Trinity Rep’s new executive director has extensive background in theater

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Since childhood, Kate Liberman has lived and breathed theater. She’s devoted nearly all her adult life to the performing arts, in cities across the Northeast and in California. So the staff of Trinity Repertory Theater, in Providence, was eagerly awaiting Sept. 1, Liberman’s first day as executive director of the company.

Liberman, 37, who grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, has a brother who works in the theater industry, but says her parents “weren’t really theater people.”

“But my parents were very encouraging of whatever we were interested in,” she adds.

Liberman’s mother is a printmaker and illustrator, and her father was an educator for the former Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston.

When Liberman was growing up, her brother Jacob would perform impromptu plays in the living room, which led to family outings at the local community theater. Then they volunteered there, followed by visits to Boston playhouses.

As a student at the New Jewish High School, now known as the Gann Academy, in Waltham, Massachusetts, Liberman identified mostly as an athlete, playing on the soccer and basketball teams. But when she started her studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, she gravitated toward the theater department. She says that it was the technical and managerial aspects of theater, not being in the spotlight, that appealed to her.

“I never caught the bug of enjoying being onstage,” Liberman says. “I don’t like to be other people, I like to be me. [And] I have trouble remembering lines. That’s not my expertise. But I like being part of telling stories through art.”

During college, Liberman landed an internship at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Most of her work was helping to write grants, but she was fascinated by the number of invisible networks that labored behind the scenes.

“I realized there were all these people who worked at the theater who weren’t in the scene shop, or the costume shop, or working backstage at night,” Liberman recalled. “There was this whole team of managers. Really, there are so many different levels of expertise that are necessary for putting a play on stage for a live audience. That’s when I started to understand that problem-solving could spill over into a profession.”

After college, Liberman found a job on the development team at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C. The world-renowned venue was eye-opening for Liberman; she experienced top-notch productions and international art expos, but she also experienced the 2008 financial crisis, when arts organizations were scrambling to retain their funding.

After two years at the Kennedy Center, Liberman says she felt the need to go back to school to enhance her skills.

In 2008, Liberman was admitted to Yale University, and she settled comfortably into her new home in New Haven, Connecticut. She earned an MFA and an MBA in Theater Management, and spent innumerable hours working with the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Liberman was named a Truman Scholar at Yale, and served as president of the Truman Scholars Association. It’s also where she met Eric Gershman, a veteran theater technician who was studying in the same department, and who would eventually become her husband.

The couple weathered a long-distance relationship while Liberman served as general manager of The Laguna Playhouse, in Laguna Beach, California, for two years. She says she loved the environment in California, describing it as “paradise,” but she missed home.

“I ultimately learned that I’m a New Englander at heart, and it kind of felt foreign” in California, she says.

In 2015, Liberman became the managing director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, in Garrison, New York. She loved her life and work there, and stayed for seven years. During that time, the festival was given a 100-acre gift from a local benefactor, and a permanent facility will soon replace the tent that is erected each summer.

Liberman weathered the worst of COVID with her Hudson colleagues, and the festival became one of the first live theatrical events in New York state to reopen to the public. For her work there, Liberman was named a “40 Under 40 Rising Star” by the Westchester Business Council.

“I hold that company very close to my heart,” she says. “We were building something really exciting there. People would come every summer, and built it into their family traditions.”

Liberman and Gershman might have continued to live there, raising their son, Tobias, 4, in upstate New York. But then the executive-director opening at Trinity Rep appeared on Liberman’s radar in early 2022. She hadn’t been searching for new work, but she visited Providence to investigate the opportunity.

“All it takes is an hour with Curt Columbus, our artistic director, and I was very quickly convinced that I had to be a part of this place,” she says with a laugh.

While visiting, Liberman saw Trinity’s production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and was further sold on pursuing the job.

She was also impressed with the theater’s home in downtown Providence.

“It feels like we’re in a moment of downtown revitalization for the city. It was exciting. I hadn’t been looking for my next move, but this is it,” she says.

Liberman received the job offer in the spring; stayed at the Shakespeare festival through the summer; moved her family to Cranston at the beginning of August; and started at Trinity on Sept. 1.

For her husband, now 37, the move was relatively easy; Gershman is a consultant for arts organizations around the world, and most of his work is remote.

Upon arrival in the Ocean State, the couple took a badly needed two weeks off.

“We got to know as many beaches as we could and unpacked as many boxes as we could,” says Liberman. “We sort of started to love Rhode Island already, just in that short period of time.”

Liberman’s family has also eased into the local Jewish community, observing the High Holy Days at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.

As it turned out, Liberman had already met Barry Dolinger, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, in Providence, when they were undergraduate students at Penn. She speculates about one day moving to Providence and the close-knit Jewish community on the East Side.

“Our family is deeply committed to living Jewish values in our household,” she says. “We have started to get involved where we can.”

ROBERT ISENBERG (risenberg@jewishallianceri.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.