And Somehow, Miraculously, We Have A Season

The genesis of this series goes back several months to when I read an illuminating post by my colleague Zak Berkman about planning the 40th Anniversary Season at People’s Light & Theatre Company. I was impressed by how well Zak told a complicated story in a completely forthright manner. From my past work at Theatre Communications Group and at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and from reading    Outrageous Fortune, the report Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss prepared for Theatre Development Fund, I was struck over and over again by the lack of understanding many theatre professionals have about the complex challenges of putting together a theatre season. As a field, we talk frequently about the results of season planning, but we rarely are given the opportunity to examine the myriad decisions season programmers need to make. Transparency about this demanding and sometimes exasperating process could be helpful to the relationship between artists and theatre organizations as well as a fascinating read for all of us who enjoy performance. Read the full series here.

First in our series is Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), a large destination theatre that performs classics and new plays in three venues. —Fran Kumin

Season planning is arguably the most important thing that an artistic director is called upon to do, and I know that each one of my artistic director colleagues agonizes over these decisions: so many wonderful stories, so few programming opportunities in any one season!

How to balance comedy versus tragedy, new work versus known titles to provide a variety of scale as well as a true diversity of playwrights’ voices? At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this already complex process is further complicated by our system of rotating repertory. We produce eleven plays in three theatres over a nine-month performance season. We are blessed with a fiercely loyal and invested audience of roughly 400,000 ticket holders, 85 percent of whom travel to Ashland in rural Southern Oregon from hundreds of miles away in order to immerse themselves in theatre, seeing multiple plays—both matinees and evening shows—over a few days or up to a week of vacation. To make the trip worth their while, we start out with four plays playing in repertory in February/March, increase to five performing at once by late March, six in April, balloon to nine in June when our outdoor theatre opens (with two more in rehearsal!), then a slightly different mix of nine in July with two productions closing and two new ones opening, and finally down to six plays performing simultaneously during the last few weeks of the season in October.

Season selection is one of the most powerful ways that we put our shared values of equity, diversity, and inclusion into action.

In each of these six separate “slices” of the season, we need a balance between classics and new work, but also a tonal balance between stories that allow audiences to dig into their darkest emotions and to release with laughter. We hope that people will find plays that both reaffirm values they already hold and provoke new ways of looking at the world in each portion of the season. So when choosing which eleven plays to produce in a season, we must not only look at the merits of the individual plays themselves, but how they resonate with others that will be playing right next door or even in the same space later that same day. The average audience member sees over four plays per visit, and many come back at least twice a year to see all eleven.

When I first became artistic director in 2007, the eleven show “slots” were a bit more regularized. Our audience, as well as the OSF company, had become accustomed to a certain pattern in the seasons. I wanted to break open those patterns and shake up those expectations, but in my most frustrated moments of season selection, I now feel that my aesthetic agenda has led me to simply make that list of expectations much longer! My close colleague Alison Carey and I launched the new commissioning program American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, and these new plays examining moments of change in our country’s past have proved to be extremely popular in Ashland as well as reaching the national field; audiences now expect at least one American Revolutions premiere each season.

We also commission new musicals and new adaptations. In my years as artistic director, we’ve expanded our repertoire to include innovative productions of golden age musicals, global non-Western classics (we’ve produced Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, and Nigerian classics), and culturally specific productions of Shakespeare. At the same time, we’re actively looking to radically expand the racial and ethnic diversity of our playwrights—to try to tell at least one story each season rooted in each of African or African American, Asian or Asian American, Latino, and European or European American cultures. As the head of a classical theatre facing 2,000-plus years of gender inequity in world drama, I worry about ever reaching gender parity in playwright selection. I’m also pained by the consistent lack of stories on our stages authored by Native American and Middle Eastern writers and writers with disabilities, all of whose communities have been represented in our acting company and in our audience. I truly feel the pain of having "only" eleven slots per season!

three actors on stage
Sweat  by Lynn Nottage. Left to right: Stephen Michael Spencer, Carlo Alban & Tramell Tillman. Photo by Jenny Graham.

