Behind the Scenes: Gil Cates Jr. on His Career in Live Theater


Gil Cates Jr. has always loved the stage, but he loves being behind the curtain even more. After working in the film and television industry for more than 20 years, Cates is now the executive director of Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse.

As a kid, Cates was always filming things and making shows with his friends; as he grew older, he studied at the National Theatre Institution in Waterford, Connecticut and holds a degree in drama from Syracuse University. This career track allowed him to become a member of Geffen Playhouse’s board of directors in 2012.

Find Your Grind spoke to Cates about the importance of getting involved in your community early, learning from the smallest tasks and having confidence in your work.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are some of your biggest accomplishments in theater?

Currently, I lead the fulfillment of the Geffen Playhouse mission to inform, entertain and inspire audiences with live theater. I have proudly served on the playhouse’s board since 2012. My biggest accomplishments include the award-winning shows Names, The Night I Knocked Out Joe Frazier and Lost 90 Pounds, Three Sisters and David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre.

In addition, I produced and directed the critically acclaimed Life After Tomorrow, featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, which won Best Documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival and later premiered on Showtime.

What does your job entail?

I manage and run the day-to-day operations of the Geffen Playhouse, as well as the long-term health and sustainability of the theater. I aim to build new audiences to help sustain the great work that has already been done.

What kind of training or experience lead to becoming the playhouse’s executive director?

I was a theater major in college, and then I worked in the film and television industry for 20-plus years. I ran some companies and directed and produced films.

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to achieve your job?

I had to give myself the time to learn what I did not know, all while having the will and confidence to move forward with what I did know.

What advice would you give a high school student interested in pursuing a similar career?

You should get involved early on the ground floor. You must understand the basics of theater (or whatever craft you’re interested in), even if it seems small or “not enough” at the time.

What was the most valuable class you’ve ever taken?

The most valuable class I took was probably at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and it was a stage directing class. It took into account so many elements of the theater, from creating the work, to getting it on its feet. In addition to that class, I also learned a lot from doing other jobs. I was working as a PA on sets when I was 15 years old. Plus, I worked a summer internship at a talent agency. I didn’t limit what I could learn.

What advice would you give your high school self?

Trust that every experience you have, even if challenging, will be beneficial to you as an adult, especially as an adult in the workforce.

Would you change anything about your high school experience?

No. I was always doing shows or making Super 8 movies with my friends. This was key in my growth as a person and professional.

Who did you most look up to growing up, and why?

My father.  He was a director, a producer and, more than anything, a smart and patient leader. It was inspiring to watch him interact with people, regardless of age or position. He had a genuine care of human beings and he always had the ability to lead a group of people in what seemed like an effortless manner.

What does it mean to you to Find Your Grind? Why is it important?

It really says everything to me. You have to find what makes you go. It’s what we have to do every day to get where we want to be.

Are you an educator or a teacher?

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