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Every Production Is a Moonshot: Research on Improving Repertoire Selection

Making theatre repertoire decisions is complex, high-risk, and difficult work. These decisions set the trajectory for all that follows, and the process of making them deserves far more attention. After decades of audience erosion, the future of theatre clearly depends on more people choosing to attend. But that will require far more than continuing to invest in improving marketing and fundraising functions. It will require holistic new strategies to produce work compelling enough to artists and audiences to overcome the significant underlying social, cultural, and economic changes that have driven the erosion. The high-stakes decision-making process at the very start of the production cycle is one place to develop these strategies.

Moonshot is a research project about theatre repertoire selection grounded in research on making complex decisions, characterized by high uncertainty, risk, multiple possible choices, and heightened emotional context. Its hypothesis is that improving the process of selecting repertoire will precipitate better outcomes. Former theatre professionals who now lead our own research and consulting practices, we set out to answer two fundamental questions:

  • How do theatres select the plays they will produce?
  • Does research on complex decision-making and forecasting offer guidance for improving the process?

To begin exploring these questions, we held a roundtable and spoke with theatre leaders, artistic directors, and managers representing over twenty-five Chicago theatre companies large and small; Equity and non-Equity; venue-based and itinerant; ensemble companies and not; owners and renters; predominantly Black, Indigenous, person of color (BIPOC) staffs and predominately white ones, with a range of missions. Their companies collectively produce new, devised, classic, and contemporary plays. To fully capture and understand the complexity of repertoire selection, we conducted five in-depth case studies over three years, working closely with teams of artistic directors and other key players from Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, the New Coordinates, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, Lifeline Theatre, and UrbanTheater Company. Moonshot was designed to support their work by bringing more focus, intention, and reflection to the process by which they choose plays for production.

As productions progress through the development pipeline, theatre leaders struggle to refill and expand the pipeline of plays ready for future programming consideration.

The project carefully documented each theatre’s current selection practices in an opening “deep dive” exercise and reviewed the outcomes of several of their past play selections. We discussed research-backed principles that support better complex decision-making processes, and we collaboratively identified specific recommendations to improve each theatre’s practice. While the case study sample size is small and weighted toward smaller theatres, the case studies confirmed our discussion with the diverse group of leaders in the roundtable. We are confident that Moonshot’s findings are characteristic of much of the nonprofit theatre universe and that the insights and ideas Moonshot generated can help the broader field as well. Here we summarize our process, findings, and recommendations. For much fuller descriptions and links to accompanying resources and tools, we encourage you to read the full Moonshot Report, “Improving Repertoire Selection Practice: A Strategic Approach to Theater’s Biggest Challenge.”

The Repertoire Selection Process

All theatres must develop a pipeline of potential plays, vet and cull that pipeline, make selections that fit their budgets, and secure production rights. Each theatre has its own internal calculus for choosing plays for production based on a unique set of considerations used to weigh scripts and ideas. We found that these considerations cluster into eight broad themes:

  • Does the play fit and resonate with the company mission and aesthetic?
  • Is the story told in a clear voice, and are its working mechanics strong?
  • Is the play within the company’s technical and artistic capacity?
  • Does it offer artistic development and growth opportunities?
  • Does it offer collaborative opportunities?
  • Does it advance inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and anti-racist goals?
  • Does the play have serious appeal to current and new audiences?
  • Is there a compelling reason to produce the play now?

As productions progress through the development pipeline, theatre leaders struggle to refill and expand the pipeline of plays ready for future programming consideration. As they assess plays’ potential and secure rights to those they hope to produce, the pressure of current operations squeezes time available for repertoire selection and limits assessment and learning from past selections. The high pressure and fraught process often provokes anxiety among artistic directors, while also frustrating those who are not directly involved. All companies have at times selected plays for production that fell short of expectations artistically and financially, often as a result of limited choices or initial selections falling through. All companies have also selected plays that failed to measure up to some of their own key considerations.

Three people sitting around a table in a room.

Jackie Banks-Mahlum, Tara Mallen, Lisa Dillman at a Moonshot “deep dive” with Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Logan Jones.

