The show must be chosen: How directors and theatre companies plan their seasons

Blog, Coursework, JOUR 511, Writing

As Ben Stoner browsed through the musical listings on Music Theatre International‘s website, he got nearly to the end of the list before anything struck him. A-W, nothing. But then he landed on X, for “Xanadu.”

“When I saw that title I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that is crazy material but it just might work for these kids,’ ” said Stoner, an English teacher at Crystal Lake South High School in Crystal Lake, Ill. and CLS Theatre director. “So I ordered a copy of the script and I was totally sold, completely hooked within a few pages.”

For the high school’s fall production, 25 students will be performing “Xanadu” — roller skates and all —Nov. 5-8. The school typically puts on a play in the fall and a larger musical in the winter, but a musical fit this year.

“I have this really interesting crop of kids right now … they’re all really unique in their own way,” Stoner said. “I so desperately care about them and want to give them material they could all fit into. And I looked for plays that would serve that, and I just never found a play that would give enough opportunity.”

Choosing a season, be it for a theatre company or a school, is a long, ongoing process that involves many different elements, from content to budget to talent.

For Stoner, he’s constantly looking at the talent he has in his program as well as looking for shows that excite him as a director.

“The goal is to always have a few kids that could play a role, and then have it fall together at auditions,” Stoner said. “I surprise myself constantly at casting and certain things don’t go certain ways, but pool of talent is necessary. In an academic setting it’s great because I get these kids of four years and I know what I have coming up through he program.”

While Stoner makes the sole decisions for his productions, many professional theatre companies are much more collaborative, like Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre Company, currently performing “Danny Casolero Died for You” through Dec. 21.

“[We] read a ton of plays every year so we work together as a democratic group,” said Lara Goetsch, company member and director of marketing and communications of the company. “We read 200-300 scripts a year [total], then there are 40-50 scripts we read together, and then we have discussions monthly, and then we narrow down.

The TimeLine Theatre Company has 10 company members, ranging from Goetsch, a marketer and a producer earlier in her career, to directors, actors, educators and a dramaturg. PJ Powers, artistic director and co-founder, leads the group to finding four plays per year that fit into the company’s missions of producing work inspired by history that connects to current issues.

“We want to make sure we’re finding different styles, different historical eras, different stories to tell and topics to cover,” Goetsch said. “It becomes sort of a jigsaw puzzle of what fits together in a well-rounded, varied season. It’s got a system to it but also a little bit of magic at the end”

For Chicago’s Idle Muse Theatre Company, their current production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” came about in an unconventional way, when ensemble member and Marketing Director Nathan Pease lost the rights to produce a novel adaptation.

“I really loved the experience of adapting a book into a play but wasn’t in any hurry to have another adaptation get shelved indefinitely again,” Pease said. “Out of frustration, I began combing through my bookshelves for stories that were now in public domain and quickly found my hardcover copy of ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ “

Eventually Pease started looking at others’ adaptations of the story, eventually settling on Jeffrey Hatcher’s 2009 adaptation.

“I loved his use of language, his ability to pick out that which is essential to the themes of the story in order to be somewhat faithful [the] original novella, and I loved the parts he’s made his own,” said Pease, director of the show. “It weaves together into a show that requires true ensemble work to tell a story.”

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is playing at the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble through Oct. 19.

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