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Step One, Collaborate: Emerson Stage Plans a Season

When professional theatres select their season, it is often a process of balancing the needs and values of the institution with the needs and interests of the audience. Even if the theatre’s goal is to broaden the audience’s palette, global perspective, or deepen community knowledge, there remains at least an awareness of—if not an emphasis on—the audience as stakeholders in the production or, in other words, as ticket buyers. In selecting a theatre season at an academic institution or training program, that emphasis shifts specifically and significantly from the stakeholders in the production to the stakeholders in the process: the students.

Emerson Stage is the producing organization within the performing arts program at Emerson College, serving 550 students across 9 different BFA programs. We produce a nine-show season that includes two musicals and one theatre piece for young audiences (TYA) each academic year. We function as a laboratory and, therefore, our season can be seen to function as a series of experiments—experiments in learning how to work under a certain rehearsal model and learning how to collaborate while creating conditions to grow each student’s individual tastes, aesthetics, and preferences.

At Emerson Stage, students are not only our actors, designers, stage managers, and crew, they are also our production supervisors, company managers, assistant directors, and dramaturgs. Students who interact with Emerson Stage do so in a number of possible ways over the course of each year. With that level of involvement in all areas, when it comes to choosing the shows themselves, it seems problematic to hoist a season onto the student body. While there is a long history in academia of a few making the choices that will shape a big part of the active learning experiences for the many, doing so can be seen as a missed opportunity for everyone. And so, Emerson Stage chooses its season differently.

Since joining Emerson as the artistic director of Emerson Stage, my goal has been to find meaningful ways to increase and formalize student involvement in our season selection process. This includes exposing students to all the producorial challenges, necessary compromises, and long-term strategies that are always required when planning a season. Ideally, the entire performing arts community will start seeing the season as a testament of their values rather than a series of individual shows.

A Zoom screenshot of several actors.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Everybody, Emerson Stage. Produced this last year, as part of our live and online season. The photo is a screenshot. Directed By Annie G. Levy. Movement Director: Cass Tunick, Scenic Design By Valerie Stebbins, Costume Design By Siena Tone and Hannah Brown, Lighting Design By Scott Pinkney and Noah Silverman, and Sound Design By Julie Beaulieu. Props Lead: Ryan Bates. Stage Manager: Caitlin Hudecheck. Transmedia. Consultant: Derek Christiansen. Dramaturg: Elena Freck.

Photo features Zeiana Andrade, Emma Sarah Davis, Allison Earl, Sarah Magen, Jayse Matrishon, Sara Taylor, Amanda Vazquez, and Kandyce Whittingham.

Prior to joining the Emerson community, I had been a part of show selection (rather than season selection) at other academic and training institutions. As an adjunct at one institution, I was once rather casually and without warning asked what I wanted to direct that semester by the chair. I named a play that I liked by a playwright that I believed should be a part of aspiring professional theatremakers’ general knowledge and experience. I didn’t encounter any pushback, but there was no additional conversation or conferring with other key stakeholders regarding the appropriateness of my suggestion. These suggestions were how “the season” came together at that institution.

Later, as a tenure-track faculty member at a different institution, season selection meant the chair inviting everyone to contribute titles during a monthly faculty meeting, but only those of us required/contracted to direct ever did. There remained an unspoken rule that each director held the primary responsibility of negotiating buy-in either beforehand or, more challenging by far, in the room. Whatever larger considerations there were (or should have been) remained unspoken and invisible, so season selection was essentially throwing titles at a proverbial wall and seeing what stuck. Neither of these arrangements included student perspective; students weren’t even invited into the conversation.

What both of these previous processes had in common is that they led with the director naming a title. Intellectually, there is validity in having directors lead this decision-making process in selecting shows—after all, the director will be guiding all the students through the learning process of making the show. This often requires a director at an academic institution to assume the role of “uber-teacher”—one who not only leads within their craft or area of expertise, collaborating with the other key stakeholders in the process (all student designers, management, etc.) as a director does, but who also teaches those stakeholders how collaborating with directors even works.

At Emerson Stage, we are attempting to make the season selection process as open, transparent, and process-stakeholder-driven (i.e., student-driven) as possible. Our process is not led by director’s suggestion, so it is the responsibility of a season planning committee to remain aware of how the season can introduce and connect students with plays and playwrights that they should know about and experience. But while broadening the palette, global perspective, and deepening community knowledge (in all the different ways one could define community in an academic setting) are key factors, for us, season selection requires anticipating processes and predicting needs in some surprising ways.

Three actors sitting on stage under a red light.

L M Feldman's Amanuensis, or The Miltons, Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company. Directed by Annie G. Levy. Photo Features: Jessica Osber, Franny Silverman, Geoff Rice.

Photo by Annie G. Levy.

In order to do this, Emerson Stage has a process that we’ve used to select our past two seasons and that we are using to select our 2022-2023 season. This process begins with all community members of, and stakeholders in, the performing arts department at Emerson College being invited to anonymously submit titles that they would like considered for the upcoming season. The first challenge in increasing that shared interest and sense of responsibility in the season selection process is encouraging participation in the submission process from everyone. I know there are titles that students love, feel connected to, and are curious about, so it becomes a question of turning a casual, “You know, you should consider producing this title or that title,” into a more formal submission that gets the submitter (anonymously) sharing the reason for their personal level of enthusiasm. Not everything is going to be the right choice for Emerson Stage’s producorial and pedagogical needs, but the more fascinating temperature check comes from seeing what stakeholders submit.

