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.

a poster for a theater season
ArtsEmerson season graphic. Photo courtesy of ArtsEmerson.

The Baseline
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.

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KEY:
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.

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Thank you, Mr. Dower. This is a very helpful tool for all artistic leaders, as well as artists seeking to engage these leaders in matters of diversity.

Thanks for posting this, David! It's actually informative too. I applaud you for doing this, and also for both articulating and DOING what you value.

Now, a simple question. Why don't you commit to gender parity? From what I can see of your graph, you have TWO female-authored works, SIX male-authored works and FIVE by M/F co-authors. That comes out as 7:11 (including co-authorship) and 2:6 (sole authorship): a bit better than business-as-usual, but not much. Gender diversity is great but I believe that until enough theatres commit--as core, baseline value--to gender parity, every year, every season, we will not see justice in this area. Let me show how this plays through my eyes:

Today I opened American Theatre magazine and saw that for the first time, EVERY production listed in DC this September is penned by a woman. I must admit that I cried. Then I scanned out, with new eyes, and realized that every single time I look at the listings for the whole country (as reflected in AT anyway), I am constantly, always being told that my work is overall valued at one-fifth that of any of my male playwriting colleagues. That male playwrights, as a matter of course, are produced at a 4:1 ratio to my ilk. Can you imagine what this is like? I hadn't really, until I looked at the DC listings (yes, a Festival; not ongoing reality) and felt, for the first time, what it would be like if I saw women's names in mainstage listings all the time.

Can you imagine this being YOUR artistic career--knowing that every time you send work out, it has a 1:4 disadvantage that has no relationship to its quality at all? Before it's even read (if it's read)?

There are enough brilliant women writing, generating, leading, creating work, that NOT making a solid, real, 50/50 commitment--every year, every season-- seems like an active vote for male writing superiority. Which I do not believe reflects any reality but prejudice.

I write this with real appreciation for what you are doing at ArtsEmerson, and your long-term and serious commitment to transparency and change---along with my challenge to ArtsEmerson to commit to 50/50 now.

Thanks for engaging the conversation, Christine. This is a helpful dimension to the discussion.

I can certainly appreciate what this looks like through your eyes. And, since it's currently the only organization/season that's exposed in this particular way, why you'd be looking for more good news for women playwrights in it.

Part of what I wanted to get people thinking about is how important it is for curators to know what you don't do, so you can know what you do. In our case, the given baseline assumptions lead us more toward presenting than producing, more toward collective creation works than single author plays. And you see that expressed in the balance of this season. Single author plays are the mainstay of the Boston theater community and we have little to add there. As you'll see the single-author projects are primarily significant international productions of classics (Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Beckett in particular) or solo performances. I'm making no argument here that women playwrights are well served in Boston, or that there is a local commitment here to #genderparity anything like the festival in DC. But what ArtsEmerson is focused on is being additive to the cultural landscape, and there are many producers in town who focus on plays. This to say that we don't actually currently value the single-author project differently from the collectively created project as we are planning our season. If we count only the playwright in this column, then you'd move LTC's Premeditation into the count of plays by women, since it's written by Evelina Fernandez. Still not parity. Still only slightly better on opportunities for women playwrights at ArtsEmerson than business as usual, as you say.

My primary point is that we should say what we do and do what we say. I hear you asking that we step up and add #genderparity to the baseline, particularly in terms of the single-author projects in our season. I understand the gross imbalance in the field for women writers and the inherent messages of intrinsic value of women's voices this imbalance perpetuates.

Thanks David! And this is why you are such a classy and vital voice and presence. I appreciate the real dialogue here and also the point about being additive and focusing on ensemble work. I look forward very much to seeing how gender parity develops in that landscape and hope we will see more of teams like Stein/Holum, Dah Teatar and the like. Great post and example of openness in sharing how decisions are made.

Hey David! Thanks for sharing this with us. It's much needed and oddly enough, is a topic we don't discuss much in the presenting field. As you know, after 30 years as a presenter, I have started an Arts Leadership program here at USC, working with both early career and mid career professionals as well as graduate students on ways of working join the contemporary world. It was something of a surprise for me then to learn that curating a season (or even a single program of, for example, selected musical works) is a process that mystifies most of my students. Absent the type of coherent approach you put forward here, artistic decisions come down to logistics, a vaguely defined sense of balance, and "what I like" or "what I want to play or produce." I spend a lot of time with them thinking not just about what they are presenting or producing but why. And for whom. Once we start asking those questions, and really digging deep for the answers, the considerations for programming decisions become much more complex, more thoughtful and more relevant to the organization and its community.

