How a Season Comes Together
When I first saw the uproar around the Manhattan Theatre Club season announcement, I thought I would just stay on the sidelines and watch it play out. Roundabout had announced a similarly homogenous season earlier and the pushback was fleeting. Other companies around the country had announced similar seasons. This has become something of an annual ritual of announcements followed by denouncements.
But then The New York Times quoted Artistic Director Lynne Meadow responding to the criticism by saying:
"I don’t deny the fact that this season is anomalous in terms of the percentages of diversity on our stages," she added. "It’s just how the season came together."
A season is the outcome of a process of many decisions, some small, some large, all ultimately made by the leaders of the institution. A season is a very public expression of the priorities of the institution and of the people accountable for those decisions.
This comment feels very misleading in how it portrays the role of the artistic team at the center of the season selection process. It deflects accountability. It denies agency. It paints the picture of an artistic director at the mercy of a confluence of forces that come together to dictate a season. Sometimes, it would be logical to infer, those outside forces just happen to come up all white, all male. “Oh well!” Like lottery numbers or bingo balls. Random. Nothing to be done. No way to avoid it. A season just comes together and, well, there you are.
No. A season is the outcome of a process of many decisions, some small, some large, all ultimately made by the leaders of the institution. A season is a very public expression of the priorities of the institution and of the people accountable for those decisions.
I also take issue with the notion that, in any particular year, a season is “anomalous” and therefore cannot be evaluated outside the context of an institution’s historical record. This season, each season, is going to play out within the context of the contemporary moment. No matter what we have done in prior seasons, the communication between tonight’s performance and today’s news is present each time the curtain rises, whether we brought that fact into our planning process with us this time around or not.
There are hundreds of priorities to balance in the process of planning a season. The decisions we make reveal the hierarchy of those priorities. It is the season, not the mission statement, that expresses what we believe in, what we fight for, what we privilege right now, in this moment. A season is an expression of our values, both personally (as leaders) and institutionally. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, this is the bottom line. A season does not “just come together.” It is built on the foundation of our actual values, and determined by the ordering of our priorities toward those values.
It struck me, when I read that Times quote, that perhaps people didn’t have enough perspective on that process to evaluate what was being offered as the explanation for this all male, all white announcement at this moment in our culture. So, I offer here, by way of example, the process of how the ArtsEmerson season comes together. I hope other season planners will share their own processes in the comment section. I hope we can start to have a conversation about the thousands of tiny decisions that add up to the result, and how we make those in our organizations.
Like most cultural institutions, at ArtsEmerson there is a baseline set of ideas that helps distinguish what we do from what we don’t do. Without some guiding principles, there is simply too much to tackle. Without guiding principles, you wind up defaulting to something, like “strong prior relationships,” for example, or “things we’ve heard of,” or “things The New York Times raved about,” or “things that our colleagues had a huge hit with,” or “things with money attached,” or “things I love.”
ArtsEmerson was founded on and operates from four core assumptions:
- We are international in scope. We put the world on stage.
- We are generative in spirit. We look for ways to support the emergence of something new.
- We are additive to the cultural landscape. We program in the artistic gaps in our city and work hard to cultivate an audience for the arts in Boston that has traditionally not actively participated at the major cultural institutions.
- We work in long arcs of relationships with artists. When we find an artist that connects deeply with our community and our values, we support them over time and through multiple projects.
Along with this list of baseline assumptions, we have made a firm commitment to being part of a citywide effort to foster civic transformation around race and class equity through shared experiences of art and public dialogue. This is an initiative we identify as One Boston.
From the very beginning of the process at ArtsEmerson, we analyze the projects that we intend to consider for the various contributions each makes to our baseline. It’s like a genome project—we record the component parts of each work and plot the results on our “diversity grid” (see the illustration). There are ten dimensions on which we analyze those projects when they are placed on the list to be considered. They don’t land there first because of their contribution to the baseline—the art leads. They land there because we are interested in the work itself. But once they enter this planning process, these baseline elements become part of the consideration as well.
This is the ground on which we stand to start the process of planning a season.
Step One: Investigation
Like most of my colleagues, I spend a good deal of time during the year scouting work, looking at videos, talking to artists and agents, reading blogs and print reviews, and generally just exploring the world of available work. In my case, as a presenter/producer focused primarily on ensemble work, I don’t tend to do as much reading of scripts as many of my counterparts. But the exploration is expansive. And, importantly, I am not alone in this work. Polly Carl does the same sort of exploring and brings a whole other set of projects into the room. Rob Orchard, ArtsEmerson’s founder, still scouts for us and contributes other projects to the list. Others on staff make suggestions, and many watch DVD’s or are asked to see work and report back on it. Our closest audience partners also recommend work that they are hearing about or have seen. By the end of this step there are likely anywhere between forty and fifty titles that we are serious about as a group, for the thirteen to fifteen opportunities in the season.
This list is kept readily available at all times to the whole staff via Basecamp. People can track what is on the list and what is coming off the list. They can look at the videos and write reports that get logged to Basecamp where everyone can read them. It is an open process in that way.