Over the course of the summer, all submissions are vetted by one of five subcommittees, covering the different BFA programs: acting, theatre, design/tech and stage management, musical theatre, and theatre education. Each of these subcommittees is made up entirely of students and led by a faculty member. For our 2022-2023 season, over ninety titles were submitted for the subcommittees to vet. The challenge then becomes deciding how the members of each subcommittee begin to make calls on which titles should move forward as they make their way through this first pass of vetting.

Each subcommittee has some specific criteria since each of these choices will impact different program curricula in different ways. But each subcommittee needs to consider the underlying questions: Can Emerson Stage produce this show? Should Emerson Stage produce this show? Do we have the right and the ability to tell this story as intended by the playwright without causing unintentional or intentional harm? At the end of the summer, each subcommittee puts forth its top five titles from the submissions for further consideration by the full Season Selection Committee. The idea here is that every title that we really begin to consider has passed through the brains and hearts of our students.

Then, the Emerson Stage Committee takes these top five titles from each subcommittee and starts slowly and carefully piecing them together into our nine-show season. While originally the Emerson Stage Committee was made up of only faculty and staff, for the past three years it has been joined by a student representative from each of the five subcommittees and a sixth at-large student representative, making it more representative of the department.

The task of season selection is framed for all involved through our mission statement: The purpose of the Emerson Stage season is to safely produce a diverse range of necessary stories that give us the opportunity to experience different styles and voices that we can and should elevate. So, when examining these top five titles from the subcommittees, we need to consider what opportunities they offer, whose story is being told, and if Emerson Stage has the capabilities to tell it truthfully and fairly.

Of course, the desire to tell the stories featured in each title put forward isn’t the only piece of the equation. There are considerations that are highly visible to some areas and invisible to others. For example, in an effort to create as many opportunities as possible for our acting students, we might elect to program a season of shows that all offer cast sizes of twenty people or more. However, there is no way that our costume shop could accommodate large cast shows all season long, so even with enthusiasm for multiple large cast shows, there needs to be a balance. This balance often catches students by surprise as they begin to shift their perspective from individual needs to season needs.

In addition to costume shop considerations, what about our student designers across the disciplines? If we put on a season of all hyper-contemporary plays, do we deny our designers the opportunity to build period costumes or design a unit set? While titles that skew more towards nonrealistic uses of space or hyper-contemporary costume needs might initially garner a lot of enthusiasm, to overprogram them in a season would miss the mark for our pedagogical needs as a laboratory for our designers.

Several actors standing together in a practice space.

Photo of Annie G. Levy directing World Wide Lab's In Transit. 435 Art Zone, New Taipei City, Taiwan.

When it comes to attending to the needs of our actors, intentionality is required when considering opportunity. Currently, we don’t require our three hundred or more corps of acting students to audition for Emerson Stage, so we can’t be sure who will be in the running to play the roles. Only performing arts sophomore, junior, and senior students are allowed to audition for our mainstage shows, which allows us to look with clear eyes at the current makeup of our acting student body and anticipate the student body that will be eligible to audition for next season.

Clear-eyed examination means making sure that we can cast our proposed season without placing an undue burden on any group of students, remaining aware that we are avoiding placing our students in situations where casting needs in any way tokenize our BIPOC actors. We must find avenues so that all students have the opportunity to audition for roles in plays that have been written specifically for actors from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds. We must ensure that roles are open and castable using all the actors that choose to audition.

In practice, we are trying to increase shared interest and responsibility through a model of invitational participation. This is not a perfect system (and remains a work in progress) and there are many barriers that preclude students from participating. Students may not have time over the summer to volunteer to be a part of the subcommittees or students may have required classes that prevent them from being part of the full committee.

Some students just might not want to be a part of this process. They might object to it on principle: There is a delicate balance between the labor of season selection falling on the faculty and staff—who are being compensated for their time through their salaries and service requirements—and students who are participating and given the opportunity to formally and informally learn about the season selection process on a voluntary basis. However, without active student participation and involvement, season selection cannot hope to approach becoming the truly inclusive, representative path through the academic year for all performing arts students that we want it to be.

With all these different needs and considerations, it is important to consistently revisit our mission throughout the process. No one play can satisfy the needs, wants, and desires of everyone, and while students might champion their personal favorite, there is the opportunity to be transparent in piecing together the larger season. Trying to work transparently and warmly invite participation are two attempts at helping the performing arts community see what they work on as a season rather than a handful of titles. The hope is that students will engage with the entirety of the season, not only as participants in the process but also as an audience. Emerson Stage engages in this season selection process so that our students can sit in the audience and benefit from that broadening of their palette, global perspective, and deepening community knowledge that a good season can provide, while simultaneously knowing that they helped create the season and all its successes.

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Hi, great essay sharing with us a great process for growth! Echoing Tom's last question, i'm wondering of calendar timeline? Also, what about subcommittee work becoming paid internships? Can Emerson contribute to the movement for undergraduate work to be paid, and retiring expectations of internships or committee project work to only be available on an unpaid basis? That move can do a lot for enabling a broader base of students to participate. Wishing well, seeley quest

Thanks you so much for writing so articulately about your process. I've always had a fascination with the processes of selecting seasons and shows, and how the two are distinctly separate entities. My own college department is currently in process of reworking our season selection process, and are trying to "bake into" the process articulate considerations along the lines fo Equity/Diversity/Inclusion/Accessibility. So, it was fascinating to hear how your process has (and continues to) evolve. We too are seeking more student involvement, but are also wary of the workload that it potentially places on them to be fully integrated into what is a time-consuming process, and one for which they may not personally see the results (we have to work a year out because of administrative realities).

I'm curious a bit about calendar... how long into the fall does it take fo you to come to a final slate?

thanks again,

Tom