Symphony Space is a performing arts headquarters in New York City that hosts many creative acts every year, including a popular series for children called “Just Kidding.” Symphony Space was established in 1978, and since then its popularity has grown at an incredible pace. Today, they present more than 600 events each season, which range from theater to music, to dance, to film, to readings, and more.

Andrew Byrne is the Artistic Director of Symphony Space, and he recently discussed his experiences working with the organization via an exclusive interview.

Theater, performing arts, and film

Meagan Meehan (MM): When was Symphony Space started and how did you get involved with the organization?

Andrew Byrne (AB): In January 1978, two local artists--one from the world of theater Isaiah Sheffer and the other a music conductor Alan Miller--had an idea to organize a twelve-hour event celebrating the music of JS Bach that was free to the public. This event was called “Wall to Wall Bach” and it was such a success (with lines around the block) that Isaiah and Alan decided to create a performing arts organization as an ongoing venture. And so, Symphony Space was born.

I came to Symphony Space in 2014. I had spent the previous eight years organizing cultural festivals at Carnegie Hall, and when the position of Artistic Director at Symphony Space become available, I leaped at the opportunity to move forty blocks north to the Upper West Side to take over the reins of the programming here.

MM: Typically, how many shows does Symphony Space put on every year?

AB: We put on about 110 live shows a season in the areas of literature, music, family programming, talks, and more. In addition, we have about 100 film screenings a year.

MM: Pertaining to topics and genres, what kinds of shows do you most seek?

AB: In my opinion, what is unique about Symphony Space's programming in New York is that we feature some of today's leading actors, musicians, writers, thinkers doing something new, different, and I hope unexpected in a welcoming and informal atmosphere.

It's that spirit of excellence and informality and community - rather than any particular genre or topic - that I am looking for in shows at Symphony Space.

MM: How do artists secure your venue; for instance, do they come directly to you or do you work through agents?

AB: It works both ways. I and the programming staff reach out and invite artists to come to Symphony Space.

Artists and agents also contact us with proposals although I would have to say that is less common.

MM: Generally, how elaborate are the shows you produce in regard to props, costumes, lighting, etc.?

AB: We are a concert venue and not a fully-fledged theater so while we do have performance art pieces with props, costumes, lighting, I would have to say that the focus of our shows is less on lavish productions than on bringing the most exciting up-and-coming and established artists to our stages.

Children, shows, and future programming

MM: You also have a long-running children’s programming series called “Just Kidding” so how did this get started and what kinds of performances are you seeking to book?

AB: We've been presenting family shows since the very early days of Symphony Space. In the beginning, it was just a couple of select performances per year and grew from there. About a dozen years ago, we began presenting shows for kids and their families every weekend, so people could either plan ahead or just stop by, knowing something great would be here awaiting them. The family series mirrors our commitment to multiple art forms: music, dance, theater. puppetry, literature, and more. It's an eclectic mix of shows throughout the season that both adults and children will enjoy.

MM: So far, have any shows really stood out due to lavishness, uniqueness, popularity, etc.?

AB: A few seasons back, "Aga-Boom" (a Just Kidding show) utilized over 300 pounds of paper over the course of a show, and made its way into the audience in a giant paper free-for-all.

It included a paper curtain, initially behind the performers, that slowly was destroyed and made its way to the house as well.

MM: What can people expect to see from the venue this season?

AB: This season opens with an initiative called “Project Americana” featuring leading American voices talking about issues and ideas of our time. It's like taking the pulse of Americans today with literature, music, dramatic readings, film screenings, and conversation. Figures like broadcaster and public intellectual, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writer Sherman Alexie, African-American musical group Sweet Honey In The Rock, an event about the Hollywood Blacklist with actress Lee Grant and much more, are part of Project Americana in October and November.

In addition, for those who love New Orleans, we are organizing “The Source Project: New Orleans” which explores music from New Orleans and its influence with lots of bands and films. In addition, we have many exciting standalone events featuring such artists as Sarah Jessica Parker, Andy Borowitz, Jennifer Egan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, screenings of productions from National Theatre Live, and much more. Each is one night only and only at Symphony Space.

MM: What kinds of shows would you like to see more of in the coming years?

AB: When it comes to Just Kidding, I think an area of growth is puppetry. There has been such an explosion of really high-quality puppetry troupes in the last couple of years, and we find that audiences just love these shows.

In the last two seasons, we have added puppetry to our Just Kidding series and this will definitely expand in future seasons.

MM: How do you hope Symphony Space will evolve and/or expand over the next five to ten years?

AB: My plans for Symphony Space over the next five to ten years are to build on the spirit of informality and excellence that animates our programming and artistic identity. I will be looking to expand the pool of writers, actors, musicians, and thinkers who choose to come to Symphony Space to try out new things and experiment. We want to be the place, that is seen as an incubator for new and exciting work. And we want to spread the word so that Symphony Space is celebrated in New York City and beyond as a dynamic arts hub and an arts destination.