Programming a mission-centric season of productions

Earlier in the summer, I was brainstorming ideas for blog posts and a dear friend suggested I do a post on season planning. I thought it was a great idea and drafted the post but thought I would hold off since I had already gone through the season announcement for the current season. But now I am beginning to consider Flashback’s next season and, conveniently, Howlround started a series on season planning so now seems like a great time to publish. The Howlround series is really fascinating and has Artistic Directors from all over the country in the line-up so be sure to check it out!

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Each year, regional theaters all over the country announce their upcoming year of productions (usually in the spring or early summer). This year I got to join the tradition with Flashback Theater Co. and I couldn’t be more excited for the current season. The funny thing is: I did not realize how much time and work goes into scheduling a season in advance until I went through it. Here is how I did it:

1. Set the logistical requirements for the season. There were several questions that had to be answered to give me an idea of the shape of the season.

  • How many shows does the board want to program? I offered my board some options for when we could produce shows, and they decided to produce 4 plays over the next year. The one at the end of this summer is technically in the current season so in the future, our seasons will include 3 shows (if we follow the same schedule). In addition, my board and I decided to fill in the rest of the months of the year with our free event, Let’s Play!, but I won’t go into detail about that here.
  • How many cast members will I be looking for? Thinking about the available performance spaces over the next year and the budget constraints I would be under for the purposes of hiring performing artists, I knew the casts had to stay small. At the same time, Last Train to Nibroc was recent enough to remind me that 2 person shows are tough and having minor characters can help keep things on track.
  • Likewise, what design limitations will we be under? Space and budgetary constraints come into play here as well, although not as much considering you can do practically any show with stools, a table, and a few hand props. My audience in particular expects some degree of reality in sets and costumes so I had to keep that in mind.
  • What seasonal considerations should we take into account? I made sure to look at the holidays happening around the same time as our desired show dates to see if we could tie into anything specifically. Christmas is the big one that everyone programs for but Valentine’s Day is a date opportunity so something a little more romantic in that time period wouldn’t be amiss. Besides holidays, I wanted to keep in mind the season of a play’s setting so I could schedule it during a time when audiences (or actors!) wouldn’t feel disjointed.

2. Set the mission requirements of the season. How will I articulate our mission through the shows we produce? This is the most important requirement of all because this is how I (as the artistic director) tell the community why Flashback Theater Co. is important. (Staying true to the mission is also necessary for maintaining status as a 501(c)3, so that’s an added bonus…and is surprisingly overlooked by some organizations during their programming.)

Flashback Theater Co. Mission

The mission talks about our past and present as a community and our world but also about theater that speaks to the soul, so there is a lot of room for programming. I definitely wanted a play that was tied into the local community: either by a local playwright or about a local event or person. I also kept thinking about our role in educating the community about theater – so I was looking for a play that would give the audience some perspective of the process of theater and its production. Finally, I wanted to make sure we addressed “the world” part of the mission by choosing a play that was set somewhere outside of the US.

3. Decide which scripts I wanted to order and look at. Knowing what to look for did not make finding potential plays easier, but it saved me from reading scripts that were definitely not going to work, so in the end it was worth it. This was the most tedious part of the process, because it was a lot of searching through play catalogs online, and learning how each site worked and where to look on each for information like cast and set requirements.

(I must say the site with the best search options and user-friendly interface was playscripts.com. They also allow you to download a pretty lengthy preview of most scripts which is really helpful, since descriptions and character lists can only go so far. Reading the first scene can go a long way to knowing whether the play is a possibility or not and I appreciated that I was saved from purchasing a few scripts that were definitely not going to work.)

4. Put plays into the scheduled slots. I would choose a couple of scripts to order, wait for them to come in, read them, and decide if they were a possibility. If one was a yes or maybe, I would write the title on a post-it note and place it in a schedule grid on a sheet of paper. This let me move things around as I filled in the blanks, and has given me a bit of a start on the next season too, since there were some shows I liked that didn’t fit into the current lineup.

5. Inquire about & obtain performance rights for selected dates. Once I had my ideal line up I had to contact each licensing company (with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, which is in the public domain) to ask if the rights were available for our area on our dates. I didn’t anticipate this being an issue because the shows I chose are not the big popular favorites, and it wasn’t.

6. Plan budgets for the desired season and get approval from the board. Knowing the desired titles were available for performance opens the way for building a complete budget for each show. This is also the basis for the organization’s operating budget for the upcoming year – so it is a vital part of getting the board’s approval. I can’t program a full season of shows that I expect to lose money, but I can justify programming a show that will likely lose money if it is strongly tied to our mission. This season, that’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. It ties beautifully into the “exploring theater” part of our mission but is a new play that the Somerset audience is going to be challenged by. Again – that’s part of our mission so I didn’t back down from programming it. My board was very trusting of my programming decisions for this year. After we experience the results of the risks I took in this season, I think their feedback for next season will have more direction. And that’s just part of starting a theater company in a city that hasn’t had a lot of non-traditional theater before.

