Profile: The Man Who’s Taking NJ Performing Arts Center to the Next Stage

Selena Handler | June 11, 2014 | Profiles
As long as a project makes sense artistically and financially -- and for NJPAC's community -- John Schreiber will welcome it with open arms

John Schreiber, president and CEO of New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and Theater Square Development Company.
Who he is:* John Schreiber, president and CEO of New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and Theater Square Development Company.

Why he matters: Since it opened in 1997, NJPAC has been a critical economic and cultural engine for the state, especially Newark. Schreiber, hired in 2011, has built on this foundation, not only drawing diverse, top talents, but also making new connections through partnerships and outreach — and the center’s growing real estate footprint.

An arts omnivore: Schreiber has a robust background in the arts that began with jazz. He got his start in the music industry producing jazz festivals and being a road manager, including touring with jazz piano great Oscar Peterson. “It was Oscar, me, and a Bösendorfer. That was it. It was very simple.”

His work as a festival producer taught him the business of putting on shows from the ground up. In his 30 years in New York City, he expanded his repertoire, gaining an appreciation for all art forms. He produced New Yorker Literary and Arts Festival and arts education programs with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

When he moved to Los Angeles in 2007, he become executive vice president of Participant Media, the global entertainment company responsible for such films as “Waiting for Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Two office decorations: Adorning the shelf behind his desk in NJPAC’s executive offices are Schreiber’s Tony and Emmy awards for his Broadway and HBO productions of “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”

His definition of success for NJPAC: “When I think about us, I say we should be the country’s leading urban performing arts center. Celebrating where we are, being really proud that we are in Newark, and really proud that we are serving a diverse and dynamic set of audiences.”

The method is collaboration: Although he is not comfortable declaring absolute victory, Schreiber is confident the mission is well under way. “What’s fun about this job for me is that every day there are new opportunities to create touch points with the community.”

He cites NJPAC’s programming partnership with Newark’s Military Park that hosts various attractions. NJPAC’s student big band, the Brick City Jazz Orchestra, will be playing at the upcoming official opening of the park.

“The band is made up of 22 kids from greater Newark. Half are scholarship kids and they are going to be great ambassadors for the arts center at fairs and festivals and public events.”

Arts as a real estate engine: As president and CEO of Theater Square Development Co., NJPAC’s real estate business, Schreiber has been able to create real traction in the neighborhood, transforming it into a “live, work, play, and educate” district. In October, NJPAC will break ground on a 21-story residential tower with 244 market-rate residential units and 15,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor.

Bringing social issues into the limelight: At Participant, Schreiber said he would describe his work as “putting the spinach in the popcorn.” During the new season, NJPAC will be running a program called “NJ Stage Exchange,” where plays are featured that are focused on social issues.

“It is in my blood. It is in the DNA of this place. NJPAC was offering arts education five years before the arts center opened. It was built into the heart and soul of the arts center. “

The importance of arts education: The arts education program is continuing to grow, despite its already expansive reach. NJPAC currently reaches about 60,000 children a year through 29 different programs that go to about 160 schools around the region. About 30,000 kids a year are brought to NJPAC to see performances.

Greatest reward: Schreiber was quick with his answer: the people who come to his center, namely the children who are engaged in his arts education programs. Recently, NJPAC started a recorder band with 1,000 Newark third-graders. After ceaseless rehearsal, the kids got on the Prudential Hall Stage with members of the New Jersey Symphony and played their recorders.

“At the end I met the parents who had experienced this, seeing their kids up there. It was transformative for the children, and just really reassuring and heartwarming for parents to see what their kids are capable of.”

How he creates the future at NJPAC: “When I talk about us, I say we are a mix of Carnegie Hall, the Beacon Theater, and the Apollo Theater all rolled into one. On any given night, anything is possible here.”

As long as the project makes sense artistically, financially, and from a civic perspective, Schreiber said he will give the green light, whether it’s a Korean pop star, Earth, Wind and Fire, or the Portuguese singer Gisela Joao.

“Every day we are trying to be creative and thoughtful about what’s possible. The great thing about running a place like this is that there is nothing that is off the table. If we have a really big idea and we think that it has legs, then we can pursue it.”