Lida Orzeck, producer of Susan Miller’s new Off-Broadway play, 20th Century Blues, sounds like a character from a play. By day, she is CEO of the lingerie company Hanky Panky. At all other times, she is busy channeling her activism into philanthropy, from endowing an artist-in-residence program at her alma mater, Barnard College, where she is a trustee, to serving on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Is Orzeck running for Most Interesting Woman in the World? Very possibly. Our recent conversation was delightful and wide-ranging, cut short only because of time, not because we ran out of things to discuss.
How did you get into supporting the arts?
I have been interested in the arts my entire life. I guess I have pretty eclectic interests. I was on the Doug Varone and Dancers board for more than 15 years until I finally had to leave when I couldn’t do that as well as be on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a trustee of Barnard College.
There are only so many hours in the day.
Right But Varone was at the opening of 20th Century Blues and we’re still friends.
I have a real understanding how important the arts are for our lives. This is Hanky Panky’s 40th anniversary and over the years my business partner, Gale Epstein, and I have built the company in our humble way — neither of us went to business school, neither of us learned that the company has to be bigger to be better. We ran it the way that seemed right, which was also profitable. Both of us are philanthropic, so we allowed Hanky Panky to be a funnel through which we could express our philanthropy. The arts have been an area I’ve wanted to support over the years.
Susan Miller, my partner, is a playwright of some renown and a voice to be listened to. When 20th Century Blues was done at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, I had the opportunity to see it and I thought, My God, this really has legs! I just had a feeling that Susan would be struggling to get this produced for quite some time because these things take so darn long. And I am in a position that I could do something about that. I thought, you know, I’ll just produce this thing. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost. But we put things in motion and here we are.
How did you involve your executive producer, Eva Price?
We interviewed several people and asked Eva to be executive producer and general manager. Which is great for me, since I’m learning as I go along. Eva does a lot of the heavy lifting because she has done this before. She is a theater professional, I am not. My involvement has been more as time has elapsed, but still it’s more about my opinions and making sure deadlines move with a sense of urgency. This is a short run and no grass is growing under our feet. I’m used to that from the business world.
The first thing that struck me about this production was the sheer number of women involved. Was it deliberate to want women as executive producer – and director?
Yes. When we began to interview people, we asked for some suggestions from folks in the know; we didn’t specifically say it had to be women. We spoke to men and women for the executive producer/general manager position. In the end, we felt closest to Eva and the fact that she was a woman sealed the deal. From the start, both Susan and I wanted a female director. But Emily [Mann] hadn’t gotten an opportunity to see the play in West Virginia so we put together a reading for her and she signed on immediately.
With the current cast or different people?
Different people. I think there’s maybe one overlap. Five out of the six in the cast are women.
It’s a very Hanky Panky demographic.
Hanky Panky is an unusual company in a lot of respects, not the least of which is that we make everything in the US. We are a real sisterhood kind of organization. We have always had how women feel about themselves in mind for all of our branding and imagery. It’s not about appealing to men. That’s pretty unusual for a lingerie company.
The synergy between the play and my company — there is a lot, but it’s really about sisterhood. Gale and I have been in business 40 years; the four friends who are the focus of 20th Century Blues met 40 years ago, which is just pure coincidence, because Susan was not making any connection to our company. The story — in developing friendships and what it’s like to know each other all these years, living their lives with the problems and ordinary things that happen — describes how we developed, too, at Hanky Panky. It was a very strong pull for me to be involved.
Can you talk about the artist-in-residence program at Barnard? It’s dance, visual, theater, music and architecture. So far, two women have been selected.
It started in 2015 and it’s completely an arms-length process. I was shocked and amazed and thrilled when Wendy Whalen was the first one chosen because of my affinity for dance. Now I’m over the moon with artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. I’ve met this brilliant young women now and I have this whole other artistic sphere to learn. I love that architecture is in there because it happens to be another little thing I’m interested in.
And what led you to the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)?
Goes back to my childhood: I’m a gal who grew up in Brooklyn, a Jewish kid who had liberal parents and those sensibilities infused my life. The SPLC was one of my earliest philanthropies before I had enough to make a difference. Over time I was able to increase my contributions. At a certain point I was recognized by that community and the development office — I mean, I get calls from people in development offices all the time, but that one, I returned that call. Susan and I went on a civil rights tour led by [former SPLC President and NAACP Chairman] Julian Bond, and one of the stops was the SPLC. Eventually they called and asked me to join the board. I said, “Are you kidding? I’m not worthy.” They wouldn’t allow me to back out. I’m now entering my sixth or seventh year. It is a very important position to me. Particularly now.
From your role as CEO of a large-scale business, what has been applicable to producing a play?
I’d have to give that question some thought: off the top of my head, I’m not sure. But let me say this: I’m not a writer. I’m not a designer. I am not a “creative person.” However, I have always been closely associated with creative people. And I have learned over the years that they have tremendous respect for my opinion. Gale, for instance, jokes that from the beginning I have been her “Jane Doe.” She’ll show me a design and if I don’t like it — not if I don’t think it will sell — my first reaction is very meaningful because I’m a high-caliber Everywoman. I think Susan would agree with that: she values my opinion; she runs things by me. I know what looks good and appeals to me and sounds right. In that way, there’s not really a big crossover between the two businesses, but certainly who I am has a great impact on the commercial apparel industry and theatrical industry. They’re both the cross-section between creative and commercial.