Theatres across the country have struggled with eroding audiences for nearly four decades and with declining subscriptions for at least two. Theatres have generally responded by improving marketing and fundraising functions. These efforts may have mitigated the threatening trends, but they have failed to reverse them. Non-profit theatre needs to think about these existential issues in new ways and develop new strategies to overcome them.
The immediate inspiration for Moonshot was an article about X, the Alphabet R&D company that develops highly speculative new technologies to address global problems. X is often referred to as the Moonshot Factory because of the high risk it assumes with its projects. Its creative teams develop many more ideas than it can take on, so X must make tough choices – forecasting the potential of uninvented new technologies to solve huge problems and generate revenue. X jettisons many and pursues a few without the benefit of much hard data to light the path. We sensed a parallel with repertoire selection and season planning in theatre. Those decisions also require forecasting -- of the artistic potential of plays under consideration and their appeal to audiences, supporters and critics. These theatrical moonshots are the foundation for everything that is produced on stage, and each is also high risk. X has developed strategies to improve the probability of success. We reasoned that theatres could benefit from developing strategies of their own.
A look into the ways theatres make these important decisions turned up fascinating field literature on season selection, but no rigorous research. Studies of decision making and forecasting in film and television were intriguing, but we concluded that they were dated and only marginally relevant to not-for-profit theatre because those domains are comparatively concentrated and driven by commercial success.
What we found more promising was new research on principles that demonstrably improve forecasting and decision making in complex domains outside the arts. Many theatres likely already observe some of those principles, but we wondered if more reflective engagement with the process and principles might improve theatre practice. Even incremental improvements could enhance theatres’ artistic trajectories and sustainability.
We wondered if our curiosity and optimism about this idea would be shared and have resonance in Chicago’s theatre community where we are based. Over several months in 2018 we spoke to nearly two dozen theatre artists and leaders. All acknowledged that repertoire selections were highly consequential, that this process requires large investments of time and attention and generates substantial anxiety. A few insisted that their selections were based on “gut” or “instinct” and resisted the idea that probing their processes might yield better results. The great majority, however, were deeply curious and genuinely interested in learning more. They found value in the initial conversation and the too rare opportunity to momentarily step away from the day to day pressures of running their theatre to reflect on their practice. Almost all suggested they use a kind of internal calculus that balances a highly complex array of artistic and organizational considerations. The outcomes of their decisions sometimes meet their hopes, but sometimes come up short with tough and even grave consequences. The possibility of a strategy to make better decisions interested and excited them.
This sparked our resolve to take a moonshot ourselves: plan a substantial and rigorous research project, find partners in the theatre community willing to actively participate with us, and raise the funds to get started.