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#5 - Revealing an Internal Calculus: The First Moonshot Roundtable

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

While Moonshot will focus on eight theatre case studies, one of our goals is to engage the broader theatre community in this topic. Here, we report on our first gathering of the broader Chicago theatre community. It won’t be the last.

As the polar vortex descended on Chicago at the end of January, an intrepid group of theatre leaders from a dozen companies gathered at Rivendell Theatre for a roundtable discussion about selecting plays and planning seasons. They came from storefronts, mid-sized and larger theatres, Equity and non-Equity, venue-based and itinerant, ensemble companies and not, owners and renters, and a range of missions. They included artistic directors and managers. They produce new, devised, classic, and contemporary plays. An intimate group, the roundtable nonetheless captured much of the diversity of Chicago theatre.

What followed was a lively and open discussion about this enormously complex and challenging annual process. Each decision requires what one participant called an “internal calculus” that weighs a confounding cloud of aesthetic, social, technical, financial, political, market, and personal considerations. In many companies, ensembles play significant roles. Literary managers and committees do in others. But artistic directors tend to bear the greatest burdens. As one said, “However the decision is made, the AD gets the blame.” It is often an isolated and lonely role, perhaps most of all in ensemble companies, where interpersonal complexities are heightened. The decisions are high risk, and artistic reputations and financial resources are at stake regardless of theatre size. The process provokes real anxiety. “There are a thousand reasons that plays sometimes go off the rails,” even those in which companies have great confidence.  

The calculus begins with the challenge of making aesthetic judgements about words on a page that only hint at what they might become on stage. “Plays are meant to come from people’s mouths, not be read.” “We need to see ‘the bones’ of a script beneath the words on the page.” “Different lenses are required to read new scripts at different stages in their development.”

The conversation often returned to the difficulty of resolving competing concerns, beginning with “the complex tension between the art of theatre making and the business of running a theatre.” The group named many considerations: artistic aspirations and challenges; opportunities for veteran ensemble members and a commitment to new talent; time and resources for development; equity, diversity, representation, and authenticity; the mission and artistic character of the company and the “fit” of the play; social relevance and keeping up with the fast pace of change; and reconciling new perspectives with existing audiences’ expectations. It returned also to practical concerns: cost, board support, space and other technical requirements. Will an audience respond? Is there a marketing hook?

Half of those at the roundtable were executive or managing directors. Most provide support to the process but do not participate in the decision making. At least one, though, warned that the “siloed” structure of most companies that divides artistic and business operations may be a weakness. “Data can be analyzed, and diligence can guide forecasts. We can’t think about earned revenue without thinking about art.”

Season planning involves the same complex of considerations, with the added components of balance and range. A larger cast can be balanced with a less expensive small-cast play. A challenging new work can be balanced with an established play or well-known writer. A season can present a greater range of voices, representation, stories, opportunities and experiences for artists and audiences than a single production. But more than one participant expressed concern about “mission drift” in season planning.

Many spoke of the difficulty of lining up a season in which they are confident and excited by every play. Several reported they are often stymied up to the last minute. Compounding the challenges, competition to secure the rights to scripted works is fierce. Smaller companies are often frustrated when agents hold back rights as larger companies make their decisions. Sometimes larger companies acquire and hold rights for years without producing the work. And there is always a larger company.

While there are many common themes, the internal calculus varies by theatre, and the routes each takes to arrive at their decisions differ. The roundtable made it clear that many theatre leaders have keen interest in broadening their understanding of this process, considering how it might be improved, and in more peer sharing opportunities. Articulating the calculus, mapping the routes at selected theatres, and opening up opportunities to engage the broader field are Moonshot’s first major objectives.

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