We call the process that I was lucky to inherit “Boarshead,” for the tavern in the Henry IV plays. Roughly fifty members of the company, including department heads, representative actors, and company members at large read all the plays that we’re considering and discuss them together. These lively large group discussions begin in late August and continue once or twice a month until early January. We’ve also added a small reader’s group that meets more frequently and reads an exponentially higher number of plays. Together, these groups give invaluable—and often contradictory—input on all the plays under consideration.

Because of the middle name of our Festival, we often start with the usual four Shakespeare plays as the first building blocks in conceiving a season. Last year, we committed to sharing the entire thirty-seven play canon over the coming decade: every tragedy, history, romance, so-called problem play, and of course the ten comedies, all to be shared over ten years. In years past, my predecessors and I have sometimes created overall tonal balance in the season by doing two Shakespeare comedies in one season. Our commitment to the whole canon means only one Shakespeare comedy per year, which now puts intense pressure on other types of work—including new work—to bring comedy into the season mix.
 

a wedding scene
Much Ado About Nothing    by William Shakespeare. Left to right: Danforth Comins, Cristofer Jean, Carlo Alban, Leah Anderson, and Jack Willis. Photo by Jenny Graham.

I also need to be thinking about the greatest strength of the Festival: our resident company of ninety-plus actors. My taste is eclectic, so the stories I choose to tell involve more turnover in the acting company than there was before I arrived. Certain projects demand different intersections in terms of skill set, race, and age. For instance, next season we are producing Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone and a culturally-specific Winter’s Tale, both of which require a significant increase in the number of Asian American performers in our company. And yet we have extraordinary black, white, Latino, and mixed race actors already in the company, who may be raising children or caring for their elderly parents in our rural community where OSF is the only major professional theatre employer for hundreds of miles around. The acting company at OSF has always flourished through a balance between the fresh perspectives of new actors and the strengths of seasoned veterans returning year after year, but there is no doubt that these proportions shift more dramatically in certain years based on my commitment to telling aesthetically and culturally diverse stories.

I’m also finding that, increasingly, playwright and director availability is becoming a bigger factor in season selection; we’ve recently had a couple of projects fall through because of writers’ television schedules. I've put projects in slots that I knew were not ideal because it was the only time I could get a particular director. The wisdom and realities of the production departments' input also affects choices based on what we can reasonably handle with our budget, shop capacity, and work force, especially in terms of costume shop load in a given slot. “Perfect” projects have died on the vine because they’re not tenable from a production perspective within the rep mix.

My desire to change up the expectations about what plays get put into what slots has led to productions of Shakespeare and large-scale musicals in our smallest, most intimate theatre; it is always for me about creating surprise and artistic vibrancy. My commitment to an average of five out of ten directors being new to OSF each season also aims to bring artistic vitality. However, given the complexity of directing in rotating rep for the first time, it puts a heck of a lot more strain on the organization. It’s a tightrope we must walk: how far can we push artistic boundaries without overloading our infrastructure, especially straining the capacity of our budgets and production departments?
 

an actor on stage
Daniel Duque Estrada in The Happiest Song Plays Last  by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Photo by Jenny Graham.

I know the numbers backwards and forwards of how many seats are at stake in each of our eleven slots and how that impacts decision-making about what goes into them. Our two long-running slots in our largest indoor theatre? 75,000 seats over 121 performances, each. There are no real equivalent slots in the nonprofit theatre; you have to look at a commercial run to find similar box office expectations. Although I always want to upend expectations, let’s face it: title or at least genre familiarity helps when you have to sell 121 performances of a single production. Our outdoor shows only perform thirty-eight times each, but for 45,000 audience members over a run because of the large size of the venue. And this 1,200-seat theatre under the stars demands a very different kind of artistic event than our 270-seat thrust. A shorter slot in one of the indoor theatres may need to sell fewer tickets than the other slots (playing for as few as 17,000 patrons), but the show in that slot may not run during the critical time when the summer tourists who would love it can come, or conversely when school is in session for student groups who might be the primary intended audience. The varied demands and restrictions of each slot are…maddening.

The varied demands and restrictions of each slot are…maddening.

And because there is not enough to think about, season planning is also influenced by special event programming: take our biannual CultureFest and Latino Play Project, which alternate years, or our great honor next season of hosting the annual conference and festival of CAATA (Consortium of Asian American Theatre Artists). Does the playbill at that time of year reflect those communities, and will those artists be available for the slots that line up with the necessary dates?

a group of women in kimonos on stage
White Snake  by Mary Zimmerman. Left to right: Amy Kim Waschke and Christopher Livingston. Photo by Jenny Graham.

