Filament Theatre in Chicago, IL, a small company producing mostly new work that puts the agency and influence of the young people experiencing it at the forefront, recently received funding through The Chicago Community Trust’s Smart Growth program. The program is designed to help small organizations with capacity building and infrastructure needs, and it helped the company document exactly how it gets things done. “A huge part of that was actually defining our processes,” says Julie Ritchey, Filament’s artistic director. “What is the process that I go through so that if I ever leave the organization, we can hire somebody and there is a process for how to do things?”
In Milwaukee, WI, First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank makes season selection an all-hands-on-deck activity. “Jeff is real transparent,” says John Maclay, who was until recently the director of artistic development at First Stage. Frank meets weekly with his artistic team, which includes the company’s production manager, design supervisor, director of artistic development, education director, production stage manager, as well as representatives from the First Stage Theater Academy, the company’s training program for youth. They are usually working two to three years ahead, and each bring unique perspectives to the table that helps the company do the kind of work that they want to do while staying within their resources.
At Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT) in Oakland, CA, Artistic Director Nina Meehan also leans on her artistic team of about five people – including the director of Arts in Schools program and the company’s resident playwright – to narrow the list of titles being considered. “My staff brings me things all the time,” she notes. “My managing director will also come in toward the end of the process, when it comes to the budgeting part of things.”
For the past four years, First Stage has also made use of a Programming Engagement Committee, made up of community artists, social service organizations, and educators, that assists Frank in making appropriate and meaningful season programming decisions. “It helps us make sure we don’t jump off a new season cliff,” Frank says, explaining that the committee gets together three or four times a year to review season ideas. One meeting each year is designed to give the Committee a chance to weigh in on the next year’s slate of titles, while other meetings throughout the year give them a chance to evaluate the current season and provide support as needed. “Occasionally I’m surprised by their responses – especially as my kids have gotten older I don’t read as much younger literature, and so I’m asking, ‘Is this popular now?’”
With only two full-time staff members, Filament relies on a team of resident artists for support and guidance. “They serve almost as an advisory board,” Ritchey says. “Any resident artist can propose a project, which we do through quarterly meetings and a constant sharing of resources.” Ritchey also notes that the smallness of the company lends itself to agility in making programming decisions. “We aren’t working with huge departments that need lots and lots of time in advance,” she says.
Ernie Nolan, the executive artistic director at Nashville Children’s Theatre (NCT), notes that his company does not have a formalized process for selecting or advising on scripts or seasons. “I feel like one of the reasons why is that I’m also a very open person when I’m talking about things that I’m looking at,” he says. This way of exploring ideas for shows to produce seems to accomplish something similar to other organizations’ formal processes by relying on a sort of self-selected committee of artists and stakeholders.
Owning the Story
Chris Moses has been the director of education at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, GA since 2011, and added associate artistic director to his title in 2014. “It was a value statement,” he says about the addition to his title – less a promotion than a way of recognizing how important the work for young audiences that Alliance is doing for both the company and the community.
“The more you can involve young people, the more authentically you can tell their stories,” Moses says, putting into words why Alliance brings youth into just about every aspect of producing its TYA work. The effort to listen to kids when developing new plays is evident in projects produced at Alliance in recent years, such as The Red Badge of Courage, and Pearl Clage’s Tell Me My Dream, both the result of Alliance’s playwright-in-residence program. Alliance Theatre’s May 2019 production of Ride The Cyclone will utilize a high school age assistant director, since the play is about a group of high school students. “The best way to not condescend to young people,” Moses says, “is to listen to them.”
Multiple layers of youth involvement in the governing processes at First Stage helps inform programming decisions as well. “We’re a place where we want young people to recognize that their voice has value,” Frank says. First Stage has active members of the company’s Theater Academy on its board of directors that attend all board meetings, and sit on sub-committees when appropriate. In addition, there is a 20 member Student Advisory Board made up of Academy students that meets regularly with staff members to talk about Academy issues, season selection and programming, and to work various on service projects.
Another way that companies “own the story” is by producing new work. At First Stage this takes the form of a somewhat informal series called The Foundry, where the company develops plays that often feed onto its main stage. “We’ve got up to nine new things in the works at a given time,” Maclay explains, “[which is] an extraordinary amount of new stuff in development.” It gives Frank the ability to, as he puts it, “make the unknown more known,” by providing a chance to hear and work on plays over a period of time and not rush them into production.
For a recent work exploring a historically African-American neighborhood in Milwaukee, WI, Welcome to Bronzeville, Frank decided to move the project to a different playwright based on the work’s progress and feedback gained through The Foundry development process. Of the pieces that have gone through the process, Frank estimates that about half of them make into a season lineup. The series also offers young performers more opportunities than being cast in main stage productions.
