Rebekah Dare Guin
Two months ago, Vivienne Benesch, the new producing artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company, sat staring at her sticky-note-covered walls in her apartment. Now, she sits in an office and presents the new face of the company to the theater community.
This week PlayMakers, an established repertory company in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, announced its upcoming 16/17 season with Benesch at the helm. As her first full season with PlayMakers, she spoke about what it is like to plan a theatrical season and the implications it would have for the company.
“A season is a significant way in which we say to the community,” Benesch said, “and to American theater landscape, ‘Here are the stories that we are interested in telling. Here are the people, and the voices, that we want to include,’ and you can never do everything. It is impossible. It is the manifestation of a theater’s values. My values and missions, along with the company’s as they already exist, are, in effect, being represented by the choices that we have made.”
This planning started before she ever saw her first paycheck. She started at PlayMakers, in January, but she had a rough draft of the season completed by December. She worked with Jennifer Wales, a member of PlayMakers artistic staff, to formulate her ideas.
“She and I were on the phone seven times a day,” she said, “reading hundreds of plays, throwing ideas back and forth. She came to New York, and we hulled ourselves up for two and a half days in my tiny apartment and covering the walls with ideas.”
Many of those ideas scrawled onto sticky notes still sit in her office. Some of them include our diversity of voice, diversity of worldview, diversity of form, audience engagement, outreach, and community. To her, the most important note simply reads “X factor.”
“The X factor is that unknowable passion,” she said. “What are we passionate about? When you are choosing a season, you have to love what you are producing. If I can’t be passionate about it, I am not going to engage my audience or the artists that I employ. It would stop at me. So, The X factor is ‘what’s this thing that makes us love it.”
“We are doing ‘The Crucible,’” she said, “which is not only a classic, which is something that this community loves and which any good regional theater must continue to reimaging, and that should be reason enough. But, no, the X factor is that it is PlayMakers 40th anniversary, and ‘Crucible’ was the first show that we did 40 years ago. How do we want to celebrate 40 years? We want to celebrate our 40th with ‘Cruicble.’”
Benesch said that passion may be the most important thing, but it is not the only thing that goes into season planning.
“Then you have got to talk about size and cost,” she said. “So, you have the dreaming side, and you have the practical side. You just can’t do seven ‘My Fair Ladys.’ It is not going to happen.”
Rosalie Preston, the marketing manager at PlayMakers, said that she was excited about what the new season was bringing to the company.
However, no matter how much passion she has for the upcoming season, presenting it to PlayMakers audience will still take a lot of work.
Preston explained the process that the company uses to reach out to the community and draw them in for another year at the theater.
“In the months and weeks leading up to each show,’ Preston said, “we like to think about how each show is different and try to find target audiences that respond more to each performance.”
One of Benesch’s notes was “outreach.”
“What are the outreach potentials? Is a show appropriate for schools? Can we get new, young, people into the theater with any of these? If so, how are we going to do that? What titles are going to have an appeal, local draw, new audiences?”
Benesch hopes that her message will do just that.
“For me,” she said, “diversity and inclusion are front and center. I feel our season represents that. Not only in gender, but in ethnicity, in point of view, and in terms of style. All of these things, sort of, create a giant grid which has who we are speaking to, whoes story we are telling, how we are telling it, through what lens we are showing it, and who is the creative team. That is my next step. Who is on the teams has just as much importance as the titles themselves.”
One part of that team is the technical staff. The technical director, Adam Maxfield, said he is excited about the challenges this new season will offer.
“The great thing about this company is that they do actually ask us what we think of shows that are coming up,” he said.
“The first things that I listen for are if it is a musical or not”, he said, “because that means a whole different way of approaching things.
Musicals tend to have a bigger cast, and so we have to look at entrances and exit and the space on the floor. So, you have to think about what that means in terms of floor treatments, or if there are moving parts what do I have to worry about, things like tracks or things that could be tripped on.”
Maxfield said that he was looking forward to the large mix of shows coming up.
“I think,” Connie Mahan, director of communications, said, “not unlike other seasons, we have tried to bring a broad menu of selections. I think you can see that mix again, this year, of both contemporary and classic, comedy and drama. All of our plays in the season have an overarching message. This is a new day at PlayMakers.”