The Christmas tree was up and fully decorated, the lights were dimmed and hot coffee and pastries had been procured from a nearby purveyor of such things.
For the husband and wife theater professionals — Gladstone is the longtime director of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, while Mueth is the founder of the East Hampton-based theatrical troupe Neo-political Cowgirls — this is traditionally a quiet time of year.
But as 2021 comes to an end, it all feels a bit different. In fact, these are unique days of reflection and introspection for the couple. A time of change, related not just to the flipping of the calendar page and start of a new year, but also one that’s presenting a proverbial fork in the road as life changes usher the entire family into the next phase of their lives.
That’s because after more than 21 years at the helm of the John Drew Theater, Gladstone has officially stepped down from the position and is now contemplating what’s on the horizon. Meanwhile, the couple’s 21-year-old son, August, a senior at Boston’s Emerson College, will soon arrive home for the holidays — and come January, the young man will head west, as Horace Greeley once counseled, to Los Angeles, where he will finish out his final semester as a comedy writing intern. Meanwhile, Mueth is busy picking up side work putting together other people’s projects.
“Kate is hustling as a producer,” Gladstone explained, when his wife’s cellphone rang with a call she had to take. “She’s currently working with Betty Buckley to produce a virtual concert in Connecticut. I am very happily getting the coffee right now for my producing wife, and that’s OK.
“And that’s a lovely thing to say,” Mueth added with a smile after ending the call.
No matter how you couch it, this is admittedly a strange time for transitions of any kind. The pandemic has altered the way nearly every industry functions — including, or perhaps especially, the theater — and the notion of making a mid-life change in the midst of so many unknowns, while freeing, is also a tad frightening.
“It’s also interesting. We have friends in the same boat we are in, many of us making life changes,” Mueth said. “It’s under the weight of that heavy blanket of COVID, which, in this case, is where do the arts fall in all this? Why do we do the arts? What does the world need in terms of arts? Is it important? Do people want it? If you’re an artist, what is it that’s supposed to be happening and, personally, what do we want to do next and does it matter? Not to be totally glum about it.”
“Of course it matters,” Gladstone countered. “We have dedicated our lives to the performing arts. Kate and I are lifers. But it’s a question also here in midlife. The empty nest, I feel it. It’s especially intensified by the pandemic and the kids not coming home. Auggie’s move to L.A. is imminent. Whether he’ll come back to East Hampton remains to be seen.
“It calls into question what is the next chapter of our lives? What should that be?” he continued. “That’s something that led me to leave Guild Hall.”
Gladstone admits that he had been ruminating about the decision to step down from his position at Guild Hall for a couple years. But several concurring factors led him to determine that now was the time. The winding down of his son’s college career was one reason, but another deciding factor was the upcoming renovation of Guild Hall that will shut down the entire facility in the new year. Though details have not yet been released, the project’s scope is expected to keep Guild Hall’s doors closed throughout 2022.
“For me, that was factored in,” Gladstone said. “I had 21 years of giving everything I have as an artist to an institution. Because Guild Hall and John Drew Theater were my first love in terms of my work, I did everything. We presented work, we produced work, we co-produced work, we did rentals and worked with community groups. I was involved in hundreds and hundreds of shows with tens of thousands of audience members and thousands of artists we played host to, and I’m so proud of it. But it was intense.”
“And I had a fabulous team there,” he added. “But every year was a similar cycle. You work your guts out to program and plan a season in an eight or nine month process. You come out of that and it’s very exhausting, then you manage the shows. There’s a little bit of time in fall when you take a breath, and then it’s budgeting for the next round and that begins the cycle again.
“Twenty-one years of that cycle and the pandemic was challenging,” he added. “We were one of the few theaters in the height of the pandemic that had shows outdoors. We managed to pull that off, and I’ve been very proud of it.”
And throughout his more than two decades at the John Drew Theater, Gladstone worked with everyone — from world-class performers at the top of their game to the youngest local talent from the East End — and has relished it all.
But now, he feels it’s time to hand the reins over to the next generation.
“What a wonderful place the John Drew Theater has been just for a pure love of the performing arts,” he said. “And it will continue to be that in its new iteration. But for me, I had to step away at age 53. Twenty-one is a lot of years for the institution. I know there are other creatives out there — younger visionaries, who will embrace the opportunity like I did at age 31 when I started. And how great to be able to pass the baton to a younger visionary who aligns with the vision for Guild Hall’s future and feels a part of this new renovation and can make it, in some shape, their own and be part of the programing?”
