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Striving for a Season of Premieres at The Children’s Theatre Company

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.

The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis is one of the best theatres for young and family audiences in the world. I asked Peter Brosius, the longtime artistic director of this ambitious company, to write about the special concerns of programming for such an important audience. – Fran Kumin

There is no great canon of work to choose from when you are a producing theatre creating a season of plays for multi-generational audiences. It is part of the challenge of this field that one needs to be continually creating work that both reimagines classics and explores contemporary reality in order to create a season. This is why we invest so much time, energy, passion, thought, and—yes—money in new play development. We create all kinds of work: reimagined classics, intimate new work, music theatre, tough contemporary work, works that involve heightened language, and works that are told through movement. We also are conscious that we have the responsibility to reflect the world young people live in with its rapidly changing demographics. We know that while the US population will become minority majority in the year 2042, at the Children's Theatre Company we know that our audience of young people under twelve will have a minority majority in just two years. Are we serving this rapidly transforming demographic? In addition, are we preparing all the young people we serve to be global citizens?

We want to continually push what defines the theatre—how it works, what the rules are.

For our 50th Anniversary season we wanted to produce all new work. Insane, yes, improbable, yes, difficult, yes, sleepless nights, yes. All of it. We wanted to make a bold statement that this theatre, like young people, embraces risk, collaboration, and new ways to tell stories. Elissa Adams, our Director of New Play Development, and I got to work contacting writers and producers, creating new partnerships, beginning discussions, working to secure rights, finish workshops, get final drafts in on time so that we could do this season of all premieres. We were also going to relaunch teen programming with the amazing Taylor Mac creating his first piece for us, an epic love story set in a giant mud pit, but then he got a gig at Lincoln Center so we had to postpone his production for a year.

When we plan a season, we like to start with the projects we have developed ourselves. At any given moment we have about twelve to fifteen projects in development. This is a huge part of our lives. We are constantly in readings, workshops, and conversations with playwrights. When we commission a writer we ask them to come to Minneapolis, see the work at CTC, see our audience, and to spend a couple of days with us. We want to commission something that they are truly passionate about and something we are eager to have on our stages. A commission for us is not an audition—we already know and love the playwright’s work. A commission for us is an agreement that we will do everything we can—provide every opportunity, give time, collaborators, and suggestions—until there is a script that we all feel is ready. There is no festival or series of readings; each project proceeds on its own path at its own pace.

We also want to produce work from a wide variety of aesthetics. We want each piece to be as radically different from the next as possible. We want to continually push what defines the theatre—how it works, what the rules are. It is also critical for us to seek out those artists and those projects that come from and create work about the four pillar areas of focus in our ACT One program, supporting artists and welcoming audiences from communities of color, the LGBTQ communities, the disability communities, and those facing income challenges. After looking at the pieces we have developed, we begin to look at extraordinary projects from theatres and festivals around the globe.

an actress on stage
Sonja Parks in Seedfolks. Photo by Dan Norman.

Next season, we are adapting a popular film set in a contemporary urban landscape (Akeelah and the Bee, adapted by Cheryl West from the screenplay by Doug Atchison, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright), followed by a five person actor-centric reimagined classic (Kipling’s Jungle Book adapted and directed by Greg Banks), an extravagant musical (The Wizard of Oz), virtuosic storyteller David Gonzales’s Frog Bride, an internationally acclaimed shadow puppet artist Fabrizio Montecchi bringing one of our greatest children's authors stories to life (The Snowy Day and other stories by Ezra Jack Keats, adapted by Jerome Hairston), post-modern dancer/choreographer Ann Carlson creating improvisational duets with live animals (Animal Dance), and finally a new musical based on Jeff Kinney’s acclaimed series of books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, directed by Rachel Rockwell).

Five premieres, seven productions. We got very close to our goal.

In creating our season, we have many concerns that we need to attend to. We have an Equity acting company that we want to make sure is served by the season and is able to bring their unique gifts to the work. We have a national actor apprentice program where we bring in extraordinary early career performers for a season and work to provide growth experiences for them on our stages. We have an audience that spans a huge age range from early learners, two to five years, to our young audience of five- to eight-year-olds, to our eight- to twelve-year-olds, to teens. We actively program for each of these groups, while at the same time understanding that these are artificial divides and that each child is different. We also know that a significant percentage of our audience is adults who come without any children at all. We have over 15,000 subscribers that we must insure have their seats and their season ticket packages, which of course affects our calendar, We have two separate spaces that we want to program: one a 746 seat proscenium theatre and the other a 299 seat totally reconfigurable theatre. We are a union house, with union contracts for stagehands, actors, musicians, and shops. We work to make sure that the season and its schedule works for our scenic, props, electrics, and costume shops so that we are neither overburdening them nor creating problematic layoffs. 

Creating a season can take many versions over months and months. We build budget after budget until we have something that matches income and expense. This one took about ten versions as we budgeted and re-budgeted. The process is long and wild and involves so many of us. 

While we did not achieve our goal of seven world premieres, what our ambition did do was begin a remarkable number of projects, develop conversations and relationships with fabulous artists, and put work into development that will feed, fuel, and challenge us for seasons to come. We are deep at work on 2016-17 and 2017-18 now. Stay tuned.

Thoughts from the curator

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 theater organizations as well as a fascinating read for all of us who enjoy performance.

Season Planning

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Hi Peter, would love to see some of the work. But, Bremen - Minneapolis is just a bit too far ... Cheers from Germany, Rainer