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Department: Comparative Literature

Romer Comparative Literature

Barbara Romer ’93

Founder and CEO, New Globe Theater

Studying fairy tales

Since my high school had voted me “most likely to win a Nobel Prize in physics,” I remember arriving at Princeton in 1989 with the clear intention of majoring in the history of science. Sounded impressive. Sounded serious. Sounded employable. Only problem—the subject thoroughly bored me. I much preferred cuddling up with Flaubert or Austen or Sophocles in Firestone Library, sneaking into a lecture by Toni Morrison, or leafing through children’s books at Micawber Bookshop. I had always been passionate about literature and arts, but considered it dessert and not appropriate as a steady diet. However, as Thomas Sweet ice cream was on constant offer at Rockefeller College, it came to pass that—in tandem with the Freshman Fifteen—my class schedule seemed to shift. By late sophomore year, calculus and physics had miraculously disappeared from my curriculum and been replaced by, e.g., “The Modern Anti-Hero” with Victor Brombert or “Arthurian Romances” with Frank Ordiway. While on this dessert binge, I also developed a flavor for theater and art history. (I know what you are thinking: “Turning unemployable.”) However, it could also not be denied that there was a linear correlation between my passion quotient and my grade point average. So I kept doing what I was doing, and declared myself a most happy (and slightly overweight) comparative literature major.

I wrote my senior thesis on fairy tales. Yes, fairy tales. (You: “Seriously unemployable.”) I turned in an oversized storybook with my own illustrated tales in five languages. Let me tell you: I had never had more fun in my life—nor ever worked harder. And since you are wondering: 99 percent.

Traipsing the globe

After graduating, I interned at Christie’s in Tokyo for a year, directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Berlin, then worked at the Musée d’Unterlinden in France, and ultimately moved to England to get a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Cambridge. While completing my doctorate (with the anti-breadwinning title “The Art of Writing: An Iconographic Study of Les Douze Dames de Rhétorique, a 15th-Century Manuscript from the Burgundian Netherlands”), I spent a summer in London at the British Library. One weekend, I saw in TimeOut Magazine that I could buy a five-pound ticket for the performance of Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I had no idea that 1997 was the opening season, nor that this day would forever change my life.

So there I was, one of the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe. The energy in that theater was unlike any other I had ever visited, the audience unlike any other. In 1623, John Chamberlain described the audience at the Globe as “old and young, rich and poor, master and servant”—and that was still true. There were teenagers in ripped jeans, as well as gents in black tie seated in the galleries. It was wonderful, most wonderful. Standing amongst the groundlings, I kept thinking about how the Globe setting was unique (the interaction between the actors and the audience, the $10 tickets, … the magic), and wondered how this experience would be translated into a contemporary setting. The 21st-century juxtaposition, if you will. And somewhere in my muddled thoughts lay the birth of the dream of a contemporary Globe in New York City—
“The New Globe for the New World.”

As I recognized that I needed a different skill set to pursue this vision, I decided to interview with McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm. While I did go through one or two extra rounds of interviews, I’m pleased to report that—with my fairy tales and medieval manuscripts and Shakespearean sonnets—my entry level was identical to MBA applicants. I started with McKinsey in Munich, transferred to the New York office two years later, and overall stuck with the firm for nearly five years.

Working on a happy ending

But I never forgot my dream. And so I took a sabbatical in 2002 to search for a potential site, and soon discovered in New York Harbor a dilapidated fortification which strangely happened to be perfectly round, three-tiered, and with the identical blueprint as Shakespeare’s Globe. It intrigued me that this fort—named Castle Williams on Governors Island—had been constructed for the War of 1812, to defend America against the British. What if, for the 200th anniversary, we re-imagined the old military fort as a performing arts center together with our former foe, a place where we celebrate our common cultural heritage? I quit McKinsey to found the “New Globe Theater.”

While I do tend to rival King Henry IV in lack of sleep, I couldn’t be happier. Over the last few years, I built a partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe in London; convinced Lord Norman Foster—the world-famous architect of, e.g., the British Museum and the German Parliament—to design the adaptive reuse of the historic monument (the model is currently exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington); assembled a world-class Artistic Board including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Sam Mendes, and Al Pacino; and have had the honor of discussing the New Globe with individuals ranging from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Senator Hillary Clinton to Cherie Blair. Currently the U.S. Congress is urging the National Park Service, the federal agency with jurisdiction over the fortification, to give us the green light. I’m not saying that my life since Princeton has been a stroll through buttercup-infested meadows (my personal motto is: “No is just a more challenging way of saying yes”), but what I am saying is that I’m really, really glad that I followed my passion and didn’t major in history of science!