Principles and Better Practices

For several decades, multidisciplinary researchers—from neuroscientists to economists—have explored the ways individuals and organizations can improve the process of making complex decisions. We distilled four fundamental principles from the growing body of research. We then collaborated with each case study company to develop suggestions for improving their repertoire decision-making and, we hope, their outcomes over time. More recommendations and links to related tools may be found in the full report, but here are brief introductions to the principles and practical applications for repertoire selection:

  • Be intentional. Design and document a cohesive and adaptive decision-making process. Typically, companies fail to approach the many complex tasks involved in repertoire selection holistically or to methodically organize those tasks into a unified process. Theatre leaders have substantial experience and expertise in creative process design that can be applied to repertoire selection. While some upfront investment of time and focus is required, process design can be approached simply, at a high level, and incrementally. The returns on a more intentional process—greater clarity, less confusion, and more year-to-year continuity—will more than make up for the investment. In Moonshot, the first step toward implementing a more intentional repertoire selection process was a “deep dive” exercise with key players to unpack and document current practices and their context. This exercise alone surfaced many insights for process improvement.
  • Use values and aspirations to guide decisions. Make them explicit and conscious. Seriously reflect on and document the company’s core values and aspirations. For the Moonshot case studies, this was done as part of the initial deep dive. We identified and documented the most meaningful elements of each company’s mission, vision, values, and aesthetic to use as a strategic filter to vet plays. We articulated and documented the company’s most meaningful success indicators to use as standards for forecasting the likelihood that each play under consideration would succeed and, later, to evaluate outcomes.
  • Include all perspectives needed to inform the decision, with attention to those that may have been missing in the past. Groups with diverse perspectives generally make better decisions than individual experts or homogenous groups. While theatre leaders typically seek input from others in play selection, it would be an exaggeration to suggest those others (1) are engaged systematically, (2) have well-defined roles, or (3) represent the full range of perspectives needed to thoroughly inform selection decisions. Promote better decision-making by determining what perspectives are missing, developing norms that support their meaningful inclusion and participation, and inviting constructive criticism and disagreement. More meaningful stakeholder engagement will mitigate bias and groupthink, and applying an equity lens will support genuine inclusion and anti-racism.
  • Make forecasting and assessment practices rigorous and routine. Critical forecasts, especially those that concern artistic outcomes, are rarely made formally or systematically. Theatres do make revenue and attendance forecasts, but those would benefit from greater attention and specificity. Regularly assessing outcomes and the decision-making process itself reveals valuable lessons for future decision-making and increases decision-making skills. Use qualitative and quantitative success indicators and measures to forecast artistic and revenue outcomes of each production under serious consideration, then compare actual outcomes to forecasted outcomes. Qualitative considerations can be quantified using a simple ratings scale. Integrate a “prospective hindsight” exercise into the selection process by imagining the reasons for a play’s outstanding success or its unexpected failure.

Theatre leaders have substantial experience and expertise in creative process design that can be applied to repertoire selection.

COVID-19 Impact

When the COVID-19 pandemic and global shutdown crashed the world of theatre, Moonshot had to adapt. The theatres that had started work on their case studies all wanted to continue, but we reduced our scope from eight case studies to five. To be sensitive to the quickly changing conditions and myriad new demands theatre leaders were encountering, we extended our timeline, adjusted the pace, and dropped plans for periodic roundtable gatherings with other companies. The extended pause in production made it impossible to evaluate real-time outcomes of selected and produced plays against the processes of their selection during the case study period. It also opened up more time for reflection on past decision-making processes and their outcomes.

Given the relentless pressures of production planning and day-to-day operations, carving out time for Moonshot would have been challenging for case study theatres under the best of circumstances, let alone in pandemic times. But Moonshot was not an academic research exercise for the case study companies. They wanted relief from the uncertainty and anxiety of repertoire selection and recognized the need and opportunity to improve the ways they select plays. So they worked with us throughout the shutdown to reconsider artistic and institutional assumptions and fundamentals. Moonshot dovetailed with their larger efforts to recenter their organizational identities and plan re-emergence strategies.

Two people sitting at a table watching someone gesture at the board on the wall.

Fin Coe, Stephanie Shum, Kristin Patton, Nick Rabkin, and Michael Peters at a Moonshot “deep dive” with the New Coordinates. Photo by Logan Jones.