I think one of our roles in season selection is making sure that we’re presenting a lot of different styles of theatre all in one season – so that if a young person comes to see our work, they’re not just seeing the same kind of show over and over again.— Nina Meehan
At Filament, Ritchey focuses almost entirely on new work. “We aren’t beholden to titles,” she says, “like we would be if it were a more conventional theatre, or schools were coming to most of the work we do.” Filament is also closely tied to its neighborhood and community, which informs much of the new work the company produces. The ties to the local area sometimes lead to unexpected work that helps keep Filament interesting to its neighbors. Ritchey notes a piece they created a few years ago called Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Portage Park, inspired and influenced by a local push to make the area more pedestrian and bike friendly. “The audience rode bicycles,” she says. The show traveled around the neighborhood, with characters interviewing witnesses and finding clues to solve the neighborhood mystery. “It also provided families who didn’t think about biking on city streets a really safe and controlled environment to do that.”
BACT also focuses on creating new plays and musicals, including having an artistic associate, who is the company’s resident playwright on staff, writing one new work for each season. “We often are doing two to three new works each season,” Meehan says. “This season we’re actually doing four.”
Nolan has also spent time recently surveying the TYA field and noting what’s missing from the body of work currently available to draw from when thinking about creating new work. “There are obviously gaps, and stories that we haven’t told yet,” he says. “So, I’m looking for ways to fill those gaps.”
At BACT, Meehan sifts through numerous sites and local resources to whittle down lists to share with her staff and other stakeholders to come up with seasons that fit into the template the company has developed during her 15 years in the job. “Season selection is an art more than a science,” she says.
Meehan’s process, as well as Nolan’s at NCT, tends to be a top-down process that leaves a lot of responsibility on their shoulders to make good choices. “In the end, the decision is mine, when we lock it, but I get a lot of input,” Meehan says; she considers this more traditional model as a kind of curation, making sure that productions are artistically interesting and provide stylistic variety for an audience that she has grown to know very well over years of practicing the art of programming. The question she leads every season programming decision with is simple, she says. “Is this going to be an artistically enriching experience for my audience?” Variety within a season also matters, according to Meehan. “As a theatre for young audiences, I think one of our roles in season selection is making sure that we’re presenting a lot of different styles of theatre all in one season – so that if a young person comes to see our work, they’re not just seeing the same kind of show over and over again.”
“There is no map,” Nolan says of his process as the new artistic director at NCT, after listing the many ways he goes about finding new work. He scours the New York Times bestseller list and also keeps up with what books are being sold for young people in places like Target. For both BACT and NCT, this has meant adapting literature for young people, including this season’s Ghost, a stage version of the popular Jason Reynolds young adult novel, at NCT, and She Persisted, the Musical, an adaptation of Chelsea Clinton’s book about 13 influential American women, at BACT. “If you can get a kid to love art, and theatre, and books in the same day, you’re doing something good,” Meehan believes.
Because BACT serves a large geographic area, stretching from San Jose to Napa, and has about 80,000 people coming to its programs in a given year (35,000 of those make up the school show audience), Meehan recognizes the need to keep the work they do diverse and generally appealing. “We have a much bigger reach now,” Meehan notes. “I think ten years ago a really good show of ours would have reached about 6,000 people total.” The BACT season is also robust, with eight productions ranging from work for the very young up to teenagers, which requires Meehan to select a range of types of work within certain categories. “Any show I select has to be artistically exciting and interesting, it has to be a pleasing and wonderful experience for my audience, and it has to in some way connect to the school curriculum.” BACT will typically do one show in areas that include an all-age holiday production (this season it was The Very Hungry Caterpillar Christmas Show), a show for “littles,” a show for “bigs,” and a show that represents diverse voices in the community.
“As far as the autonomous ruling artistic director who mandates a season on one end of the spectrum, and we’re ‘going to program by committee – as big a committee as possible’ on the other end of the spectrum, I think we’re doing both,” Maclay says of the process he participated in at First Stage for 15 years with Frank. “The final moment is that the artistic director has to put forth a season to be approved by the board,” he says, “but I think the process that gets us there is pretty lengthy.”
No Trade Secrets
One thing that all TYA artistic directors seem to share is an understanding that there are no trade secrets when it comes to season selection. “Ten years ago I didn’t have the connections to others in the TYA community,” Meehan says. “I didn’t know other folks, and I didn’t recognize how open our community is to getting a phone call from somebody.” She notes that she is now in regular communication – especially via email – with other TYA artistic directors across the country. “Those connections really have shifted the way that I think about a season,” she says.
“Before I would just order a perusal and read them, and that’s about the fifth thing down on my list now.” Frank also has come to rely on TYA colleagues when in a pinch to find the right title for a certain season. “Like, ‘I’ve got my season, but I need a pre-K show that is great and is gonna sell!’”
“It’s only been in the last few years that I have been more active, going to conferences and have felt the confidence that this is my real job now and I’m going to network in the field,” Ritchey admits. “I’m really excited by the relationships that I’m starting to form and how we might collaborate,” she says.
The sharing of information and the sense that TYA companies are not competing with one another can also be seen in how the network of organizations tend to talk about who is doing what next, and how they can work together to bring new work to their stages. When Nolan wanted to find a way to make the popular musical Tuck Everlasting more suitable for NCT by shortening it to better fit a school show model, he first got buy-in on the idea from other artistic directors, clearing the path for future production elsewhere. Another example of this is the shared work is the recent adaptation of Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt by seven companies, ranging across the map from Orlando to Portland.