The Stage: One play doth not a season make

The Stage
Rachael Lindhart, Co-Artistic Director of Dreamwell Theatre, works with Chuck Dufano and a small selection committee to come up with a short list of play suggestions.

Photos by Rachel Jessen

August: Osage County

Aug. 23-24, 30-31
Legion Arts (CSPS, Cedar Rapids)

Urban Theatre Project presents the area premiere of Tracey Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a family that brings repressed feelings to the surface after their patriarch goes missing. The performance venue is the restored CSPS landmark in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Stop Kiss

Aug. 29-30, Sept. 5-7
Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

After a staged reading in July, Fourth Room Theatre presents a full production of Diana Son’s funny and touching play about the relationship between two women before and after a life-altering incident. This is a fitting–and sobering–play to see at the end of a summer of historic developments regarding LGBT rights.

In an episode of the beloved Canadian dramedy Slings & Arrows, about a prestigious theatre festival, business manager Richard approaches interim artistic director Geoffrey about selecting plays for next year’s season. Geoffrey pulls out a pen and scrap of paper. “Electra. Pericles. Mother Courage. Don Carlos.” He barely pauses to breathe. “Tempest. Murder in the Cathedral … One, two, three, four, five, six,” Geoffrey counts. “What else? How about, oh, Troilus and Cressida? You haven’t done that in a long time.” Thus, in less than a minute, Geoffrey creates a season with the perfect mix of Shakespeare and other classics. But after this encounter, the business-minded Richard ditches Geoffrey’s more sophisticated list in favor of a season with three musicals.

When the theatrical process appears in popular culture, it tends to follow this pattern: A creative genius has the idea for a perfect play or season, and must struggle with a business staff that is only concerned about profits. But when theatre companies in the Corridor release their list of upcoming plays in late Spring, few people outside of the inner circles of these theatres know the long, complex process required to select a season. It is not the work of one genius, but rather the result of a team of hardworking people deliberating for several months.

For Dreamwell Theatre, founded in 1997, the process begins with co-artistic directors Chuck Dufano and Rachael Lindhart working with a selection committee to create a short list of play suggestions. They then take additional suggestions from the theater company’s board, directors and fans. The brainstorming does not last indefinitely.

“We do give these folks a deadline because our next step is to read as many of the plays suggested as we can,” Lindhart explains.

Iowa City Community Theatre members and volunteers help build seating in Building A at the Johnson County Fairgrounds.

According to Dufano, the selection committee can read as many as 30 plays over the course of several weeks. After the reading period, the committee creates a “short list” of plays that the committee prefers. They must take into consideration many factors, including access to performance spaces, the local actors and technical considerations. They also try to select plays that reflect their goal of being a “theatre of exploration.” Once the committee creates the final list, they submit it to board members for final approval.

Iowa City Community Theatre, founded in 1956, has followed different methods for collecting plays. A selection committee led by Vice President Brenda Christner first decides how they want to create the list of play suggestions. “One way is to come up with the plays we would like to perform, the other is to find directors and find out what they would like to direct,” says Christner. “This year, it was more like the second route, but we’ve done both ways of selecting a season.” They conduct interviews with potential directors about their suggestions. The committee then presents a potential season to the ICCT Board of Directors to vote on the season. Christner notes, “Sometimes, it comes down to liking every show but one, so we change it.”

The Stage
Iowa City Community Theatre Vice President Brenda Christner shown in Building A at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. Christner leads the selection committee at ICCT.

Founded in 2011, Fourth Room Theatre is the Corridor’s newest theatre group and the one with the most flexible play selection process. Currently, they do not put on “seasons” in the traditional theatrical sense. Instead, they focus on planning one production at a time.

“That’s how we like it,” Marketing Director Angie Toomsen says. “It allows us to stay nimble and respond to ideas, as well as the availability of our members and collaborators.”

When selecting plays, Education Director Rachel Howell adds, “We find something that really gets our creative juices flowing and follow it down the rabbit hole.”

Currently, the six artistic core members of Fourth Room Theatre generate most of the suggestions for plays. The final decision for each project comes from this core group’s consensus.

Sometimes, the plays selected embody a certain theme. For the 2012-2013 season, Dreamwell Theatre chose plays by female playwrights, and ICCT’s upcoming season features plays based on literary works. Occasionally, theatre companies must make changes to a season due to unforeseen circumstances. Last season, ICCT was unable to get the performance rights to Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because the play had a Broadway revival. Fourth Room Theatre’s recent production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline had been delayed for a year due to a cast member’s injury.

The Stage
Rachel Howell, Education Director at Fourth Room Theatre, runs through the script of Stop Kiss during a rehearsal at Old Brick.

Local theatre companies are finding innovative ways to reveal their seasons and excite audiences. Dreamwell Theatre has posted clues for each play on Facebook. The names of people who guessed correctly were entered into a drawing for free tickets. Once theatres announce their seasons, audience members plan their entertainment schedules and actors prepare for upcoming auditions. For the selection committees and board members, however, their work is never done—there is always next year to think about.

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Jorie Slodki earned her MA in theatre research from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has past experience in acting, directing and playwriting.