A couple of weeks ago I was at a dinner party attended by a handful of friends with a commonly shared passion for theatre. Some of us have dabbled in professional theatre but, for most of us, our passions are now relegated to the various roles in community theatre: directors, actors, designers, ad infinitum. Late summer/early fall is the time of year when the local theatres begin to announce their upcoming seasons. Submissions are made, rumors abound and, inevitably, dinner party conversations are had.
In case you didn’t know, theatre people generally are not considered to be of the selfless sort. When seasons are announced you can see the wheels turning as we invariably ask: What roles are there for me? Would I pay money to see my friend in that show? Do I love that show enough to work behind the scenes?
We certainly have opinions about the seasons when they are announced. Some are informed and some are not.
While I postulate that every person responsible for bringing a production “to life” plays a very important role (pardon the pun) in the process, I have in the past year or two come to the conclusion that one of the most critical roles is that of the Artistic Director. According to Wikipedia, the “abbreviated” definition of an Artistic Director is as follows:
The Artistic Director of a theatre company is the individual with the overarching artistic control of the theatre’s production choices, directorial choices, and overall artistic vision.
You can, of course, see a much fuller definition here or Google it to your heart’s content. There are many definitions and interpretations of what an Artistic Director should be.
As someone with a vested interest in local productions and how they are selected, I have some opinions about the role of the Artistic Director and what makes a good one. As every attorney on The Good Wife who has appeared before Judge Patrice Lessner (Ana Gasteyer) knows, every point I make should be preceded with or appended by the phrase: “In my opinion.”
The Artistic Director should ensure that the theatre has a clear artistic vision and should select shows based on that vision. Most theatres have a mission statement that embodies the theatre’s vision and a good Artistic Director should do their best to align the season selection to that vision. Aligning your season to the artistic vision of the theatre can be tricky, especially when a theatre becomes known for specific types or styles of theatre. I know that when discussing area theatres, there are a few that I easily categorize: The Theatre That Does Family Musicals, The Theatre That Does Farce, The Theatre That Does Shows With Gay Themes, The Theatre That Takes Chances, etc. Once a theatre has been labeled that way, it makes it difficult for the Artistic Director to align the vision with the show selection.
The Artistic Director should understand the history of the theatre and the reasons behind past successes and failures. If a theatre is known for producing rock musicals that frequently sell out, they should continue to include them in their season. If a theatre has worked successfully with a director that brings a support staff and a repeat talent pool, they should seek out that director and ask them what project they are interested in doing next. Likewise, if a theatre has produced a show that was poorly attended, they need to understand why. Was it a show about Millennials produced at a theatre whose patronage is comprised largely of Baby Boomers? Did they produce a show about a highly dysfunctional family during the holiday season? I feel it is important to take risks but a theatre must be prepared to offset a potential failure with something that has been typically successful for their space.
The Artistic Director should be aware of what other shows are being done in the area and when. There is a certain thrill that comes from being the first theatre to produce a show after the rights are released. However, “hot commodities” tend to get over-produced right out of the gate. When The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was made available, several theatres in my area produced it which, over time, showed diminishing returns. It isn’t just new shows that suffer from repeat performances within a 60-mile radius. How many productions of Les Miserables (Rent, Lend Me A Tenor, Spring Awakening, God of Carnage) did you see in the last year? For a long time, I’ve been saying there should be a symposium of area artistic directors who discuss their plans with the intent to play nicely in the sandbox together. I know that is Quixotic of me to wish for that but the fact remains: as much as I love Les Miserables, I have no interest in seeing four productions of it in one year’s time.
The Artistic Director should leave the business side of the organization to the President or Managing Director. The other important factor that is critical to a theatre’s success is how the business is managed. Typically, the business function is managed by the President or Managing Director and they work in concert with the Artistic Director to run the theatre. While it certainly is a situation where one hand must wash the other to run a theatre effectively, it is important to draw a clear line between artistic and business responsibilities. Managing the administration, business issues, finances, fundraising, board relations, donor relations, publicity and marketing is a task best left to someone other than the Artistic Director. When the line becomes muddied, a theatre’s vision can become compromised.