The story of Gladstone and Mueth’s personal and professional partnership on the East End began as a friendship in New York City in the early 1990s when both were training as drama students at Circle in the Square Theatre School. After cutting their teeth in that professional training ground, Gladstone set out from New York to accept his first gig out of drama school with the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“It’s a lovely regional theater that specializes exclusively in plays for children,” Gladstone explained. “Having come out of this heady Broadway experience to find myself playing the Mayor of Whoville in the ‘Grinch,’ and then to be fitted for Babar’s two-person elephant costume, playing the hind quarters and being told, ‘Here’s how you operate the tail.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to be the turd dropper. I’m too well trained for that.’
“Welcome to the theater,” he added with a laugh. “I said to hell with it, and I left Minneapolis.”
Upon his return to New York City, Gladstone and his cousin David M. Brandenburg, a composer and music director, started brainstorming. By the mid-1990s, neither of them was particularly satisfied with their artistic careers, so they set out to create the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival, which offered outdoor productions at Montauk’s Theodore Roosevelt County Park for four consecutive summers beginning in 1996 (Brandenburg still runs a summer Shakespeare camp for kids through the festival). Since they were kids, Brandenburg’s family had had a home in Amagansett, so Gladstone knew the area from spending summers here. Though he was living in Brooklyn at the time, each summer, Gladstone and festival cast and crew members would relocate to the cabins at the county park for the festival’s run. It was through the festival that Gladstone and Mueth’s friendship blossomed into something more.
“Kate came out in ’97 to perform in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I had the hots for her and chased her around the park and she said, ‘Get lost,’” Gladstone recalled. “It wasn’t until a year later when I stopped chasing, that she said, ‘OK, why did you stop chasing?’ We got married in September ’99, right after ‘The Tempest,’ and we got pregnant on our honeymoon with August.”
At the time, Gladstone and Mueth were still living in Brooklyn and working with Brandenburg on the festival in Montauk every summer. But with a baby on the way, Gladstone realized he needed to find a more financially stable work situation.
“It was great, it was beautiful. But I knew I had to get a job that pays more than the Shakespeare Festival,” he said. “Very fortunately, I think it was quite an act of the angels, I happened to look at The New York Times and saw a tiny listing in the help wanted section while I was at my temp job — ‘Guild Hall in East Hampton seeks a theater director.’”
“We knew Guild Hall and thought maybe the Shakespeare Festival could have a presence,” said Gladstone, who, after a series of intense interviews with Guild Hall’s then director Ruth Appelhof and several board members, was hired to run the John Drew Theater. “I moved out here and started the job on April 1, 2000. Our son was born on June 27.
“We love East Hampton. We had an incredible experience raising our son here,” Gladstone added. “It was a great place to be parents. The school was great, Little League was great, the cultural opportunities were great. Guild Hall allowed that to happen and Kate made a career here herself with her company. We had a great run.”
But now, both Gladstone’s job and his son are of legal drinking age — which seems like a sign that it’s time to take stock and re-focus his energy on new projects.
“The timing felt right. I just finished 21-and-a-half years there, that’s a long time, that’s a big gig in one place,” he said. “A lot of factors came into it. I’m 53 and I survived Stage 3 colon cancer in 2017. That makes you wonder. I trained as an actor and I love theater. I don’t want to play Babar’s ass, but I love theater.”
While Gladstone and Mueth are now free of commitments and open to whatever opportunities come their way, they stress that they’re not looking to leave the area anytime soon, and may even do more projects together locally.
“Kate did Shakespeare in Herrick Park in ’21. It was great fun,” Gladstone said. “I miss acting and I want to maybe play in that sandbox again. So we’re not necessarily running away from town, we might do some Shakespeare here again, our first love, and we’re talking about some little crazy Chekov project we’re thinking about for spring. I’m also working with people who heard I was leaving and are saying, ‘Well I have a project I need to get produced in the city and maybe you could help.’
“I’m interested in what it means to be a producer outside of an institution,” he added. “What does it mean to be an independent producer? What does it mean to produce something in New York Off Broadway, or be part of a team that’s producing something on Broadway, or be a commercial producer?”
“I think it’s important to the day we die that we are challenging ourselves and not just dealing with the same problems and challenges yearly, but what’s that new space of challenge and risk and visionary will that Josh can bring?” Mueth added. “For Josh it’s about going up the next 10 rungs of the ladder of life with his work.”
While Gladstone was very happy to be part of an institution like Guild Hall while raising his son for all those years, he also understands that in order to grow, there needs to eventually come a change.
“There’s safety in an institution, but also a ceiling,” he said. “How can you roll the dice in the world and potentially improve one’s financial situation as well as one’s creative output?
“I’ve done the renovations,” Gladstone added. “I’ve done 21 seasons. I’m a middle-aged white guy. Let me go and pursue some aspect of the creative thing that I wanted to be in the theater in the first place.
“There’s another chapter in my life, I hope in all of our lives, as our children fly away,” he said. “I don’t know what that is, frankly. But I want to find it out. I’ve got to hope that there’s something out there.”