It is all a high-wire balancing act. For over four months, I torture everyone I work with, and especially my poor husband, because I obsess about the season selection process. Constantly. I can think and talk about little else.

The slate of eleven plays is the first and most immediately visible way in which we connect to traditionally underserved communities. Season selection is one of the most powerful ways that we put our shared values of equity, diversity, and inclusion into action. The stories we select will guide all artistic, production, and administrative choices in ways that can bring us closer to our ideals of social justice. My wise colleagues fight fiercely for what they believe in, and their individual agendas—each of which I agree with—all spectacularly contradict one another. Audience members scold me for how I’ve foolishly programmed a fully-realized Tennessee Williams classic to close too early or a searing Lynn Nottage world premiere to open too late for the month that they visit. Every year I begin to despair that any kind of season can be found, period.

And yet somehow, often much too uncomfortably close to the public announcement, we get there. We suddenly have eleven projects that feel collectively risky and responsible, provocative and surprising, ambitious but still possible to produce, that seem like they just might strike a balance between meeting the insane box office pressures of earning 70 percent of our income on a $37 million operating budget and helping to push our art-form forward aesthetically and politically.

Somehow, miraculously, we have a season.

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Thoughts from the curator

As a field, we talk frequently about the results of season planning, but we rarely are given the opportunity to examine the myriad decisions season programmers need to make. Transparency about this demanding and sometimes exasperating process could be helpful to the relationship between artists and theater organizations as well as a fascinating read for all of us who enjoy performance.

Season Planning

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I sit here in the rocky mountains of Banff while reading this insightful wisdom. A big thank you to Fran Kumin for pushing this series through. Bill, it is wonderful to read about all the angles and headaches you go through as you approach your season. I read once that you have a big "Yes!" poster behind your desk - it's great to see this mantra influence your work. It sounds like OSF tries hard to create positive change through organizational structure, casting, and the fabulous stories of Shakespeare and your complementary programming.

It's great to hear theatre companies who are willing to jump off the artistic cliff to show everybody else how far the fall is in regards to the social impact from the plays your produce and the civic conversations they provoke. It's a balancing act as you say. I myself am putting the wheels-in-motion to create a theatre company here in Canada, that will do its best to create these conversations :)

Garrett,
Thanks for the kind words about my efforts. It was gratifying to work on this series with artistic directors who wrote with passion and frankness about the demanding process of season selection. I hope that you will check out the other posts.

Dear Bill, Thanks so much for this fascinating glimpse into the season planning and selection process at OSF. As a theatre person and data geek, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the considerations of the participants, which then led me to do an analysis of the information dimensions inherent in the type of materials you are using to complete the exercise and the various stages of filtering through selection criteria. I was inspired to write a summary of the business questions that would inform a knowledge organization system architecture specifically designed for the OSF Boarshead process. If you are interested, you can read the article here on my blog, Knowledge Management for Theatre Professionals: http://bit.ly/1YcgpPQ

Thanks again for your vision and passion. Can't wait to see what miraculous season we'll get in 2017!

I am excited about where we are. I am more excited about where we are going. The path is long and we are on it!

I am an autistic actor trying to work out of San Francisco, I have never been represented. I am done. Name an actor or actress of color. Name a deaf actor, name a deaf actress, a woman writer, a woman writer of color, a a woman producer, a producer of color. Now try naming any of the above with a developmental disability.

This is why we are sad. What invisible barriers to entry have we created, false barriers of entry that make the above true? What false expectations of what a professional artist is.

With such a large percentage of developmentally challenged individuals pursuing theatre, because theatre is often used in our therapy, why is there not one developmentally disabled artist we can name with a career? We all end up bagging groceries. That's what I do for a living. Seeing artists like me on stage would change people's stigmas.

Where will the developmentally disabled artists of the future first encounter the possibility that the arts might be something to which they can aspire? I have not been represented anywhere or seen the possibility that anyone cares if those with developmental disabilities are included.