One thing we also spend a great deal of time on, and I know you do/have as well, is what's behind these various categories. Why are these the ones you selected? What are you trying to accomplish with the work of your organization that therefore mandates that these are the categories against which you are assessing each of the selected works. In this way, I get them to think deeply about why their organization even exists, or might deserve to exist in today's world. Just "doing good shows that the Artistic Director likes or thinks are important" just doesn't cut it. It's also a way for those essentially white organizations who claim to be interested in diversity to actually walk their talk.

One last thing - I'm SO impressed at the way you and Polly and the staff at Arts Emerson collaborate around the sharing of programming information internally - what you are thinking about and what they think as well. I have no doubt that contributes to a really robust, relevant, program and also honors all of our talk about collaboration.

Hi, Ken!

Glad this struck a chord with your work.

The "start with 'Why'" approach is one that we use throughout the organization, not just in the season planning process. We have worked very hard to articulate that as a whole staff and across all structures and processes in our work-- and we start every meeting about projects with a discussion of how this choice maps to our core values. One of our closest audience members is fond of saying that there are two questions that have to always be answered for every thing we tackle, and in this order: 1) Is it to be done? 2) Is it ours to do? You can only answer that second one if you've been really clear about your "why".

Re: the internal sharing
It has happened several times that a piece that was of some interest for the leadership was of wild interest for other members of the staff that wouldn't have had a chance to weigh in under a typical "closed circle" planning process. One of those turned out to be the sleeper hit of last season. Another is sitting at the top of this season. And one of the regular joys of my e-mail reading is when one or another member of the audience points us toward something they think I should know about and I'm able to say "it's already on our list!" This says, to me, that people are engaged not just with the shows but with the purpose and priorities of the organization and they are curating right along with us with an increasing degree of finesse. You may have noticed that it's also starting to happen on Twitter. People have taken to tweeting me their requests, and almost without exception they are pointing to something that has relevance for our programming.

Anyway, I could talk about this stuff all day. I'll get off the mic!

Thanks for your candor on this topic, David. I do hope other ADs share their process as well.

I'd be curious to see the same kind of breakdown explanation, from ArtsEmerson as well as other organizations, of budgetary decisions, as that's another way in which organizations express their priorities through action, and another which we don't often talk about publicly.

David, So great to read your very thoughtful response to this issue and to see your so beautifully articulated process. As you know, I sit in a bit of another realm, though it is, in its way also a response. Programming for Harlem Stage, an organization whose mission is to support the work of artists of color, and not being one myself, has given me a particular perspective on this larger dialogue we are trying to have, continually it seems, around diversity and the watered down attempts at addressing it, or dancing around it, by so many. Even in my world at Harlem Stage, we follow so much of what you laid out so well, though you have inspired me to codify it even more than we do. Having been at the forefront of the multicultural movement over 30 years ago, when it still meant something, it is in our DNA to address diversity and equity within what we do, and it touches us in programming in multiple ways. One important piece of our programming is that we give artists the freedom that is so often pushed against by institutions who expect artists of color to deliver in particular ways. This is a big one, and one pointed out to us by artists we have supported. We knew we did it; we just didn't know how much others did not. Another is that we represent women fully and have a conscious eye to the shifts in expression of sexual identity and gender identification. We also weigh the seasons with much the same criteria. Are we covering a broad enough spectrum within our stated mission? Are we engaging emerging artists enough, have we balanced that with brought in the masters? Are we considering the issues of the day and how they are addressed by our artists in ways that can ignite great dialogue and transformative thinking? But to your initial taking on of the quote from the Times. I received both brochures of the companies in question and thumbed through them with a growing sense of question that lead to a bit of dismay. What does it take to open up our stages and our hearts and minds to take the risk of broadening the scope of our programming? Not much really, but it seems a formidable task for many. I cannot tell you the number of times a programmer or artistic director has sought me out to help them address what they suddenly see as a need or desire to diversify. They don't know where to turn and often approach the subject cautiously, when all they really need to do is what they seem to do so well, but just broaden the reach of what they see and, most importantly, how they see it. I long for the day when an organization like ours does not need to exist. It is not here, or from what I can see, near, and yet I am questioned constantly from people - challenged really - about the need for Harlem Stage in a world that "doesn't really have those issues so much any more." Well, not so much. So, thank you for jumping into this. It is great to see. I felt compelled to respond.

