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Nathan Thomas

Choosing a Show 

As the warm months begin, we begin to turn our minds to the serious issues of life – ice cream.  Near where I live is a working dairy farm with an ice cream store that has just re-opened for the season.  When I take my daughter for ice cream, serious matters are at hand.  Knowing that we may not be back for a week or two, what flavor should she choose?  Pistachio? Coconut?  Rainbow sprinkles?  Chocolate sprinkles?  In the world of finite resources, such choices are important.


Once, I saw a father tell his four year-old boy about summer ice cream as an ice cream truck pulled through the neighborhood.  The father explained that at the beginning of summer "they" make enough ice cream to fill the truck, and when the man sells all his ice cream -- that's it for the summer.  No more ice cream. The boy was left in a true dilemma -- should he go ahead and have ice cream today and deplete the over-all supply, or should he hold off and gamble that his sacrifice now will mean the availability of supply later in the summer?  In the world of finite resources, such choices are important.


What does this have to do with theatre?


We realize the father’s relatively harmless joke about the ice cream supply is a “leg-pulling” moment.  As it happens the USA has a large continuous supply of milk with which to make all kinds of milk related products – ice cream being a popular favorite. And even though the ice cream truck probably won’t roll through the neighborhood in January in Minnesota, someone is still making ice cream and stocking the shelves.


Sometimes some theatre folk get a little obsessed with selection of repertory – because the choice of show translates into roles played, designs, and the endless etc of putting up a production.  For me, I love doing genuine French farce.  I’ve not gotten to do many, put I do love doing them.  So we should be sensitive to the fact that repertory choice has meaning for the folks in our artistic community.


But the folks in a given theatrical community should also remember that – like ice cream – there will always be plenty of shows to do.  There is no dearth of plays to choose from. And playwrights, bless ‘em, keep making more.


Having been on all sides of the repertory choice process, I can say that there are times that our regional and university theatres seem to take less consideration in choosing plays to show to their audiences than a child choosing the right flavor of ice cream. 


Before readers of this column start to write that flaming e-mail about how much is taken into consideration when they select a play, let the writer assure them all he believes them.  This writer has also had to go through the excruciating process of choosing plays and putting together seasons.  Some people look at the sheer number of plays, shrug, and metaphorically choose some from a hat.  Others go through complicated processes of committees and hoop-jumping to select plays for performance.  No system is perfect.


And there are innumerable questions to be answered – will the board or producer or faculty committee approve it?  Can we cast it?  Do we have enough money to produce it?  What problems have to be solved to mount the damn thing?  For example, I might want to do a lovely play called The Dragon by Yevgeni Shvartz.  But a character shoots fire and also switches heads in full view of the audience.  If I'm thinking of a cinematic realistic means of production and have a projected budget of $100 bucks, these questions are worth asking.  Or, put another way, we’re not going to put Hamlet on the season brochure without knowing that we have an actor to play the part. Doing Hamlet without an actor capable of playing the part makes for a looooong evening.


In my experience, though,  there's another level of questions that don’t seem to get asked – particularly in view of some of the lists of plays one sees advertised around the country.  What stories do our audiences need to hear and see?  Or, put another way, if I have an actress who would be the perfect Molly Brown, does that mean I must mount The Unsinkable Molly Brown next year?  If I have two young actors available to play Romeo and Juliet, should this necessitate the mounting of yet another production of Romeo and Juliet?  Does my community need Molly Brown or another Romeo and Juliet?  Maybe. But maybe not.


All too often we see producing organizations rolling out production after production – often of good quality – but with what regard to the audience or the theatre's community?  How will our choice of play cohere with the rest of our plays to help build our community -- not just the lucky people who happen to come to the play, but the community at large?  What does the season say about us and what we believe in as humans and as artists?


Back when Reagan was still president, I worked in a summer festival in which the season included: King Lear, The Comedy of Errors, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Murder at the Howard Johnsons, and a children's theatre production of Disney's Jungle Book.  The shows were well conceived, well produced, and well received.  Were they what that community needed to hear at that time and place?  What message does that collection of plays (each worthy on their own) communicate?


This question may seem a trifle abstract to the lone actor. Nevertheless a common question of the seasoned professional is this, "How do you select which projects to work on?"  A sound, common answer usually includes formulation along these lines, "There are three questions in no particular order: 1) Does the project further my career? 2) Does the project make me money? and 3) Is the project artistically satisfying?  If the answer is 'yes' to two out of three, it's worth doing."


Again, even for the lone actor, there should be another level of question to ask.  "What do I want to tell an audience about myself through the characters I play? What do I want to communicate through this character?  How do I want to engage my community in conversation through giving heart, body, and voice to this character?”  That may seem like a variant on asking whether or not a project is artistically fulfilling.  Instead, though, I think it's a different series of questions.  These questions go to the heart of the social responsibility of the actor beyond any individual concerns.


Most, if not all, of us likely do theatre because it's fun.  We act because it's fun.  We direct and design because it's fun.  We put on shows because shows are fun to do.  And we put on shows that are fun and interesting to us. And I agree with that.  I’m all for the fun.  I really am.  Honest.


But why put on the show?  Since we have many shows from which to pick, why pick this one?  If we put on a show only because it's fun to do, then it may be that the audience will simply be people who enjoy people having fun.  If we have a story to tell the community that the community needs to hear and see now, then we have something which may attract a wider audience from our community.  Or, we can have something with which to further engage the audience we have.


This has nothing to do with genre.  Comedy can be as engaging in a conversation as drama.  Sometimes, comedy is more necessary to a conversation than drama. And it has nothing to do with one show being better in some way or other.  They’re all fine shows with their own problems to be solved by a group of artists.  But what conversation do we want to have with the folks who put their butts in the chairs? Is it more than mindless chatter?


If you're on the treadmill of churning out show after show because shows are fun to do, stop the churning and think about what stories need to be in your community now.  It's like ice cream.  There’s plenty of it.  What is the best choice for today?

May 2015

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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©2015 Nathan Thomas
©2015 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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