Former “Rock of Ages” director Kristin Hanggi explains how she tries to say yes as much as possible and that aggression is not the only effective leadership style on Broadway.
FORTUNE — Not all of us could get a horde of Broadway actors wearing 1980s wigs to do anything worth watching. No, it takes a special kind of talent to be Kristin Hanggi, who directed the feel-good Broadway musical “Rock of Ages,” which was nominated for five Tony awards in 2009 (including Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical). She’s young to have come so far so fast — Hanggi is only 34 years old.
Fortune spoke with Hanggi while she was on the set of her new production, “SURF The Musical,” which features the music of the Beach Boys and opens this coming June in Las Vegas. She explains what it takes to make a musical work.
Fortune: What’s involved in pulling off a Broadway production?
Kristin Hanggi: Definitely trusting your instinct. When you’re hiring people for a project, you pay attention to how they connect to you. Sometimes, there’s a back-and-forth that starts to happen immediately, where you know this person gets what you’re doing.
Then you try to create those clicks in as many places as possible. In fact, I was talking to a set designer today, and I said, ‘Ooh, you know what time I want it? I want the sky when it isn’t fully dark yet, and it’s just starting to turn purple.’ And he goes, ‘you want a little magic in your sky,’ and I said, ‘yes, that’s exactly what I want!’
You’re quite young to have gotten so far in theater. When would you say you first began to trust your instincts as a director?
I remember being 22 or 23 and I had just graduated from graduate school a little early and I was doing my first professional production, a musical called Bare. Everything else that I had done before had been shoestring.
I remember sitting there as we were creating it, and I felt this, I don’t know, voice inside of me that said ‘trust your instincts.’
I almost feel like it comes down to this big concept of oneness, that deep down, people are all the same? We all know that taste does vary, but I always feel like, hands down, if I’m enjoying myself, I think that means that other people will too.
That must come in handy.
I’ve been told before that I have really commercial tastes, and what is that? Is that a compliment? Is that a criticism? But you know, I think it means that what I’m responding to, the majority of people will respond to as well.
Do you use a particular leadership tactic while directing?
Well, I believe in something that I call ‘the almighty yes.’ I try to use the word ‘yes’ a lot when we’re rehearsing. If someone wants to try something, I generally say, ‘let’s try it,’ and let our rehearsal space be a playground for great ideas. Because I find that the best idea in the room has a way of being obvious, and I’m not concerned about the best idea in the room being mine, you know?
I think I’ve learned through my own experience, with leadership, that sometimes when you’re trying to control something, you’re holding it too tight and it can’t really grow.
That totally goes against the image I have in my mind of directors being little dictators.
I think there’s this kind of school of thought when we think of those old-time Broadway directors and choreographers who made actors cry and who yelled. But I guess I’ve just never believed that you have to be aggressive to create a great team. In fact, I remember once reading that a great director’s job is to almost be invisible. So that if everyone feels that they’re making realizations on their own and it’s all coming from within, then the director has really done the job correctly.
Don’t you also have to run around putting out crazy fires?
So during “Rock of Ages,” when we were in Los Angeles doing developmental productions, everything that could go wrong went wrong. The power kept going off in the building. So we would program lights and cues, and then we would lose all of them.
That same week, we had two dancers go to the emergency room and I lost my stage manager and the prop manager crashed his truck.
How did you get through it?
I think we just dealt with whatever we could at the moment. When you lose an employee, you deal with it. If you have to get a new power generator, bring it to the theater. If a dancer needs to be out, bring in an understudy. Moment by moment, keep your eye on the prize.
And of course, that show ended up changing my career. Because this is my favorite thing about doing live theater: you’re always going to have opening night and there is a power where everything ends up workingout. So I think I have a certain kind of confidence that any problem that might come up will have a solution. And I know that when we get to opening night,something greater than us is going to take over and it’s going to be magical.