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!
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.
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?
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?
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.