The Artistic Director should ask their board, their audience and their talent for feedback. The best run theatres maintain a dialogue with their partners. Whether it is through annual meetings, traditional surveys or via social media, it is important to ask for input from the people who invest their time and money in your theatre. If you ask an audience what shows they want to see or give the creative people a chance to tell you what shows they want to be part of, your turnout from auditions to production will be better. Likewise, following up with your board, your audience and your talent after the production gives you a sense of what you’ve done well and where you can improve.
The Artistic Director should read and understand the requirements of every show the theatre is going to produce. The Artistic Director’s methods for show selection vary from theatre to theatre. Some Artistic Directors autonomously select the shows while others rely on a committee to cull the options into a manageable number of options from which the Artistic Director will select. Regardless of the method, it is imperative that the Artistic Director read the show and know the financial and creative requirements needed to produce it well. If your theatre is well-known for family friendly musicals, perhaps producing Urinetown or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson would be a bad move. If your theatre doesn’t have an ethnically diverse talent pool, mounting a production of Dreamgirls might not be the best choice. Many of the frustrations a theatre experiences can be avoided if the Artistic Director has a realistic understanding of their selections.
The Artistic Director should have a comprehensive knowledge of their P&L and the cost of producing the shows they select. This is where the partnership between the Artistic Director and the Managing Director is critical. A well-informed Artistic Director has a good sense of what how much money the theatre has in the bank, they know what productions have made money and which haven’t and they have a clear understanding of what it costs to produce a particular play or musical. Historical data and a comprehensive knowledge of the productions you produce are crucial. Little Shop of Horrors is a wonderful musical but if you can’t afford to build or rent Audrey II, the show will fail. Your theatre may love Shakespeare and fall prey to the allure of not having to pay royalties because the show is part of the public domain. However, if you don’t have the talent (in quality or numbers) to mount the production, you are accepting a risk that may not pay off for your venue.
The Artistic Director should select shows based on the talent base that is readily available to them. There are a lot of great plays and musicals available for production. That is a fact. However, I have seen Artistic Director’s become focused on a particular passion project and passion, indeed, is important. However, without the resources to execute the production well, why do it? In community theate there is a limited talent pool from which to select, especially when it is reduced by factors related to gender, age, ethnicity or ability. If a theatre chooses to do Into The Woods, there should be a Musical Director in place that can lead a cast through the intricacies of a Sondheim score. This is also where knowledge of what other theatres are doing is important. If a theatre is looking to produce A Few Good Men, they should be sure there aren’t concurrent productions of 1776 and Twelve Angry Men. (NOTE: Whether it is high school, college or community theatre, the fact remains – men are ALWAYS in demand.)
The Artistic Director should be able to step in as the director of any show they have chosen for inclusion in their season. The adage that the show must go on did not become a theatre staple without cause. Invariably, things go wrong. Among the worst things to happen is to lose your director. This is where the creative talents of the Artistic Director becomes most relevant. When the Artistic Director selects the show, especially in community theatre, in the back of their minds they should be planning for the unexpected. A good Artistic Director has spent time in the director’s chair and should be able to sit in a vacated seat at a moment’s notice. While it is an infrequent occurrence, it does happen. I’ve seen it.
There you have it. My view of the role of the Artistic Director. Now, I know that no rules are steadfast and there are always exceptions. Personally, as a champion of new and original theatre, I find it challenging for Artistic Directors to stray from the war horses and traditional pieces. There are theatres out there that take chances and the ones that do it successfully do so armed with good information, a balanced approach and a willingness to take a chance. For those individuals, I am grateful. I am sure that the audiences and the creative communities are as well.