How Do You Choose A Season?

[Originally posted 08.28.2012]

Undermain’s 29th Season has been announced.  For our audience, this is a moment of beginning, a course charted out for a year of new experiences in theatre.  For the staff of Undermain, however, the season announcement is the end of a process begun last autumn, just after the announcement of our previous season.

 New scripts enter our waters from a variety of sources.  Every week new submissions wash up in the Literary Department inbox.  These are read by the Literary Manager and often by one of the interns as well.  Occasionally known contacts – authors or other theatre professionals with whom we have met or collaborated in the past – pass new work directly along.  These, too, tend to filter first through the Literary Department.  A sizeable haul of scripts result from up-river voyages by the Lit. staff, tracing back every good sign to its source.  A future blog post will describe in more detail how the Literary Department hunts scripts.  For now it suffices to say that by Spring we have amassed and read a great many scripts, reserving a pile of those that seem, to at least one reader, to display special quality.
By winter, the conversations begin.  The first few meetings stay pretty simple.  List prospective titles in brightly-colored ink on the drawing board (literally).  Discuss some of their merits.  Is one project better served by the reading series than by a full production?  Start to gauge how individuals feel about each piece.  Note any trends in the list.  Note obvious challenges as well.  Does one of the plays require a cast of twenty?  Does another play take place entirely in a swimming pool?  Often seeing the names on the board reminds us of other playwrights or titles we ought to explore.  Occasionally the discussions suggest a different direction.  We conclude little and plan to meet again next week.
As the meetings continue, we search for new angles on the season, sometimes stepping back for the widest possible perspective.  We find ourselves asking what organizational principle gives meaning to a theatrical season, if any?  Are we telling a story?  Examining a theme?  Is the season itself even a useful unit to break our work into, artistically?  We wonder if our artists and audience ought to have a particular experience with a season — a sense, when it ends, of having completed a specific engagement.  Or maybe only the individual shows can reliably give such an experience.  The season is a practical convenience and no more.
Moving slightly closer to the canvas, we debate voices and content.  We want plays that match our interests and expand them.  We want writing that will push the theatre.  We want new authors.  But what about classics?  Undermain has a history of producing at least one older play each season, often a forgotten play or one that has rarely been seen locally.  In-house, we refer to these as our “literary ancestors”.  Even with a circumscribed house style, as Undermain has, it would be far easier to select three old plays every year than to find new works.  So titles sluice out once that gate is opened.  We have to step back again: how many old plays may we have?  What would an entire season of older plays look like?  Would it still be Undermain?  Which of these truly belongs to our ancestry?  Whose voice wants most to be heard right now in Dallas?
By spring, conversations accordion in and out at an alarming rate.  All at once we’re trying to decide whether a trio of titles feature a real or perceived harmony (and what kind?) but also can we meet a casting concern with regard to prospective play number three?  If three’s out, there’s a great option waiting right behind, with a juicy design possibility, but, oh, wait a second, what happens to the harmony then?  And, now that we’re looking at it, aren’t all these playwrights men?
We enter a vortex in which it is possible to simply spin around forever, not managing to either be swallowed down or coughed up.  Thankfully, help begins to arrive in the form of certain realities.  Not every play we love is available.  When you’re in the business of new works from significant voices, you often find competition from the major experimental theatres around the country.  Occasionally the newest of the new work isn’t even finished yet.  Unless you’re prepared to workshop, starting a season with a play-in-progress isn’t always tenable.
Suddenly we find our list half as long.  Now we’re talking to directors.  What do they see themselves doing?  Some of the plays on our list will have been their ideas to begin with.  When chief collaborators agree – director, designer, artistic director, executive producer, etc. – months of long work narrow down to a sharp point oh-so-quickly.
When that help is not forthcoming, we fight on.  We bring in new plays.  Scripts pass around the office with whispered recommendations – like lad mags in elementary school, or maybe more like the cat videos our staff prefers.  It’s only three plays after all.  The right ones are bound to turn up eventually…
In the end, it should be noted, none of these debates are ever truly resolved.  This year our season, for various reasons, coalesced around a broad theme of myth, but that decision grew neither purely from the plays outward nor the theme inward.  We are producing two new plays for the first time in this region, Penelope and An Iliad.  We also continue our tradition of drawing from our literary ancestry, with August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata.
That balance was not reached by some final consensus, but rather as an indirect result of our shared principles interacting with the physical elements in play before us.  Next year, after the nets are lifted and the new bounty of plays examined, we will have to argue the same points.  We will discuss all over again the meaning of a season.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager
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