One of the Artistic Director’s challenges at any theater company is navigating the choppy waters of selecting a season of productions. There are so many variables to juggle that, in the end, the choices can almost seem arbitrary. But of course, nothing that takes so much time and research and consideration and negotiation can be arbitrary. Budgets aside, it is really all about who we are trying to please, including ourselves.
Naturally, they are foremost among those we’re trying to please. The esteemed British director and visionary, Peter Brook, famously opined that all you need to create theater is an empty space. I would argue that it’s also nice to have someone watching what we’ve created. While we have to know who our audience is and respect their sensibilities, we needn’t slavishly pander to them. Those with subscription audiences share the challenge of satisfying an older and aging patronage while trying to build a younger one. Yes, most of our subscribers will welcome The Sound of Music for the umpteenth time, but it’s unlikely to make theater converts of the younger crowd. And that’s fine. We need something for everyone, so what might we program that will engage the kids (by which I mean those in their 20s and 30s) while not repelling our core audience? We want to introduce the core to contemporary, perhaps edgier fare without scaring them away, while wooing our younger audience into giving the classics a chance.
Take it slow. American Psycho may be a bit much for your subscribers right off the bat, but they may not shy away from the gentler Memphis, which might crossover and engage the younger crowd as well.
You need to please your talent pool because if you program material they’re not interested in auditioning for, you’re sunk. So talk to them. What ideas do they have and what do they think about some of your ideas? You don’t need to say much or get into debates, just listen. If you program a vehicular show, make certain that you have an ace in the hole. Sunset Boulevard may well be a wonderful local premiere, but if you don’t have a strong Norma, good luck. You can’t count on some lady just walking in off the street to fill the bill. Yes, that can happen and has happened to me more than once. Still, you don’t want to slate Fiddler or Dolly or La Mancha or Mame if you don’t know of anyone in town who could play that role.
Then there’s the Board of Directors to please. If you’re lucky and if they’re smart, they will largely keep their noses out of your business, other than having to do with financial matters. They have hired you to steer the organization artistically and should trust you to do it. Ideally, they are advocates for the company, out raising money to produce the shows. But we don’t always get lucky, do we? We are often in the position of having to placate our boards while staying true to our artistic missions. We must remain respectful, as with any employer, while also being as persuasive as possible. If you think Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro, a musical few have ever had the opportunity to see, is a more compelling choice than, say, Oklahoma!, then make your case for it, passionately and articulately. And have some idea of how you’ll market a title few will be familiar with. You may have to take “no” for an answer, but at least you went to bat. You will always be your own strongest advocate.
As you go about trying to please your various constituencies, you’re also trying to build a balanced season. Drama and comedy, contemporary and classic, extravagance and modesty, spectacle and intimacy, frivolous and profound. Even a company with a single-vision mission, such as Family Entertainment, needs to find balance. There are family friendly shows that aim to do nothing but entertain, while others will make you think or challenge perceptions about the world in which we live. And this seems as good a time as any to offer an insight I came to the hard way. Do not make a selection based solely on a strong title. There are many properties out there with instantly recognizable titles, mostly based on successful movies or books, that are just lousy shows. Sure, the title may help sell your season and bring in the single-ticket buyers. And you’ll think, “Oh, I can doll that show-up and make it work.” But, as the adage goes, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” It’s interesting to note that most of these titles will be shows you’ve never seen and there’s a reason for that. Most importantly, your audience will be disappointed and you never want to risk disappointing them, of all people. Err on the side of quality.
Because musicals typically make more money than do plays, some companies have dispensed with plays altogether. I have never agreed to do that. Not only is there an (admittedly smaller) audience for straight plays, but the actors who don’t sing and dance deserve something, too.
Also, here is a great opportunity to broaden your audience’s horizons. If you are consistently putting up quality, engaging productions, they will trust and follow you into the unknown. Laying in a distinguished contemporary play such as Good People or One Man, Two Guvnors, or a classic like Arthur Miller’s All My Sons or Kaufman & Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You” gives your company the whiff of integrity. There will be those in your audience who didn’t realize that they’d enjoy a straight play so much and will come back for the next one. And there will be those straight play lovers who will think, “That was great! Maybe we should come and see one of their musicals.” *SPOILER ALERT!* You may lose money on the plays but fear not. You will more than makeup for it with your Christmas production of The Sound of Music.