The investigation period also includes extensive listening in our community. What are the issues of importance to us as a city? What are the conversations taking place in the world that haven’t yet found voice in our city? We say we put the world on stage, so where have we not paid sufficient attention recently? What are the artistic gaps when looking at the programming at other institutions, as well as at our most recent seasons?
The list, at this point, is an expression of our interests—it reveals what’s on our minds and in our conversations. Priorities have been at play here already. It is emanating from our baseline, from our values.
Step Two: A Gathering, A Winnowing
As the calendar advances, certain projects need commitments in order to stay in the conversation with us. Their planning timelines mean they cannot keep open a space for us on the off chance that their project remains standing at the end of our whole process. If we feel ready to commit, we move to contract and scheduling conversations. If we don’t, we have to let them go. A decision point. A priority check. “Privilege this one?” “Let it ride longer and risk losing it?” “Let it go outright?” Some projects fall apart at this stage for other reasons. We can’t make the schedule work. The money won’t work. The theatres are the wrong dimensions. We can’t have live flame on the stage. Things like that. These, too, are decision points. These are our priorities being sorted out, our values being acted upon.
Step Three: Assessment. Where Are We?
At this point, there are a certain number of projects we’ve now privileged in the process and they are inked into our calendar and our budget. Those artists are building their plans based on these commitments. We begin a process of assessing where we stand with respect to our overall hopes and dreams for this season we are planning. By now we can see how much balance there is in the projects we’ve already committed to, which priorities are well met, and which aren’t. Is the work all Eurocentric so far? Is it heavily male? Is there a balance in terms of form? Is our generative spirit being expressed? We interrogate the list for what it tells us about where we are in relation to our values.
Step Four: Adjustment. What Do We Do About It?
Here is the point where the push against what’s easy, or what would “just come together,” gets fully engaged at ArtsEmerson.
Remember, we have a list of more titles than we can possibly do in one season. So now we turn to this list to fill out the remaining opportunities in such a way that it tells our full story.
If we find, for instance, that we’ve committed to a bunch of projects led by men, we have to look at the list of remaining projects (all of which we’re already excited about) for projects that help us express our value of gender diversity. If we find we’ve committed to known titles, we must look to our list to prioritize the new and emerging works or forms. If we find that there are timely projects that absolutely need to be programmed now in order to connect to the cultural moment in our city, those move up in priority. There are many, many permutations of this sort of calculus of the planning process. Drafts of seasons are drawn up and circulated. Members of the staff debate the balance reflected in these drafts using our values as the guide. We share aspects of it with community partners to test our own assumptions about the relevance and impact of the choices.
It has happened that we’ve had to go back on a commitment in order to make the space to fill a gap. In that case we attempt to move the commitment to the next season so we don't abandon the artist entirely. In one case we kept the time and money commitment but turned it to a workshop for a new work rather than a presentation of the piece we’d planned. This was not comfortable for the artist. It was not comfortable for us. But it was the only solution we could find for balancing the season in harmony with our values.
Step Five: Announce It.
That’s skipping a few steps, in truth. We have to budget it. We have to get far enough in our talks with the artists that we can all agree it is ready to be announced. We discuss the season with the whole staff. We discuss it with our community partners. We discuss it with the press. And at some point, we go public with it. Just to say, there are multiple points along the way where stakeholders can, and do, raise questions or point out blind spots. The list did not just come together, and it is not just announced.
Analyzing the 15/16 Season: The Diversity Grid
So, here’s a look at the specifics of the 2015/16 ArtsEmerson season and how it came together to express our values and tell our story.
Here is what the planning grid looked like when we were ready to announce. You see there are ten columns where we are evaluating each project against our values. We are aiming for balance across the whole spectrum of our priorities. We do not need every project to hit on every dimension. But you’ll see when you look at it that the colored boxes appear in every column multiple times and that, overall, there is a rough balance between the number of colored boxes and the number of colorless boxes. This is the outcome from the list of forty-five projects that we started with in step four of the process.
Country: What country did the work originate in?
Culture: What is the culture of origin in this work?
Generative: Is there a generative component to the project?
Form: What is the form this project takes?
Venue: Which space is it suited for?
One Boston: Does this project create opportunities to foster the race/class equity conversation?
Gender: What is the gender composition of the artistic leadership of the project?
Family: Is the piece suitable for a family audience?
Arc: Is there a relationship already building with this company at ArtsEmerson?
X Factor: Is there an intangible element here that is helpful in understanding its place in our season?
Every theatre has a process for season planning. This is just the one at ArtsEmerson. The engine of every one of these processes is a series of decisions along a timeline. Every decision is informed by our priorities. And in the end, the accumulation of these small negotiations with our personal and institutional priorities reveals the values underlying those decisions. We may not like what is revealed about ourselves or our institution. It may disappoint our audience, our colleagues, or our artists when they see our values on display. But we were not victims. We were not passive. We were not capricious. We were not surprised.