For Julia Dunetz ’19, winning a Tony Award is only a milestone in her larger mission as a theater producer — to create social change through theater.
“It’s really important to me that the art that I’m involved with is not only creatively excellent but also that it’s going to help make the world just a little bit of a better place,” Dunetz said.
Dunetz earned the award for co-producing “Parade” in June. The production was chosen for the “Best Revival of a Musical” category.
“Parade,” which originally premiered in 1998, tells the true story of the murder of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a young girl. Dunetz noted that the musical addresses an issue of antisemitism in the American South at the time.
“The story just felt so deeply resonant to today,” Dunetz said. “I’m passionate about telling stories that can move the social [and] cultural conversation. This musical [accomplished] that, in addition to the music being so gorgeous and the performances being so powerful.”
Dunetz’s passion for theater began in the first grade after seeing a Broadway production of “Wicked.” She also noted the influence of growing up around New York City’s vibrant performing arts culture. In high school, she discovered the role of the producer by performing in school plays. She said that producing combined her love for theater with her skill sets in business, leadership, mathematics and logistics.
“It [is] a role that is essentially the CEO of a play or a musical,” Dunetz said. “I fell in love with the idea of [producing] and started aggressively pursuing that dream.”
Dunetz graduated from the College of Human Ecology as a human development major, with minors in business and theater. Dunetz said her human development background positively affected her career as a commercial theater producer.
Dunetz chose to major in human development after a mentor encouraged her to study a subject other than theater at Cornell.
“He said, ‘All of us in this industry already know theater. You’re so much more interesting if you can talk about something else.’ I found [human development] interesting, and I knew that understanding human behavior was going to be an integral part of producing,” Dunetz said. “So much of producing is dealing with people, personalities and other personal situations.”
Dunetz described the variety of producing roles she has held — spanning from producing as a lead, executive, associate and more — as being different from one another but all existing on the same gradient of the business side of theater.
“Some of those roles are fundraising, which is an important part of producing a multimillion-dollar show. Some of those roles are more [involved in working] on the ground, in the theater and the rehearsal studio,” Dunetz said. “I always say producing is troubleshooting, fixing problems.”
Dunetz began her first job three days after graduating from Cornell at a production company called Seaview and worked as an associate producer for “Slave Play,” a production that addresses themes of race, sexuality, power and interracial relationships. She simultaneously made her co-producing debut with “Sea Wall / A Life,” a play starring actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.
“I had these crazy months on ‘Slave Play’ and ‘Sea Wall,’ and then the [COVID-19] pandemic hit. That kind of put a pause on things, especially in my industry,” Dunetz said.
After working in digital theater production during the pandemic, Dunetz transitioned to her current position as a producer at the production company Level Forward.
“I work in our theater space, developing new works and producing different plays and musicals on and off Broadway,” Dunetz said. “Level Forward is this incredible women-founded company. [Its] mission [statement] is ‘story-driven, impact-minded.’ The goal is to create social change through art.”
With Level Forward, Dunetz most recently produced “How to Dance in Ohio,” a musical that premiered in November about seven autistic young adults who go through the challenges of preparing for a spring formal dance.
In the future, Dunetz aims to continue spreading a message of social change on a bigger scale.
“I would love for the industry to have more women, people of color and queer people to represent the stories that we want to tell,” Dunetz said. “My goal is just to keep doing the good work and hopefully, make some people feel good, or feel seen, or feel challenged.”