Regards,

Justin Kaiser

Thanks Mr. Rauch,

I emailed you. I had tried previously but didn't have this address. Instead tried artistic@osfashland.org. I will be at OSF with family to see the plays this weekend 19th and 20th and would love to chat with someone in person. I know you will likely be to busy. I don't want an audition. I just want to talk about these issues.

Please skim this article and then you will understand why Autistics (who have a very hard time with social interaction) are systematically ignored and excluded arguably more than any other group in the arts: https://medium.com/hackerpr...

You wouldn’t lump all people of color into one category saying, “we don’t need Asian actors, or Latina/o actors, we have black actors filling our people of color slot”.

This is what you are doing with the disabled community. One disabled actor per year at OSF out of 90 actors, they are always required to have a very theatrically visual, poetic disability that the audience will immediately be able to identify, categorize, and feel comfortable with upon sight. This is not how real disability works most of the time. This is not real diversity, it's curated to make the audience feel good and feel comfortable, like a children's picture book.

This is why we are sad. The mentally disabled community is always completely ignored and people feel very okay and comfortable with that.

We are fed up with Curious Incident refusing to consider autistic actors for replacement or tour casts (they didn't audition a single one to my knowledge) when the show is solely about the autistic mind. They didn't even have a conversation with the autistic community when the community tried to reach out and even protested: http://www.villagevoice.com....

But if Curious Incident looks at OSF's stage, a theatre who's mission is diversity, and says, well OSF gets to ignore actors with mental disabilities, then why would they ever consider casting an autistic? Until people see actors who openly have developmental disabilities on stages like OSF's playing all sorts of parts people will still believe it is impossible to have us represent ourselves.

Mr. Kaiser and Mr, Rauch,

Thank you for following up such a thought-provoking article with specifics. I believe that change is in the details! I have spent my career in the intersection of disability and theatre, and I agree Justin, that professional actors with disabilities (especially "invisible" ones) are still sorely under-represented today.

And while there are many leaders interested in truly changing their casting policies to be more inclusive, I believe they are unsure of how to do it on a practical, logistical level. In many ways, I think being an agent of change is about being unafraid to change one interpreter, one wheelchair ramp, one modified callback, one adjusted tech schedule at a time. It's about being willing to be wrong, to offend, and to try again. As a long-time attendee at OSF, I have seen this shift happen bit by bit, season by season, actor by actor. Also, I live and work in Louisville, KY, and I have seen similar changes recently at Actors Theatre of Louisville under the leadership of Les Waters. It is slow, but nonetheless it is moving forward. Onward!

Justin (if I can call you that), as part of my work in professional, inclusive theatre, I am part of the International Inclusive Arts Network, or IIAN. (http://inclusiveartsnetwork.... Would you consider submitting an article to for IIAN's blog? Bill (if I can call you that), I would love to have you (or another member of the OSF company who is interested in inclusion) consider contributing as well. talleri.a.mcrae(at)gmail(dot)com

Hi Justin,

I really love that you made this statement.I know of several playwrights, directors, and theatre leaders with disabilities and it is actually extremely rare to see actors with physical or developmental disabilities on the stage although I know of a few. Your statement has actually inspired me to try to create something where that is addressed (though I am just a lowly playwright). You've caught the attention of one of the greatest minds in American Theatre. I think that is a step forward and I urge you not to quit. We need voices like yours in this craft. I wish I was in San Francisco if you could prove you have the chops to be on stage I'd have you in a project of mine in a heart beat.

Keep fighting to do the art and if the powers that be refuse to put you on the stage then you need to fight to create the art you want to see. I believe in you and I'm sure there are others are out there that do as well.

Reginald Edmund

Thanks Reginald Edmund.

Please skim this article and then you will understand why Autistics (who have a very hard time with social interaction) are systematically ignored and excluded arguably more than any other group in the arts: https://medium.com/hackerpr...

You wouldn’t lump all people of color into one category saying, “we don’t need Asian actors, or Latina/o actors, we have black actors filling our people of color slot”.

This is what you are doing with the disabled community. 1 disabled actor per year at OSF out of 90 actors, they are always required to have a very theatrically visual, poetic disability that the audience will immediately be able to identify, categorize, and feel comfortable with upon sight. This is not how real disability works most of the time. This is not real diversity, it's curated to make the audience feel good and feel comfortable, like a children's picture book.

