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World Premieres, Timeless Classics

How Local Arts Groups Plan their Seasons

Sep. 12, 2008
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   Before the curtain goes up on any performance, many decisions go into determining what patrons will see and hear. Audience wishes, performer's artistic growth and cost concerns are just a few of the considerations when planning a season. A few artistic leaders share their thoughts on programming for the arts.

  Producing director Julie Swenson describes the process for Renaissance Theaterworks. "We have a committee that searches for relevant and interesting works. We strive for eclecticism in our plays, in the context of a balanced season. For instance, this season we are presenting two chronological bookends. Our first play, The Persians by Aeschylus, is the oldest surviving play in Western literature, and our second production, The Dig, is still being written by resident playwright Marie Kohler.

  "It is important to offer an attractive season before the first actor appears on stage," Swenson adds. "Subscriptions are the lifeblood of any company, and our audience has learned that they can trust our judgment. And, we always encourage suggestions from our ticket buyers."

  When theater companies decide on a show, they contact publishers to secure performance rights. If multiple companies in a certain area request the same property, the publishers decide which group receives permission, usually siding with the organization having the largest audience potential.

Engaging Audiences

  The Milwaukee Rep schedules 15-17 productions a year, representing three parallel seasons on three stages.

  "We plan a season that will engage our audience, make them sit forward in their seats," says Joseph Hanreddy, the Reps' artistic director. "Our artistic team, comprised of the associate artistic director, the literary director and myself select the plays, with input from our actors. We also communicate with the other theater companies in town so that we do not offer similar productions.
"We have no formula-no percentages of comedy to tragedy," Hanreddy continues. "We start with an original piece that is conceived or commissioned for our stage-last season that work was Armadale. Other plays are then worked around the centerpiece. This idea also pertains to creative teams-this season we are very excited to offer The Cherry Orchard directed by Ben Barnes, formerly of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin."

  Modern dance companies constantly offer new works and world premieres. Classical ballet is another story.

  "Unlike the symphonic or the theater repertoire, ballet has only a handful of great works," says Michael Pink, artistic director for Milwaukee Ballet. "We have Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia and a few others. The 20th century added a few important choreographers, but finding new works is difficult, as it must meet the standards of our sophisticated audience and be relevant to the development of the company."

  The Ballet has six world premieres this season, along with established works including Jerome Robbins' first ballet, Fancy Free (music by Leonard Bernstein), and full-length productions of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and TheNutcracker. "I am very proud of this season, it has four distinctly different programs, yet it is visually and musically balanced," Pink explains. "I choose programs based on music, not choreography."

  Besides artistic concerns, finances are a constant worry. "Costs have gone through the roof," Pink says. "Renting a full production from another company can reach six figures, what with costumes, sets and transportation. Length is also an issue- our core audience starts heading for the doors at 10 p.m."

  Pink is anxious to develop a new full-length work based on Tess of the d'Urbervilles, the Thomas Hardy novel. "Like most audiences, Milwaukee ticket buyers think that they want the safe and familiar. We will not dumb-down, but we will challenge," Pink promises.

  Of all the artistic disciplines, classical music has by far the richest field from which to choose. Orchestras will annually program audience favorites such as Beethoven's Fifth or Dvorak's New World symphonies (both slated for Milwaukee Symphony's current season) along with the less familiar. Musical directors must balance audience expectations with the artistic development of the ensemble and guest artists' repertoire.

  Other musical ensembles with specific repertoire requirements would seem to pose a programming nightmare. "Not so!' says Sharon Hansen, artistic director of the Milwaukee Choral Artists (MCA), one of only five professional women's choirs in the United States. "We don't suffer from too little rep, we suffer from having to choose from so much.

  "In the 10 years of our existence, we have performed over 500 works representing 26 world cultures in 40 different languages, yet we haven't even touched the vast repertoire available for women's choir," Hansen says. "We also have performed over 100 world premieres, including a concert last season dedicated to new works written just for MCA.

  "Since we don't have a permanent home," she continues, "we often tailor our repertoire to fit the acoustics of a certain venue. We program specific concert themes; this season will focus on unusual pairings, such as "Saints & Sinners" and "Magic & Enchantment." We are not your typical musical group-we rarely repeat a work once we perform it. With us, it is always something different."


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