At the start of the pandemic, we worried about the sustainability of performing arts organizations and our Moonshot case study companies in particular. Whatever long-term effects the shutdown may have on the field, the case study companies (learn more about them here) have all demonstrated remarkable organizational resilience and are still standing. So is Moonshot. But like the theater companies, the project has also required adjustment and adaptation. We extended the project timeline by a year and slimmed down from the original plan for eight case studies. We are fortunate to be working with five fine Chicago theaters. The Covid shutdown has given theater companies time to think deeply about their identity, purpose, aspirations, and how to meet the challenges of these complex, uncertain times. Within this context, Moonshot has provided a welcome and focused opportunity to reflect on how they’ve selected their repertoire and how their processes might improve going forward. The studies of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and The New Coordinates (formerly The New Colony) are complete. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and Lifeline Theatre will wrap up over the next months.
From the beginning, Moonshot was committed to including at least one case study company led by and centered on artists of color and dedicated to serving a BIPOC community. We are pleased that UrbanTheater Company joined Moonshot in late 2019. Founded in 2005, UTC 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.
These five small to small midsize companies represent many of the dimensions of Chicago’s rich and complex theater community, which, in turn, is representative in many ways of the not-for-profit theater universe across the country.
Repertoire selection is a consistent source of anxiety in theater companies, even in the best of times. Selection decisions require forecasting the potential and the risks of play ideas and scripts and weighing them against the company’s capacities and aspirations. Theater leaders’ decisions are guided by experience, of course, but there are countless known, unknown and unknowable variables that affect artistic and business outcomes. Some are within their companies’ control; many are not. The current multi-crisis – the pandemic that shut down live performance worldwide; the racial reckoning precipitated by systemic racism in American policing and institutions (including American theater); the threats of oligarchy, wealth inequality and autocracy to democracy; the digital streaming explosion that has already reshaped the motion picture industry – have made repertoire decisions even more consequential than they were when we launched Moonshot more than two years ago. Despite sustained uncertainty about what’s ahead for theaters as they seek to safely reopen, these systemic crises demand systemic responses, including how to integrate new considerations into selection practices, what, how, where and when to produce, new artistic and organizational goals, and how success will be measured – all Moonshot-related questions.
The case studies have each proceeded in a series of stages.
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.
With two case studies complete and the others well along, we’re confident that attention to these processes will help theaters address the heightened challenges they face. Case study theaters are already reporting more intentional and consistent selection practices. They’ve also reported finding value in the principles and practices we have identified from the growing body of multidisciplinary research on forecasting and making complex decisions.
This early feedback suggests that the combination of reflection, analysis and learning from other domains, may, as we anticipated, have broad value for many theaters. More about that soon.