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Monday, April 12, 2004

Theater's version of risk management

The Washington Post has an unusual piece on the Arena Stage (username:, password: access), and their process of defining their theatrical season. It's a bundle of quotes by the creative and business team, tracking their discussions and decision-making over the course of several months.

What jumps out is the complex calculations behind building a theater season -- a nightmarish bundle of creative issues, logistics, math, economics, personalities, and available scripts. Discussions range from broad thematic development to the economic constraint of the number of actors (and therefore actor salaries) the season will require.

Also in the conversations are issues of balance: new plays vs. war-horses, big shows vs. small, challenging works vs. accessible fare. Quoting Arena Stage producer Guy Bergquist, the article admits:

'We're gun-shy about new plays.' They are a tough sell, and since the company no longer has the cushion of 15,000 or more subscribers signing up for all eight shows -- only 6,200 of the 17,000 current subscribers have bought the full package -- Arena needs to woo single-ticket buyers every time out.

"I don't think there is any not-for-profit anymore," Bergquist declares.

This juggling act isn't news for anyone who has worked in professional theater. But it's always fascinating to watch how it works. In the end, under the direction of Artistic Director Molly Smith, the selected season is a compromise of vision and constraint:

With these choices, Smith and company have shaped their collective destiny for another year, adjusting to budget news, the sudden George Street co-production, Bogart's blessed flexibility and Fichandler's dropping out -- surprises at every turn that compel them to plan Arena's seasons in sand until an elusive mix of will and fate hardens eight titles into marketable news.

'It has to be a combination,' Smith reflects when it's all over, 'of what you want to do, what you dream of doing -- you have to have the dreaming there. And there also has to be a circus barker. If you don't have both, you're in trouble.'

posted on Monday, April 12, 2004 | permalink