Once, after a performance of a contemporary play, a patron told me, “You should do Shakespeare.”
Sometimes it’s hard to find the grace to respond with kindness when I’d rather be banging my head against a wall. Repeatedly. Then I remind myself… they don’t know the whole story.
Choosing a production season for any theatre, whether professional or educational, is a painstaking process. We can agonize over it for months before we commit to next year’s work, essentially because there are several criteria that guide our selection of a play.
I’d like to share those with you.
1. Is the cast size consistent with the talent in the department?
It is folly to choose a show we have no hopes of casting. Though our productions are open to the entire student body, we have found that only those who have a deep love for the theatre are willing to commit to the demanding schedule required of any show. This limits the size of the cast and, as a result, the type of shows we can do.
2. Does the production have academic and thematic merit?
We are a university committed to the intellectual growth of our students. If we say we want them to think critically, then the material must demand intellectual inquiry through skillful storytelling and ask the participants thought-provoking questions regarding the content. Wrestling with great literature helps our students think and problem solve beyond everyday expectations.
3. Has the play been recognized for excellence?
This is closely tied to #2. Usually those plays that have been popularized through strong word-of-mouth reviews, legitimate awards, or favorable critiques provide the richest academic and artistic challenges.
4. Will the demands of the show exceed our budget or workforce?
Selecting the wrong show can sabotage an entire department in one of two ways: we can break the bank by committing to a play that demands too much of our budget or we can break our backs by selecting an overly ambitious show that will drain our workforce. With a season of at least four shows, we must find a healthy and economically sound balance.
5. Will the experience stretch, challenge, and grow our students (both on stage and behind the scenes) in a way that prepares them for professional or graduate-level academic work?
Students should experience a wide range of genres, forms, and styles from across history to better understand the discipline. We must also prepare our students for the real world by engaging them with the work out there now. They are challenged to make bold choices, take risks, engage their faith, and set their boundaries. It’s not all black and white, and our students must know how to dialogue about their limits in a profession that won’t necessarily sympathize with them.
6. Does the play reflect the faith and values of the institution?
This question is best answered by our Theatre Arts and Christian Worldview statement found on our website and in our programs. In short, we absolutely want to maintain the integrity and mission of our university. We love to discuss the redemptive, cautionary, or unresolved conflicts found in the work we do. As a result, we often schedule talkback sessions after particular performances to help answer the difficult questions. Our goal is to balance the needs of our students with the expectations of our patrons.
7. Is it something we personally want to work on for 6-9 months?
That’s about how long we spend on any one show, often overlapping the various needs as the schedule demands. While one show is in performance, another is being designed, while another is being researched and conceptualized. If we aren’t passionate about the work we have chosen, the end product will suffer.
I love Shakespeare’s work and would welcome the opportunity to produce any one of his histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances if we can do the play justice. However, large cast sizes, multiple male roles, few female opportunities, lengthy run times, multiple sets, iambic pentameter (with numerous variations), difficult thematic content, and some of the most beloved stories ever told make his work a significant challenge for a department of our size.
So we work to grow. We try hard to recruit top-tier students. We train them in voice and movement, acting and design, analysis and history. We build our stock of period clothing, weapons, and props. We dream big and problem solve within the limitations of our facilities. We press on in the hopes that one day we will do Shakespeare.
But until that time comes, we strive to meet the immediate needs of the department in a way that gives students opportunities that are just as rich and rewarding. Maybe it will be Miller, Ruhl, Brecht, Molière, or Sondheim, but it will be just as worthy.