We often hear that the seasons at Theatre in the Round Players look like they were picked by a committee.
A season opening with M. Butterfly, followed by A Delicate Balance and On Golden Pond? Or Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis with Long Day's Journey Into Night and Harvey? A committee?
It's not for the lack of an artistic directorour seasons have looked like this all the way back to 1952, when TRP started under Frederick Hilgendorf. As AD, he chose all the titles, like the 1959 season with Noel Coward's Nude With A Violin, Tennessee William's Rose Tattoo, and Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planeta bit shy of an overarching artistic vision with unity of theme and clarity of focus. After Hilgy, forget itthere's been no AD. It's been all committees all the time.
During those years, the most frequently produced playwright was Shaw, followed by O'Neill and Anouilh. Theatre in the Round staged some of first major productions in the Cities with African-Americans (The Great White Hope), the first with a gay theme (Boys in the Band), the first works by Native Americans (Time of the Indian) and Vietnamese (Genghis Khan), the first local production by Athol Fugard (Sizwe Banzai Is Dead), original scripts, and hundreds of area premieres. In fact, TRP prided itself on not doing dreaded "Community Theater Fare," such as Neil Simon. And the theater held to an astonishing policy of never repeating a title, season after season, decade after decade.
Today, well, there's dozens more theater groups in the Twin Cities, turning out original works and premieres. Fewer audiences know the name George Bernard Shaw. We repeated our first title in 1983 and never looked back. And we even schedule that community theater icon Simon (although we recently had to scramble to replace Lost in Yonkers when the Guthrie announced it for the same season). It's 2009, and committees work with blogs.
But it still comes down to a room of people arguing.
Our current process is this: in fall, 810 people meet as the Season Planning Committee. They come as designers and actors, members of the audience and members of the Board of Directors, new faces and veterans of the process. They agree on titles to read for the next meeting, when most are usually discarded and more are chosen for the next meeting. After several months, the twenty-some surviving titles are sent to directors for their reactions. Then begins the jigsaw puzzle of balancing titles with directors and their schedules. By spring, Season Planning sends a season of titles, dates, and directors to the full Board of Directors. The Board factors in financial projections and either approves the slate or returns it to committee (by policy, it has no line-item veto of specific titles). Rights are secured and another season is announced. Overall, it's not an unusual process, and other theater groups work with variations on the theme.
The devil's in the criteria:
The first is the mission, right? In the case of a community theater: "To produce high quality theater and provide opportunities for experience in theater crafts" (since our main income is from the box office, that first part should be read more like "high quality theater which will actually draw an audience"). That high quality theater at TRP is created by the second partthe hundreds of volunteer actors, designers, and techs we provide opportunities for every year. We need titles that will draw some of the enormous talent in the Cities, artists who have many other choices. Paid choices. An obvious issue is the acting pool, but the number of roles for women, older men, and actors of color is weighed along with the availability of good volunteer costumers for large cast/period shows. Andmost important for the quality of our showsthe best directors available (who are paid but who base their decision to work at TRP for reasons other than our token stipend). Of course committees try to choose titles to attract both audience and artist, but sometimes it can come down to a choice between one or the other. We didn't do Phaedra expecting box-office lines out the door.
Then there's that matter of an arena. Whether in our earlier homes or our current stage in the former Bimbo's Pizza Parlor and Dance Emporium, committees have contended with shows mostly written for proscenium. It may be a great script, but it's hard to argue for when its climax requires four nuns to fall through a skylight. Our directors and designers have been ingenious in translating scripts to the round, and 360° has even added dimension to some shows. But there are limitsand you won't be seeing Noises Off! coming to a Theatre in the Round near you.
The overall goal is a season with classics, including specifically American works, and at least one area premiere, in a balance of comedies and dramas. We rarely do musicals because of our space and the royalties. We don't do one-person shows and two-person shows are exceptions (goes back to that mission about providing opportunities for actors). We don’t repeat titles recently done by other theaters and only one title each season can be reprised from the past 15 years at TRP. With no budget for advertising, we tend to rely more on audience recognition of the title or playwright. And professional theaters get priority for rights, so we are wary of recent popular titles with small casts.
But all this seems to beg the question, doesn't it: what makes a script good? We don't start out reading a script for issues of staging, director interest, or attendancewe start out by reading a script to judge its writing, its characters, its plot. Does it hold you? Do you care? Is it good? These subjective judgments are why many groups gladly turn over the final decision to an artistic directorand why a committee approach can make an evening pass so gaily. In a room of intelligent, well-read people of different backgrounds and generations, you'll hear opposite takes on the same scene, bewildering criticisms, and completely valid points that hadn't occurred to you. What you'll rarely hear is agreement. There may be some consensus on what is bad, but little consensus on what is good (and no consensus on what is funny). In the end, titles can be chosen by a group only through compromisesome grudging, some kicking and screaming. Favorite titles for some, awful titles for others, and no one happy with every single choice.
And another TRP season comes out of committee …. As you read this, the Season Planning committee is preparing TRP's 58th season for Board approval.