Conclusions

As the case studies were completed, we asked the companies to assess their experience of Moonshot. All five found the overall process, documentation, and summary report of observations and recommendations highly valuable, and they felt that the deep dive exercise was particularly meaningful. Tara Mallen, artistic director of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, told us, “The process of looking back at our full history and discussing the successes and failures openly was absolutely invaluable.” Newer leaders gained richer understanding of the history that had shaped the company culture they’d inherited. Leadership teams learned each other’s internal calculus and arrived at shared language. Managing directors understood artistic leaders’ approaches and considerations more deeply and saw opportunities for their new strategic filters to inform fundraising, marketing, and community engagement efforts as well.

The case study companies identified recommendations they planned to implement, but the pandemic’s disruption of the play selection and production cycle prohibited assessment of implementation and outcomes. As a result, we believe that Moonshot’s hypothesis–that nonprofit theatres can improve their repertoire selection processes and practices and that this will result in improved outcomes–was supported but not confirmed by the project. Confirmation will require evaluation over several years to determine if companies make and sustain improvements to their practices and if successful production outcomes increase.

Even with these limits, Moonshot provided a rare chance for the case study companies to confirm and realign around what is central to their work as theatremakers. The process strengthened their sense of identity, gave them a firmer grip on the increasingly challenging context in which they produce, created tools for play selection grounded in their values, clarified their aspirations, and suggested ways to assess and measure the results of their decisions. Miranda González, producing artistic director of UrbanTheater Company, wrote,

“Being a historically underfunded organization and gaining access to a grant that supported us moving through this process was satisfying. We were finally allowed to take the time to deepen and clearly communicate our purpose and aesthetic. Creating language together, as an organization, with outside facilitation gave us a perspective that was invaluable.”

Theatre artists and leaders are creative, persistent, and adaptive. Those are the qualities that will bring theatre into a new epoch.

Moonshot introduced practical alternatives to what is often a chaotic process. Case study companies emerged with navigational tools and a map of their practices that can be updated as they learn and evolve. While Moonshot’s focus was on improving repertoire decision-making, the benefits of doing the foundational work go well beyond repertoire decisions. The case study companies’ work in Moonshot helped inform their strategic planning and leadership as well.

Since the case studies concluded, the companies have told us that Moonshot’s recommendations and the tools we developed together have become springboards for operational improvement. Lisa Dillman, Rivendell’s literary director, recently shared,

“We had a great ensemble retreat and are making terrific headway with our season planning while keeping all the great ideas mined from the Moonshot process in the forefront.”

Megan Carney, artistic director of About Face Theatre, who had participated in our pre-pandemic roundtable and reviewed a draft of the full Moonshot report, wrote,

“I had a powerful experience of being professionally seen and validated. The report reveals extended thoughtful labor that is often invisible. I would like board members, funders, freelance artists, and any and all stakeholders to read this, not to prove anything but to reveal, to create more transparency. You captured the nuances of holding and attending to so much data and changing circumstances in the midst of constant decision-making.”

While the challenges to theatres have multiplied, we conclude with an affirmation: theatre artists and leaders are creative, persistent, and adaptive. Those are the qualities that will bring theatre into a new epoch.

Moonshot has made a small contribution to five Chicago companies’ efforts. We hope the Moonshot approach will be helpful to many others as well. The full Moonshot Report offers an in-depth walk through the repertoire selection process, additional analysis, more detailed practical recommendations, and links to tools and other resources that can help others bring more order and intention to one of the most complex and daunting tasks theatre leaders perform. The invitation is open. As you engage with these ideas and recommendations, we would love to hear from you. We all have much to learn.

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We owe a great deal to the many Chicago theater leaders and stakeholders who helped us think about repertoire selection as a foundational element of their work, and we are particularly grateful to the leaders of the five case study companies: Tara Mallen, Lisa Dillman, and Jackie Banks-Mahlum from Rivendell Theatre Ensemble; Stephanie Shum, Fin Coe, and Michael Peters from The New Coordinates; Ilesa Duncan, Dorothy Milne, and Elise Kauzlaric from Lifeline Theatre; Nick Sandys, Margaret McCloskey, and Ian Frank from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company; and Miranda González, Ivan Vega, and Tony Bruno from UrbanTheater Company. Moonshot was made possible by support to the case study companies from the Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development, City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Driehaus Foundation, the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust and the Elizabeth Cheney Foundation. Logan Jones of Ensemble Consulting was an invaluable thought partner in addition to providing for all Moonshot’s technical, digital, and design needs.

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