Thank you for taking the time to share the thinking and values at Harlem Stage. I can't imagine a day when the Harlem Stage's of the sector are no longer needed. It seems to me you are one of those places that holds a space at the front edge of the form for artists who are pushing against it, and while the artists and the form may evolve as you go, the edge will keep moving and there will always be artists looking to push it. One of the things I've been thinking most about since posting this article is the point that we have to know what we do, and what we don't do, in order to actually serve-- the field, the community, the form. You guys seem to know what you do. And what you do will always be needed.

Thanks for this generous response David. I do agree that holding a space on the "front edge" is critical and I hope we always do that at Harlem Stage. But I do long for the day when artists of color are so fully integrated into the field that that particular focus is not a driver. I know that's a long way off, as witnessed by the discourse happening nationally now, so we will stay walking and pushing that edge. We are basically clueless about our legacy and responsibility of racism and though the dialogue is shifting, it is being resisted mightily and often, sadly, by those who feel they've done the work as individuals or institutions. I look forward to stepping into those dialogues that push us to become more awake and aware of what's really happening and what really is. Yes, we do it here. I want to take it to less familiar paths.

When casting directors say that most plays can be cast with diversity in mind, and the artistic director, and/or show's director, ignore that, then the responsibility rests on their shoulders. We should have learned from producer Joe Papp's diverse Shakespearean productions in the 1960s but after all these years, American theater is still "backward" when it comes to diversity. American not-for-profits are not just there to produce plays; they are supposed to have a purpose, a mission, a passion to produce work that the commercial theatre might not. That's why they are given tax-free status. Otherwise, they are producers like everyone else. I congratulate Arts Emerson. I tend to pass over most productions at Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout here in NYC unless the show is extraordinary (luckily we have so many good choices here in NY). Of course, a great show is a great show - no argument there. But diversity can make many shows much better, and those in charge need to step up to the plate. Finally.

Thanks for walking us through the process for ArtsEmerson -- I especially appreciated the Excel sheet. I think a lot of companies could look at this and also see an opportunity to re-examine their own "core assumptions" and see how they've been living up to those/how they serve their community.

Glad you found it helpful. I want to make sure it's clear though that this grid is something that reflects the very particular values and priorities here at ArtsEmerson. Another company would measure their own particular set of variables that get them to where they are going. You couldn't just plop this grid down on another theater's process.

This kind transparency in planning a season is very exciting to read and learn from.

Could you speak more on what X factor means to Emerson arts?

That column, in our organization, is a place to record things of significant weight in considering this piece that don't otherwise fall into one of the other categories. For instance, we have a 1200 seat theater and from time to time we need to stretch ourselves to fill that. If you put The Trip To Bountiful on this grid, for instance, you would see that it spoke from an African American perspective, it helped advance the One Boston conversation, it was a straight play (an anomaly in our seasons) AND that it had an X factor of a cast that could fill that theater. If you look at Historia de Amor, that column shows that it's helpful in our community to have some projects that crossover into an appeal for the film community-- Emerson College's largest program is its Visual and Media Arts program and a piece like this will resonate with the curriculum in ways that we value. Though students, staff, and faculty at Emerson attend ArtsEmerson shows for free, the integration of ArtsEmerson with the campus is a priority for us, and thus an X in that box. The Three Sisters shows up with an X factor because the Russian community here is large and avid supporters of Russian work. This production features one of Russia's leading directors and companies and it will have a strong impact on the Russian emigres in our region. A Three Sisters from the UK or the US would have less of an impact for them.

Thanks, David Dower, for walking us though Arts Emerson's thoughtful season planning template. Your detailed transparency is helpful and will hopefully encourage other theatre companies to widen their focus through more deliberate processes in season planning. An enthused shout out: I am a reader for a few Bay Area Theatre companies, currently Aurora Theatre Co. and Shotgun Players. I have witnessed commendable care, organization and inclusiveness as their seasons come together.