scene from play Krannert alumna Ashlyn Smith was most recently the company manager for The Play That Goes Wrong. Her other credits include The Sound Inside, An American in Paris, and “Daddy.” (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

No Business Like Show Business

Alumni find diverse careers in entertainment industry

3+2 alumna shines behind the scenes of NYC theatre community

For Ashlyn Smith, a third-generation Boilermaker from Texas, choosing to attend Purdue and the Krannert School was an easy decision. So was pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.

“When I was looking at colleges, I wanted to find a place that wasn’t close to my actual home in Houston, but still felt like one,” she says. “Although I had only been on campus a few times, Purdue was always a constant in my life. A campus visit the February of my senior year cemented it for me.”

Persistent Pursuit

Growing up, Smith performed in choir, dance, and played a few instruments. “However, I had a major case of stage fright, so I knew performing was not an optimal career path for me,” she says. “As I approached college, my flute instructor and I were talking one afternoon and she simply said to me, ‘You know people have to run arts organizations, right?’ and it was like a little light bulb went off in my head.

“Once I got to campus, I saw the national tour of American Idiot when it came through Elliott, and that finalized it because for the first time I felt like art was saying something. I realized I wanted to use my analytical and organizational skills to support those who are telling stories to inform or simply help people escape for a while.”

Throughout her time at Purdue, Smith was always pursuing at least two degrees, beginning with a BS in Management and a BA in Theatre Design and Production. She also joined Krannert’s 3+2 program, earning an MBA in 2017.

“At one point, I was working on all three degrees in the same fall semester, so one of the biggest skill sets I refined over my time at Purdue and Krannert was my ability to multi-task and manage my time,” she says.

Outside the classroom, Smith was heavily involved in student organizations, including serving on the Purdue Alumni Student Experience Board of Directors, Krannert Graduate Student Association, and as a committee chair for Purdue Graduate Student Government.  She also worked as a graduate assistant in the Brock-Wilson Center for Women in Management.

With those credentials, Smith could have pursued career opportunities in several different industries. Instead, she followed her childhood passion and began her journey in show business as a contract administration and finance assistant in the Theatre Department of ICM Partners in New York City.

Good Company

Today, Smith works as a theatrical management professional for a variety of Broadway and off-Broadway productions, most recently serving as company manager for The Play That Goes Wrong. Her credits also include The Sound Inside, An American in Paris, and “Daddy.”

“In my career now, I am essentially a department of one, occasionally two, running a multi-million dollar company,” she says. “I run the day-to-day operations of theatrical productions, including being a one-stop shop for HR, finances, ticketing, and serving as the go-between for advertising, marketing, press, and any other outside contacts, including our theatre. Anything associated with the production will cross my desk at some point for my approval or implementation.”

Although it is unusual for someone in her line of work to come from a business background, Smith sees it as a positive.

“In one of my first internships, I was able to see how my classes in marketing allowed me to understand the numbers presented by our teams in a different way than other interns because I had the classes in my back pocket,” she says. “Most theatre programs do not necessarily teach their students about click-through rates or cost-per-click and how to evaluate those as compared to benchmarks.”

Likewise, courses in business law have helped Smith navigate the industry’s complex legal environment.

“I spend a significant amount of my time writing and interpreting contracts, working with collective bargaining agreements for up to 15 different unions, or, lately, interpreting Department of Labor regulations and notices as we navigate unemployment during the coronavirus shutdown,” she says.

Although Smith remains busy behind the scenes, she has questions about the future of live theatre. All New York City productions — including The Play That Goes Wrong — lowered their curtains in March amid the pandemic and may not return until January 2021 at the earliest.

“The essence of theatre, and what makes theatre different than television or film, is the physical presence of the audience and performers sharing the same space,” she says. “Filming and live streaming shows is great for a short period of time, and certainly helps solve a long-standing accessibility issue, but it is not financially feasible for most productions.”

Smith says her industry is facing numerous questions as it prepares to reopen sometime next year: “How receptive will the audience be to returning to the theatre? Will investors be less willing to risk their money in an already high-risk industry? How will backstage and onstage interaction change for performers? How does this affect the shows already running or that were planning to have runs?”

Despite the immediate uncertainty, Smith stands by the old Broadway adage that “the show must go on.”

“We already anticipate lower attendance and wary investors as we begin reopening, but it is impossible to imagine New York City without live theatre,” she says. “We’ll be back and the lights will be shining as bright as ever.”

NEXT: Alumna’s career at Disney fulfills a childhood dream

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