The Play's the Thing
Nine local directors on the secrets of season selection
So says the book of Ecclesiastes (and the Byrds), "To every thing there is a season." In the theatre, the turning of these seasons can tell us a lot: about theatres and their directors, venues and their audiences, experiences and their reception. Last spring I asked nine directors throughout Austin about the process by which they select their seasons' offerings, the challenges they face during that process, and whether hindsight really is 20/20 – even in programming for theatre. Some of these leaders helm companies that have been around for a lifetime, while others steer much younger organizations. Two will open new venues this season, while others produce itinerantly every year. Point is, Austin's theatre scene is as wide and varied as its geographical layout. Those same variables, though, make for a contextual adventure into the programming minds behind each new season.
Each theatre has its own procedures for sifting through all the possibilities for production, as well as its own unique set of criteria for selecting its season's offerings – but there are similarities, too. For some, like City Theatre and Austin Playhouse, the programming festivities begin with selection committees.
"In May and June, a play selection committee (directors, stage managers, actors, [and] patrons) along with the board of directors, bring ideas and meet to discuss play titles. A second meeting is held to finalize the season," explains City Theatre's Andy Berkovsky. At the Playhouse, the proceedings are slightly more complex. At an annual meeting, members of the acting company pitch titles to be considered for the following season. "[They] research [these] suggestions, arrange informal readings, and share their thoughts with each other," says Artistic Director Don Toner. "Before the second-to-last play of our season, the artistic leadership pare the list down to about 16-20 titles. Then our subscribers have an 'early bird' renewal period where they may renew their season tickets and vote on what they'd like to see [in the next season]. They may also write in suggestions. The audience preferences are taken into consideration, [and the] final lineup is selected by the artistic leadership to ensure a balanced season."
But even at theatres where formalized committees aren't involved in season selection, the needs and desires of collaborators old and new remain a priority.
"For the Vortex season, I look at new works in the process of being created and listen to what my collaborators are interested in working on and try to balance the needs of the artists," says Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum. "Because we are doing almost exclusively new work, it is important to look at the work from several angles and hear what people think it will be like to create it and produce it. Then I choose the work based on what I most deeply in my heart want to do and what I think will be sellable to the public." Austin Shakespeare's Ann Ciccolella is similarly motivated: "Passion is a strong criteria for me. If I am not on fire about doing a show, I know that it won't work for the company. If we have a guest director, I want to know that he or she feels passionate about doing the show."
As with every decision made in the theatre, deciding on a season can at times be fraught with obstacles. What would the directors cite as the single greatest challenge in planning a theatre season?
"Finding four great scripts that I would want to see on stage in Austin [and that can be produced effectively] on our rather small stage," says Ken Webster of Hyde Park Theatre. "Smaller casts are always a plus," he adds, not only because of that smallish stage, but also "since that means we can afford to pay our actors more. We seldom do plays with very large casts." Contrast HPT with City Theatre, where, Berkovsky says, "shows with small casts are always a challenge for us. We like to get as many people involved as possible. Also, small cast shows may affect attendance as well, which we always consider."
For Penfold Theatre Company and Zach Theatre, season subscriptions play a big role, though in different ways. "Because we sell season tickets, we have to nail things down a year or more in advance, and sometimes people just aren't willing to commit that far ahead," says Penfold Artistic Director Ryan Crowder. "There's always a gamble when [we announce our season]. We've had key players back out on us [and] venues go back on their availability. It can be stressful, but you learn to laugh, adapt, and make it work." As Zach opens its Topfer Theatre, the subscriber base is very much on Artistic Director Dave Steakley's mind: "We're doubling our audience capacity. There are a lot more seats to sell, and runs of shows will be shorter than in the Kleberg, so subscriptions become extremely important. Increasing the number of subscribers has been a huge focus for us over the past three years." (See "Season Selection Case Study: Zach's Topfer Theatre.")
Alleviating some of the challenges of season selection are those works that are automatic "no-gos" for a theatre or director. But what aspects of a piece would put it "off the table" for a given season – or period?
For Penfold's Crowder, reasons might include: "It doesn't fit who we are, it won't connect with our target audience, or we just don't have the resources to do it justice." Adds Associate Artistic Director Nathan Jerkins: "There are so many good scripts out there that we never want to do a show that we have to 'make good' or that we 'have to do' in spite of this or that. If the script isn't foundationally good, then we'll chose one that is and spend our time and energy making a good script better rather than making an okay script good." Toner agrees. "I have to believe in the quality of the play," he asserts, "or it's not worth considering and certainly not worth producing."
Some directors, like Different Stages' Norman Blumensaadt, have more specific lists than others. He won't do "one-person shows, plays that demand an expensive production, [plays] in which the characters are so vile [or] hateful that I cannot care for them, [or] plays that were done [in the] last year." Every director may have a personal list of "no-gos," but Cullum reminds us of the bottom line: "Off [the] table is that point where I think, 'Who would want to come see this?,' and I can't think of who would."
Is hindsight 20/20 in season selection? The directors reflect on whether, in retrospect, they might have made a different choice in programming a recent season.
"I can't think of any performances I wished I hadn't booked," says Long Center Managing Director Paul Beutel. "There are some I wish I had booked at other times of the year, or maybe on a weekend night when they would have had a better chance of drawing a larger audience. Some shows or artists you can book for any night of the week and know they will still sell. Less well-known shows often need a weekend to give them that added benefit of finding their audience." Echoes Ciccolella, "There are shows that didn't draw as many audience members as we had hoped, but those are not shows that I wish we hadn't done."
That's a common thread throughout the directors' responses. "No one knows how a production will turn out," says Blumensaadt. "You can have a good time, do good work, and have no one show up, or you can have one personnel problem after another in a production and be grateful when closing night comes. You can do sloppy, rote work and fill the house and have the audience tell you how wonderful you are, or you can do the production you think is your best. I don't think you should go back and second-guess the past with 'what ifs.' No one sets out to do bad theatre. Our theatrical monsters make us better artists."
Steakley agrees. "Inevitably I am going to make mistakes at times in programming, because the creation of art is about taking risks, experimenting, seeing how far a boundary can be pushed. Every season we're rolling out and selling nine different experiences – there aren't a lot of industries that are rolling out nine different 'products' a season to the public in a relatively narrow time window with modest marketing dollars. You learn tremendous lessons from falling short of the artistic goals for a particular project, so I wouldn't change anything. It's all a larger part of the act of creation and growth and managed risk."
theatre seasons, Austin Playhouse, Austin Shakespeare, City Theatre Company, Different Stages, Hyde Park Theatre, Long Center for the Performing Arts, Penfold Theatre Company, Vortex Repertory Company, Zach Theatre