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).