December 12, 2012
There's a question I'm asked over and over, year after year. It's a question that every artistic director on the planet is asked—by subscribers, staff members, even actors. Having done this job at one theater or another over the past few decades, I'm continually in a state of wonder that the answer to this question is something that interests people so avidly. When I sit down to be interviewed on radio or in print, though the interviewer professes an interest in the play I'm directing at the moment, my past, my work with some famous person or other, the Big Question, the one they Cannot Wait to Ask is, "How do you go about choosing a season?"
It's interesting to think about. Let's see if we can get to a satisfying answer. First of all, no live performance exists in a vacuum. It happens in a moment, and one of the most fascinating concepts to grapple with is: where will the world be when we present the coming season? Case in point: would the recent revival of the classic musical South Pacific have been as resonant for audiences if we had not been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if we had not just elected the first African-American president? It was one of the most serendipitous meetings of an American moment, if you will, with a classic old musical—one that dealt with race relations and with men (and women) at war. Suddenly, audiences, as well as the artists involved in making the production, were seeing and listening to the show in a whole new way. There was Nellie Forbush trying to wrap her brain around the concept of accepting the man she loved because he had fathered Eurasian children by an island woman. Just as a large part of the American public was trying to wrap its head around the concept of a black American leading the free world.
As an artistic director, I'm always thinking about what audiences might be thinking about, what audiences might be surprised or validated by. I work hard to reinvent great plays in a new moment. But I don't begin season planning by saying, "I'm going to present Play X or Play Y." I try to stay loose, listen to the moment, stay open to possibilities. Something as simple as seeing an actor's performance in a Broadway play or a TV show can trigger an idea. "Wouldn't she be irresistible playing the role of....?" Sometimes reading a blog or watching a newscast can make me think of a play about a topic similar to the one being discussed. So then I wonder, "Should we read it? Is it worth producing?" I get a copy and read it to find out. You can't help but notice what is 'trending', and you also want to bring people to the utterly new and unpredictable experience that only live actors performing for living people who are not glued to their smart phones and desktops can make happen.
Staring at screens large and small, manipulating them with our fingers and our voices. Let's face it, that is now the way the majority of us now spend our days, and our nights. And if we don't have one of those in front of us, we have something else. We have the remote. We can shift channels faster than we can blink, change the scene, rearrange the moment to our satisfaction. Technology has changed the world faster than we can realize.
So when thinking about plays to present to people now, I need to take that into account. I need to think long and hard about the sustained experience of theater. As technology changes and rearranges our brains, what can audiences bear in an art form with no jump cuts? Though what audiences don't always realize is the comfort that can come from the sustained mental experience, of concentration that allows the mind to liberate itself from the fluttering faux-reality and sense of constant crisis we tend to create through our electronic world of devices.
So how do I choose a season? I seem to feel that it chooses me.
Stay tuned for another post from Mark after the New Year about our 2013 Season.
View our 2013 Season video (3:00) by clicking the image below: