Sunday, July 24, 2011

On the Summer, and Other Seasons

Most major theaters take something of a respite—if they don’t go totally dark—at this time of the year. Perhaps it’s more challenging to lure audiences into a darkened box when the sun stays out longer? Or maybe theater folk, like teachers, need a summer vacation after dealing with grumpy, demanding groups of people for nine months? Whatever the case, many theaters seek to make up for the perceived lack of activity and remind us that they still exist with deluges of press releases, often about their upcoming seasons, those 3-10 shows that they intend to put up in the coming year.

Having surveyed many Bay Area theaters’ 2011-12 rosters, I’m left only with a feeling of blobby sameness. Perhaps it’s true that any press release only knicks the surface of what a theater is all about, but at the same time you can tell a good amount about a company by the kind of work it chooses to put on. Unfortunately, many mixes this year (and every year?) comprise the same components: The classic. The moneymaker. The token experimental piece. The play by a member of a historically disadvantaged community, usually about identity.

Obviously, whether a theater likes the production concept and thinks it would make a meaningful and timely statement are only a couple of the concerns that go into its decision to produce a show. Others include

  • How much does it cost?
  • Which copyrights can we get?
  • Which artists are available?
  • What does our board of directors support?
  • How does this show relate to the other slots we’ve already got filled this year and to what we did last year?

But I wonder if there’s any way a season could be more than an arbitrary, ad-hoc jumbling of the projects that happen to be available at a given time and, in sum, check all the required boxes. Alex Ross writes of similar dreams for the classical music world, albeit on a smaller scale—he speaks of the way different pieces in a single evening, rather than over the course of a year, might be in conversation with one another, but I think his logic can be extended:

The average orchestral program presents a familiar configuration of familiar works—an overture, a symphony, a new piece here and there—with no obvious intellectual goal. The mechanical reshuffling of canonical repertory creates the impression that classical music is an all-purpose fabric that can be cut by the yard…The typical season is a catalogue of missed opportunities. Great programs create a kind of invisible drama, establishing narrative connections between pieces that may or may not be directly related.

I’ve spoken with a couple of artistic directors—Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, at Sleepwalkers, and Kat Owens, at the Undermain (in Dallas)—whose solution is to eschew the season model altogether. For them, when you have a season, all you get is subscribers, a dubious benefit when you aren’t obsessed with growing, particularly when considering the potential cost to the quality and integrity of your work: Some productions become slot fillers, diluting the strength of your season and distracting you from the work you care about.

I’ll be on the lookout for more radical season/non-season models. (Sleepwalkers has devoted its entire year to a trilogy by one playwright, J.C. Lee, the conclusion of which premieres in August. Info here.) In the meantime, perhaps I’ll continue adhering to the critic’s version of a non-season: Only covering the shows I care about (at the expense of developing consistent relationships with theater companies).

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