Coming next season… How artistic directors choose what to put on stage


From left: Scott Behrend (RLTP) David Lamb (Kavinoky) Richard Lambert (New Phoenix), and Vincent O’Neill (ICTC)

Photos of Behrend. Lamb, and O’Neill by kc kratt; Lambert courtesy of New Phoenix

Though most local theaters wrap up their seasons this month, announcements about 2013/14 programming have given us much to look forward to. Venus in Fur at New Phoenix, Clybourne Park at Road Less Traveled, a newly commissioned play at Irish Classical. These are sure to be exciting events, but in anticipation of the final products, it’s easy to forget the months—even years—of planning that go into plotting an annual lineup.

To find out what it takes, we gathered five artistic directors—Road Less Traveled Productions’s Scott Behrend, Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s Taylor Doherty, Kavinoky’s David Lamb, New Phoenix executive director Richard Lambert, and Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Vincent O’Neill. Listening to these five discuss season planning calls to mind what Harry Chapin famously told Bruce Springsteen about making set lists: “I play one night for me, one for the other guy.” Because for all the budget, casting, and timing considerations, it really all boils down to what pleases them—and their audiences.

Buffalo Spree: How far in advance do you start thinking about any given season?

Scott Behrend: It’s a never-ending process. We announced the ’13/’14 season on February first, and I started planning ’14/’15 on February second.
David Lamb: I’m always looking for shows. If I take a vacation to England, I see shows.
Richard Lambert: It can take several years for a show to get a birth, because we’re so backlogged. [Director] Joe Natale might come to us and say “There’s this play I want to do next season,” and it’ll be not next season, but three seasons from now. He was politicking Come Back Little Sheba for several years.
Vincent O’Neill: It took us eight years to get the rights to Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, and Fallen Angels, which is next year, took twelve.

Are rights often a problem?

Taylor Doherty: We had tentatively chosen [Venus in Fur] but found out [New Phoenix] had the rights to it.
O’Neill: We, too, had chosen six plays, and one was not available, and one we found another local company had already secured the rights. The fact is there are twenty-six theater companies, and they are all vying.

You all have lists of potentials; what rises to the top?

Lamb: The ones you’re really interested in stand out. We snapped up The Farnsworth Invention; it’s a director’s dream play. August: Osage County is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Behrend: I was really excited about Clybourne Park; I’d thought about it even the year before, but [the rights weren’t available yet]. Race was another play I felt strongly about. I also have to take into consideration the plays coming through the Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop, because producing world premieres by local playwrights is part of our mission.
Doherty: Usually one flagsghip show that we are really going to focus on. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a show that I’ve wanted to do since I was an undergraduate so I knew that was going to be the one this past year. And then we knew that Steve Henderson wanted to direct Gruesome Playground Injuries with us.

What kinds of things will nix a show for you?

Vincent: Very rarely, a play that I think our subscriber base would find offensive.
Lamb: Language. Sometimes you have to shock an audience and we do and we get into trouble for it. Audiences walk, we get letters. Sometimes it’s important enough that you have to make that statement but generally speaking, I don’t want to do plays that audiences are going to walk out of.
Lambert: A cast that’s too large. And then it always goes back to me and Bob [Waterhouse, artistic director]: he thinks that this is the year for Mutiny on the Bounty, but I was considering Treasure Island. Who’s going to staff it, who can best present each title? In this case, Mutiny won out.
Behrend: Sometimes, as others have said, rights. And because we’re a development place, there are times I think a playwright is going to continue to develop a play, and that doesn’t happen.

What kind of balance do you try to achieve in a season?

O’Neill: We try to create variety, so you don’t do an Ibsen and a Eugene O’Neill back-to-back. We’ll move from serious drama to comedy to a musical to a serious piece, contemporary vs. classic, Irish vs. non-Irish. You’re choosing a season, not six plays.
Doherty: An eclectic season, not three downer plays.
Lambert: We could have done both Treasure Island and Mutiny on the Bounty, but it would have been a big overlap of visual themes. Would that be too much? Yeah, it would be.
Lamb: I used to look for balance—big ones, small ones, funny ones, dramas. I don’t think about that anymore because I want to find the best plays out there that are available that season. I’m looking for plays that have a broader appeal. The way in which I choose a season has evolved over the years because audience makeup has changed. My personal taste is away from the edgy, important, meaningful plays and into comedy because I think we need it.
O’Neill: The last thing we consider is budget. If you start with budget, it ties down your imagination. But we do establish a limit with the board of trustees and guarantee them we won’t go over this limit, so if we have three plays with huge casts, and can only do two, we have to do something with a smaller cast.
Doherty: Rosencrantz had a lot of people and very sophisticated use of aerial fabric and dance and big swordfights and was very complicated on a variety of levels, and then we did Gruesome in a very minimalist way. If the last show did well, we can outlay a little more for the next show, but there is a budget per season.

How often do you choose shows with specific actors in mind?

Lamb: [In the early years], I did a lot of Irish stuff with Chris O’Neill and later, Vincent [O’Neill] and Josephine [Hogan], but not so much anymore.
O’Neill: Very rarely. La Bete we only did because Brian Mysliwy was available. The talent pool in Buffalo is stunning, but occasionally there is a role that can only be done by a certain kind of actor. Brian is a comic genius and I don’t know that anybody else could have done it.
Doherty: When we picked Indivisible for Curtain Up!, I did that knowing Ray Boucher was the male lead, because it was perfect for him.
Lambert: I choose for myself; at least once a year, I need to know there’s at least one cool adventure for me out there.
Behrend: It’s all part of the equation. Iliad is a choice because Matt Witten is an actor we like, but it’s also a choice because we’re kicking off this education thing this summer, and it’s something we can tie together with that program.

How does your audience influence your decisions?

O’Neill: When we do a great American classic, we always get a boost in attendance. When we did a long, threehour Eugene O’Neill on a regular basis, we got a huge falling off. People’s attention spans have changed, so you do The Iceman Cometh at your own peril. Audiences have always responded well to Molière, so if we’re going to do a classic comedy, we’ll do Molière.
Lamb: What one person loves, another is going to hate, so you have to rely on your own judgment. Noel Coward once said you have to do what you have to do in the theater; otherwise you’re dead. But if you ever decide to do what the audience doesn’t want, then you’d better find another profession.
Behrend: You do have to trend what people want to come to vs. maybe what they don’t want to. [If a show didn’t do well, you have to ask] was attendance down because the show wasn’t up to snuff, the timing of this story didn’t resonate, did we not get the word out well enough?
Taylor: Often, my go-to is Marat-Sade, but we are not in a place that my audience would be ready for that. But they will get there.

Is there a dream show that you’d like to do but can’t?

Doherty: The people on my board say all the time, “Can we just do a musical?” but I don’t think they’re going to like the musicals we are in a budgetary place to do. I would love to do other stuff by Stoppard, but cast sizes tend to be pretty daunting.
Lambert: Cyrano. Budget. Cast. Huge cast. And it’s long. Good adaptations are slightly quicker, but cast is about twenty-five and costume pieces would be cost prohibitive, but to say those words would be a fantasy.
O’Neill: Angels in America was something that I very much wanted to do, and I wanted to do it with Torn Space and BUA as a three-way collaboration and I thought that would be one for 710. Not to take away from Subversive’s production, but I would not have done that at Irish with just the resources we have.
Lamb: I’ve done at least one play every year since I was three years old, so that’s sixty-five years; there isn’t one that I haven’t been able to do. I suppose I wish I had the ability or interest in doing King Lear, but I have neither.

Donna Hoke is a playwright and frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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