7. Announce the season! After all the work of researching, budgeting, and deciding, the best part is actually announcing the season. I did this at a special Let’s Play! with a slate of performers doing monologues and vocal selections from Broadway numbers. This stayed true to the spirit of Let’s Play! and our mission and was met with positive reactions from my audience.

There are about a hundred little steps to make up each of the above steps. For me, these were the major milestones. The mission has served as the perfect guiding light for our season, and will allow us to continue talking about our mission throughout the year in the context of each show. That is what I consider a programming success. Now…to do it all again!

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Are you a playwright with a script that fits Flashback Theater’s mission? Email me with a synopsis and list of characters. I am always looking for Kentucky based plays to read.

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Top 3 reasons performing artists should be paid

Street performer waits for change

I used to be very involved in community theater. I loved it! It was awesome! I had so much fun twice a week…for three months of rehearsal. So you can imagine my surprise when I got to college and suddenly rehearsals occurred every night for three to four weeks straight! Suddenly, it was a job. Everyone was held responsible for being at rehearsal, on time, every night they were scheduled. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Going straight from a day of classes to a night of rehearsal, then repeating everyday for three weeks – it was hard to imagine anyone could ever choose that life permanently. Throw in the fact that you may not even be paid a decent wage – and I was O U T. That was when I decided acting was not for me! But now I am founding a company, and I want to make it very clear why I firmly believe actors (and all performing artists) should be paid for their work.

Reason #1: Performing artists do not typically hold standard “9-5” day jobs.

Since my initial induction into the world of fast-paced production schedules, I have experienced several rehearsal processes. My time spent shadowing rehearsals at Know Theatre of Cincinnati and The Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky was primarily at night, while rehearsals at Arena Stage typically began in the afternoon, and the ensemble at Cincy Shakes rehearses during the day and performs at night.  The biggest difference? The size of the organization. Arena can pay actors enough to make it a “day job.” (At least until the performances.) Shakes uses the ensemble model so they can have the same actors contracted throughout the season as full-time workers, freeing them up to rehearse during the day. Know Theatre and The Carnegie, on the other hand, have a pay scale that only supplements whatever other income the actor has. Many performing artists (in Cincinnati, at least, which has been the bulk of my experience) cobble together a variety of jobs to make rent: teaching, waiting on tables, receptionist work, and baking seem to be very common. Usually, these ventures are unreliable for a predictable income, so every paying performance job they can book is a sigh of relief – and gives them a little security cushion.

Reason #2: Performing artists have to hone their craft, even when they aren’t being paid.

Without consistent work, performing artists become…shall we say…rusty? This is especially true for musicians, as they must constantly practice to maintain the flexibility, strength, and agility to play their instrument. So – even if they don’t get a gig for a month – they still need to practice several hours a week to maintain the quality of their work for when they DO get a gig. I like Cincy Shakes’ ensemble model for this very reason – the acting company members are always honing their craft because it is their full-time job, and it shows onstage. The actors at Shakes always do a remarkable job. They could do an entire performance in paper sacks with no set design whatsoever and put on a captivating performance in which you wouldn’t even notice the bizarre costumes and lack of set.

Reason #3: Performing artists put their heart and soul on the line for every performance.

We, as humans, look for ways to relate to each other. No technology will be able to replace the feeling of having a shared, in-person experience with dozens of other people. If you don’t believe me, just think about the difference of seeing nudity in a film vs. seeing it onstage. Many people don’t think twice about seeing a film rated R with a nude scene – but if its a live performance, the same people balk. I’m certainly not advocating for or against nudity on stage but you as an audience member realize there is a certain level of intimacy involved when you know that person is really there, in front of you, living out a story. Often, movie stars don’t even know the final plot line of the film they are working on until they see the premiere. So much work happens after their job is done that stories can change drastically. This is not so with a live performer. Every night, the same story is lived out. And it is the performer’s job to tell it – without the safety nets of editing and dubbing to fix their mistakes.

When you go to a performance, the artists are providing you a service. You are being reminded of your humanity, challenged to acknowledge why you think, speak, and behave the way you do. You may be entertained during the process but if you talk to any performing artist, they will tell you that they perform to make people feel, not just to entertain. It is that human connection we buy tickets for – and is the reason we should pay our performing artists enough to focus on their art and continually challenge our expectations of the world.

My Vision

So you’ve heard the what and the why. Now I’d like to tell you how.