This is why we are sad. The mentally disabled community is always completely ignored and people feel very okay and comfortable with that.

We are fed up with Curious Incident refusing to consider autistic actors for replacement or tour casts (they didn't audition a single one to my knowledge) when the show is solely about the autistic mind. They didn't even have a conversation with the autistic community when the community tried to reach out and even protested: http://www.villagevoice.com....

But if Curious Incident looks at OSF's stage, a theatre who's mission is diversity, and says, well OSF gets to ignore actors with mental disabilities, then why would they ever consider casting an autistic? Until people see actors who openly have developmental disabilities on stages like OSF's playing all sorts of parts people will still believe it is impossible to have us represent ourselves.

Thrilled and fascinated to read this, Fran and Bill. OSF is one of our most poignant and powerful gardens in this country. You grow vital, expansive new work; nurture passionate artistry and collaboration; cultivate committed and curious communities and participants; all within a continually awake understanding of our transforming cultural and civic context. Great institutions of all missions provide shelter for the making of a better world, and OSF does just that. And from Garden To Field, the rest of us benefit hugely from what you plant and protect. At People's Light, this includes our New Play Frontiers Commission and Residency program, and our current production of All My Sons that reunites director Kamilah Forbes with various actors from our 2014 production of Fences. How we approach reciprocal exchange between artists, organization, and constituencies with these endeavors and beyond have been directly informed and influenced by what you are dreaming up in your creative insomnia 3000 miles away. It won't take any pressure off to know that as you wrestle with your plans and decisions out there, there is a vibrant fault line that stretches to Pennsylvania and throughout the country, but do know we greatly appreciate how you make the earth shake.

Zak, you and People's Light have often inspired me. At our best moments as a field, this is what I love about the American theatre....responding to, building on each other's efforts, learning from one another, challenging one another. I especially appreciate your garden metaphor.

Thank you, Fran Kumin, for taking the bull by the horns here and curating this whole series on Season Planning. I look forward to the rest of the offerings.

And to you, Bill, for opening it up with this window into your planning process and your own thought process as you move through it. You bring focus to something that I didn't spend much time on in an earlier post about the ArtsEmerson planning process-- institutional context. While the OSF mission is always on full display in your seasons (https://www.osfashland.org/..., the fact that you are able- year after year- to "reveal our collective humanity" within the given circumstances of your budget size, your location, your institutional structure, and your duration makes the season both distinctive in this country and inspiring to the field.

I am struck by the huge risks and investments you guys have taken to live fully in your values within your stated mission: the American Revolutions project is on a scale I continue to marvel at (both in terms of the scale of its vision and the costs of pursuing it); the commitment to multicultural settings of Shakespeare injects the collective humanity notion into the heart of the programming when it could easily be relegated to the margins; and you continue to aim for balance between the responsibility to living artists over arcs of time and the need to maintain fluidity in order to continue to unpack the "cultural richness of the United States". I am sure these are all hard-earned outcomes, accomplished less by miracle than by tenacity and authentic commitment to core values.

You could easily not do any of these big and costly things you are doing and still attract the audiences to the Festival that are needed to keep it afloat. But somewhere in your planning process, or your company-wide discussions of core values, there must be an active conversation about the responsibility that comes with opportunity. Something besides economics and personal taste and values are driving these decisions, and it seems that it is related to a sense of connection to the larger urgency in the American moment, a sense of the position of privilege a $37M budget/400,000 attendees creates, and a sense of responsibility for the unique opportunities that are available to an organization with a resident company of 90+ actors. The risks, the investments, the commitments you guys are making seem to emanate from a determination to do what's yours to do, that no other company without your resources could do, as it relates to the things that need to be done for the health of the field and to fulfill the role that art (and in particular, the nonprofit theater in this case) can play in shaping the narrative of a nation. It's a sense of commitment outside of yourselves and the sustainability of the institution, to the larger challenges of citizenship, that seems to be animating all of these seasons year after year.

"From those to whom much is given, much is expected". Expectations met. Every time. Thank you for your work.

Thank you, David, for your thoughtful words. As we start to build a 2017 season here at OSF, I am aware of all the ways we can and must be even more responsible. Your encouragement will help us through the days ahead. And thank you for your ongoing leadership, an inspiration to us all.