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Moonshot is a unique and innovative research and consulting project exploring how nonprofit theater companies make the highly speculative forecasts and decisions that determine the plays and seasons they produce. These risky, foundational repertoire decisions live at the intersection of the art and the business of theater. They have deeply consequential implications for both artistic trajectory and organizational sustainability, and they must be made with little or no conventional “data'' about their potential as art for audiences. The highly complex repertoire selection process has not been the subject of research. It is not on the curriculum in theatre schools. Moonshot’s hypothesis is that improving the practices of making those decisions will lead to better outcomes down the line.

 

Five case studies of Chicago theaters are the heart of Moonshot. Commenced in late 2018, these are expected to be complete by the end of 2021.

 

Listed in the order in which they joined Moonshot:

 

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble was founded in 1998. It is dedicated to advancing opportunities for women artists and advancing the lives of women through new theater. Its home is an Edgewater storefront black box and adjacent office/rehearsal space, where it has produced a three play season since it moved in 2012.

 

The New Coordinates (formerly known as The New Colony) was founded in 2008 and is devoted entirely to new work developed through its own “TNC Process”. In recent years it has been in residence at The Den in Wicker Park. In the year before the pandemic, the company produced two new plays and an “Uncharted Festival.”

 

Lifeline Theatre, an ensemble founded in 1983, adapts books and other literary works to create “stories that move us beyond the margins of our own lives.” It operates from an adapted electrical power station in Rogers Park where it produces a three play mainstage season, a three play children’s theater series, concert readings and a “Fillet of Solo” festival.

 

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, formed in 1996, is an ensemble-driven company committed to producing “the great plays of the past and the important plays of today.” It maintains offices and rehearsal space in Ravenswood and performs at Theater Wit, where it has produced a three play season. As part of a planned transition, Remy Bumppo recently welcomed new Artistic Director Marti Lyons.

 

UrbanTheater Company, founded in 2005, is deeply rooted in Chicago’s Latine community and the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Its storefront rehearsal/performance/community space is a well known gathering site on El Paseo Boricua. The company's goal is to sustain, preserve, and enrich the Puerto Rican and Humboldt Park experience by archiving stories and producing work that captures the community’s essence on stage. It is inclined toward devised and commissioned work and often tours its productions to other Latine communities. Its season has consisted of a large work, a solo work, and a touring production.

 

Careful review of multi-disciplinary research about complex decision making and forecasting complements the case studies. Though none of this research has been focused on the arts, it has identified principles and practices associated with better decision making in other domains. The research team is working with the case study theaters to determine how those principles relate or might be adapted to their decision making processes and how to maximize their value in each theater’s context. 

 

In January, 2021, in the depths of the pandemic, the New York Times published a piece arguing that artists desperately need relief, but that the catharsis their art can provide is a necessary balm for all that is ailing us as a nation. It may seem a bit surreal to study repertoire decisions at a time like this, but Moonshot’s objective is to contribute to theaters increasing their ability to reach that catharsis.

 

Moonshot’s case studies have been generously supported by the Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development, The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, the Elizabeth Cheney Foundation and the Driehaus Foundation.

 

Each case study proceeds through a series of five steps, concluding with a consultation on how the company might improve its repertoire decision making process. 

 

  • A “deep dive” documents and maps the company’s repertoire selection process. It includes working sessions and interviews with key company artistic decision makers and administrators and a survey of other stakeholders to capture multiple perspectives. A report on this data is provided to the company for review and future reference.

  • A focused study – through additional interviews, workshops and a second survey – of selected productions from recent seasons, including some that met and others that did not meet company aspirations. How and why were these plays selected? What can be learned from a close review of their selections?

  • Review of the body of research literature about the principles of better forecasting and complex decision making.

  • Analysis of the alignment of each company’s selection process with its own mission, values and vision, and with the principles of better forecasting and decision making.

  • Consultations to jointly develop approaches to repertoire selection that can be better aligned, efficient, and (we hope) lead to better decision making and improved outcomes.

  • Documentation, final report, and company assessment of the case study process and value in participating.

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