The company I am founding will begin with a small festival and a large amount of passion. It is my intent to give you, the audience, the theatrical experience described in my last post of this series, binding us together as a community. I want to tell stories that are truthful and insightful, while staying true to our identity as the Lake Cumberland region.

Flashback Theater Co. MissionYou may be wondering why “Co.” and not “Company”. This theater will be more than just a company. It will be Collaborative. It will be a Community, a Cooperative, a Conversation.

Let’s give people in our community the chance to choose theater as a profession in the long-term, without the fear of never having something to eat. Let’s get friends and neighbors excited about seeing live theater on a regular basis. Let’s stimulate conversations and build our community’s relationships. I hope you are as excited about this as I am, because without you it can’t be done.

Today marks the start of our crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo for our first ever production, coming in February 2015. If you are excited about having a theater company in Somerset, Kentucky, please visit the Indiegogo campaign page to learn more about how you can help  Flashback Theater Co. reach its goal of raising $3,500 in three weeks.

 


In case you missed it:

Part I: Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company
Part II: Why a theater company?

 

Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company

When I was a little girl – maybe 6 or 7, I was thrown into a church Christmas production at the last-minute because someone dropped out. I wasn’t in the show originally because my mom thought I was too young but desperate times…the show must go on..and well you get the idea.

That was my first experience in theater. I loved it. A few years later, I heard an announcement at school about auditions for a children’s production of Beauty & the Beast at the local community theater. I remembered my earlier performance experience and the feelings of excitement and accomplishment at the end of the show. I knew it was time to take the stage again. I begged my mom to take me to auditions and she warned that I might not get a big part – or even cast, but I insisted and ended up with the role of  Spoon in the Beast’s castle. I played my part well. When the Beast yelled, I shivered with fear. When Belle entered in her gown, I “Ooohhed” and “Ahhed” with amazement. I was rewarded for my emphatic reactions with a part in the next production…and so my “career” in community theater began.

Sommerrenae as Bertha Mae

Bertha Mae “Virgil and the City Slickers”

"Wizard of Oz"

Scarecrow “Wizard of Oz”

When I left for college, I thought I would pursue acting. That lasted about two months. Many of my friends have heard the story of a professor describing walking into a café and ordering hot water to mix with ketchup, making it a free meal of tomato soup…but they heard it in the context of how it made one of my best friends leave the program to pursue engineering instead. What they don’t know is that it also changed my perspective of what I wanted to do. No longer was acting an option for me because spending days auditioning and eating watered down ketchup was not my idea of a great life. I added a minor of Entrepreneurship to my Theater degree. 

You can’t get a degree in theater without working on productions – so I took up costuming. The costume shop was a perfect environment for me. I already had some sewing and craft experience from my aunt and granny as well as spatial reasoning from my dad so learning how to put patterns together was a piece of cake. When I designed for shows, I had to learn to manage a budget and costume crew members. Plus, I was able to get experience in the inner workings of productions – how directors work with designers, stage managers, and actors.

In 2010, I attended the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Lexington, KY. My friends were there to audition and interview for jobs – I was there for the experience. In the conference’s program, I saw an ad for a graduate school that had a program for “Arts Management.” The proverbial light bulb went off. I didn’t know anything about the program but I knew that was my next step. After some research, I found I lived within a stone’s throw of one of the top arts administration programs in the country, at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

Everything was falling into place: studying theater and entrepreneurship prepared me for the arts administration degree. Back in my home town of Somerset, the downtown area was growing and renewing: a new judicial center was built, the old library became an arts center, restaurants were opening, and the county passed a measure to begin allowing sales of alcohol. Soon both Somerset and I would be ready for a new theater company.


This is Part 1 of 3 in a series about why I am founding a theater company. Come back next week for Part 2!

Learn about Flashback Theater Co.

 

Diversification in Arts Funding: Calling to Question our Basic Assumption

arts funding diversification - roll of the dice

A large part of learning development over the past couple of years was an emphasis on “Diversify, Diversify, Diversify!” Even when I recently interviewed for a devo job, my interviewer’s main development goal moving forward was to diversity sources of contributed revenue. But what if this basic assumption is just that – an assumption?

This week I came across an article on Nonprofit Quarterly which challenges this very basic tenet of the development world. Summary: Whether you should diversify seems to depend on the size and type of your organization, but more importantly: the niche you fill in the world. For example, a funder may only grant to $2.5 million orgs that serve three-legged cats. If your org falls into that category (and you are likely the only org that falls into that category), you will receive the funding practically by default. Wouldn’t that be nice? And if that is the only funding you need – why bother trying to get more?

