The ease of publishing in this post-Millennial moment means that a lot of half and semi-baked ideas get pushed into the universe, and the lack of friction to respond combined with the relative lack of consequence of narrowcasting your opinions means that a lot of folks get to talk an awfully big game without anyone calling them on it.
If you want to actually be one of the big kids instead of simply commenting on them you need to put your ideas into the world. If we want to move forward as a sector we need to hold each other accountable and ask important second questions. First questions are important. The first question may be speaking truth to power but that’s not a solution. We need to follow through and make the conversations we have turn to realities and solutions or we simply keep yelling the same things over and over again.
In the case of the Guthrie’s new season we asked why it was so male and white. We asked how Joe Dowling and his team could have the sort of institutional blindness that precluded them from recognizing it before being called out on it and then a bunch of folks called them names.
So let’s ask the next question. What does a properly built season look like? What sort of framework can an AD (and their team) use to program a season that they can sell and moves the form forward in their community. What principles can we establish as worthy of being part of every theatre’s programming?
I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t begin to have answers. I have never run a theatre or completed a full season in the way that we’re discussing. I have never had the responsibility of covering others’ livelihood or making insurance payments. The things I’m looking for in a season are going to lack a rigorous commercial viewpoint because I lack that background.
I am also going to allow myself the one caveat that while the principal I wish to push for is a vaguely academic and analytical principal (and the model I build it on is rudimentary), it relies on something that has made itself very clear in my time in Austin: never ever underestimate an audience.
While the conversation around the Guthrie’s season was primarily about diversity I think there are broader problems with season planning. Others will be following to address the diversity question head on but I would like to talk about what I feel is the first step to better programming. The underlying thing I think is most missing from season selection is a really basic combination: shows that communicate with each other and create dialogue with an audience. The death of subscription series might be going differently if my participating in a full season at your theatre paid off in some way. If your theatre is simply a multiplex offering a mishmash jumble of entertainment why should I give you income certainty for 8% off?
“A Touch of Class”
One model that I think can create ongoing conversation is a “tentpole and response” season. In this model I’m going to use the Seagull.
For planning purposes I am assuming two theatre spaces, a 400 seat “main stage” and a 99 seat black box and a $2-3M budget making it a lightly resourced small theatre.
On your mainstage for your non-holiday season you present The Seagull in a fully realized production. I would actually avoid heady concept in the direction or design on the tentpole as you’re going to riff off it already.
In rep with The Seagull on the same set you present Steven Dietz’ take on the Seagull, The Nina Variations. I would use the opportunity to feature younger members of your company (it can use as many of them as you’d like really) and introduce them to your mainstage audience.
I would then add 1 more published show and 3 commissions to extend your conversation. I add Adam Szymkowicz’s Food For Fish to open a discussion of Chekov’s broader themes (it’s a take on Three Sisters).
My commissions in this case go to folks I know a little, but mostly because they’re folks whose take I’m interested in that I trust will deliver product I can take to an audience and they will be interested in.
So I would commission Callie Kimball, J. Holtham, and Joshua Conkel to provide full length responses to the themes in the Seagull. They would be in the smaller theatre, but be guaranteed full productions.
The theatre, the writers, the performers and the audiences all get to have a conversation about race, class and gender through a shared framework of the season. They don’t need to have gone to grad school for classical theatre, everything they need will be provided in your theatre.
It’s just an exercise but I think a model that offers benefits…. :
- It pays off on repeat attendance at the theatre.
- It introduces new voices to your audience.
- It includes a diversity of voices even before we pair directors with projects.
- It is a mix of new and classical work.
- It creates a narrative for the year.
- It leaves nooks and crannies to create #NeverBeDark programming around the themes and issues the season brings up.
- Those same nooks and crannies create partnership opportunities with community groups and possibly reaching out to new constituencies.
I also leave open the holiday segment of 8-12 weeks for non-tentpole affiliated programming for whatever entertainment your audience likes.
What would your season look like?
What principles guide your season creation?
Using the same sort of criteria write it up and let’s talk about it.
Updated: The sixth paragraph was edited to clarify my goal in this season model in Response to Valerie Weak’s comments below.