Chicago is widely acknowledged as a premier theatre town. There are upwards of 250 non-profit companies producing here -- from large established companies and winners of regional Tony awards to itinerant storefront companies. There’s repertory theatre and ensembles, black theatre, Latinx theatre, women’s theatre, LGBTQ theatre, youth theatre, children’s theatre, community theatre. This is nothing new: In the 1930s there were scores of community theatres in Chicago parks, where Viola Spolin began using theatre games to train actors and make original productions. Her books are still widely used to train actors and develop ensembles worldwide. Her son, Paul Sills, and others founded professional companies and fashioned her games into improvisational cabaret that transformed American comedy and television. The idea that an ensemble is required to create theatre was hardly new, but it was Chicago non-profit theatres, steeped in Spolin’s approach, that revitalized the idea as an alternative to the dominance of commercial production. There is a wide world of theatre in Chicago.
We decided to aim to do case studies of eight companies -- a sample that would include significant diversity but still be manageable on a modest budget with a small research team. We also determined to focus on Chicago theatres make the process more efficient, save travel time and expense, and offer opportunities to make the research a community process that would not be possible with a national sample. Though there are surely regional differences among theatres, a small national sample would not be likely to be more diverse than a sample from Chicago only. Working with Chicago theatres has the distinct advantage of engaging a theatre community that can participate in a broader conversation and make the research more responsive. The principle criteria for selecting case study companies will be that company leadership is curious, eager to learn, hungry for new ideas, and willing to think critically and collaboratively.
We will gather data about company history, current context, and the organizational and artistic processes they have developed to do this work through intensive interviews and work sessions with leaders from each case study company. We will explore the thinking, assumptions and considerations that guide them; we’ll analyze particular forecasts, choices and season plans and their outcomes. We will explore how they assess the artistic and business soundness of their forecasts and decisions. At each step along the way, we will confirm and further inform our findings by surveying a wider spectrum of stakeholders from each company that include artistic, management, production and board perspectives.
We will also review emerging research on forecasting and complex decision making. Excellent books on that research have been published in the past few years, including Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most (Steven Johnson) and Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner). This research has not focused on the arts – a domain where big research grants are simply not available. But it identifies principles associated with better forecasting and decision making, suggests that those can be applied in many contexts, and that people and organizations can get better at these complex tasks. One of Moonshot’s last phases will be careful explorations of how theatres’ practices align with or diverge from those principles and collaborative consultation and consideration of how theatres might make use of them. This facet of Moonshot moves it beyond academic research and into a realm of action research in which practical applications are conceived and tested by practitioners, the theatres themselves.