My devo teacher, Sydney, will probably come after me for saying this…but I do not see any reason to diversify just for the sake of diversifying. If you have a team member who can go out and secure every dollar you need for the budget purely by charming individual donors into parting with their hard-earned cash – and this team member is not so great at writing grants – why put them through the misery when they can more efficiently raise money elsewhere? I was told over and over in grad school to “play with your strengths.” Presumably, it is a waste of time to try to improve a weakness. So if you have the rare staff member who doesn’t have a weakness, by all means Diversify! Otherwise, let your staff efficiently raise the money you need by playing to their strengths, then send them on a much-needed vacation so they don’t get burnt-out.

Some of you (Sydney) may argue with me, pointing out that if Donor #1, who provides 99% of the annual budget, suddenly dies (or maybe not so suddenly), your org will never recover. But here’s a thought – start a planned giving campaign and get Mr. #1 to set up a charitable trust for your org, supporting you for a certain number of years after his death or even, dare I say, indefinitely? Imagine the budget where you could reliably count on that income! You will actually be able to budget year to year on what you know will happen (as opposed to what you expect or hope to happen up until you have a check in hand)! And it is much easier to get the same donors to say yes in a new way than to get new funders to say yes at all. 

There are plenty of reasons to create more work for ourselves – diversifying funding sources can be useful, and should certainly be tackled by organizations with the capacity to do so. (Capacity meaning board and staff with the right skills, connections, time, and magical touch with funders.) But it’s also important to take advantage of your org’s position in the funding environment. So….if anyone has $2.5 mil and a few three-legged cats, give me a call.

——- And Just for Fun ——–

Another entertaining argument against diversification of funding through grants is made over at NWB: a jolly discussion of how funders sometimes make it impossible to be funded (in a meaningful way).

Classical Art: Entertainment or Preservation?

Ballet shoes preservation of artA couple months ago I was in a meeting about creative disruption. The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the differences between commercial art forms and educational art forms.

One thought was that some art organizations are really “museum” type organizations, desperately trying to preserve art forms that are no longer commercially viable. With so many symphonies, opera houses, and dance companies struggling, it might appear that the support for these art forms is dying. To me, it seems that the audience just wants to experience these art forms on their own terms. Last year, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Lumenosity proved that people are willing to hear an orchestra perform. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance has been on the air for 10 years, introducing people to the powerful storytelling capabilities of dance. SYTYCD has featured tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, contemporary, and probably 20 more styles of dance.

What is the real purpose of arts organizations today? If they are not for profit, they fall under section 501(c)3 tax code purely because they are educational, as there is no category for arts and culture. But does this mean they should be relegated to preservation purposes only? Of course not!

Should we abandon art forms such as opera, ballet, and classical music because audiences are now less interested? This is where it gets harder to answer and begins to contradict itself. So much of the art that is now popular – contemporary dance, for example, has basis in the more traditional forms. Would we have contemporary dance as we know it today without the talent that came out of classical ballet? Probably not. At this point though, students are trained in contemporary without starting in ballet. Perhaps a ballet foundation is helpful but I will leave that to a dancer to answer.

Once again, my post has become a series of questions without satisfying answers – but these are the questions plaguing the next generation of arts organizations. I like to think we are slowly finding answers – putting classic art forms into the context of today seems to be part of the answer. I have a feeling that at some point classical arts will succumb to the pressure and go the way of Latin – taught only in classrooms as a basis for understanding our current language. I certainly hope this does not happen in my lifetime though!

It Must be for Good Reason

Something a coworker said yesterday left me unsettled. I’ve spent a lot of time sending separate contracts to the same people for different performances, mainly because these performances have come up at different times. Around the time I get all the signed contracts back for one performance, I have to put together a whole new set. And let me tell you: getting artists to return a signed contract in a timely manner is usually a matter of about a dozen follow up emails and calls. Multiply that by two dozen artists and multiple performances and I spend most of my time begging, pleading, and cajoling just to get a signed piece of paper.

So I thought out loud that it would have been so much easier to send one contract encompassing ALL of the performances… For me and for them. My coworker said, “Well if that’s how it’s always been done it must be for good reason.”

Not kidding. My unspoken retort: tell that to the inventor of, well….anything remotely useful. But I realized it was said automatically and so I just let it drop. However, this isn’t the first time this way of thinking has come up and I thought it deserved comment.

I could say it is generational (the coworker here is close to retirement), but I don’t know if that is really the case. Maybe it is just the perspective of someone who has worked long enough to realize that we have to do what we are told in order to get a paycheck, and trying to change how things are done is too complicated and time consuming to be justified (at least for those working in large, institutional type organizations). One thing I am learning: I do not want to work in the bottom level of an institutional organization for long.