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Basic Instincts

February 12, 2009

The artistic directors of theatre companies have a very difficult job. Trying to program work that is not only artistically stimulating (I use this term in the broadest sense) but also delivers the goods within ever tightening budgetary constraints while pleasing or at least galvanizing the company's very many stakeholders from audiences to board members to critics is far from easy. ADs are constantly coming under fire for everything from pandering to the crowds to failing to program shows that represent the local community and its concerns.

As such, common wisdom suggests that because it's practically impossible to please all stakeholders at once, at the end of the day, ADs can really only trust one thing when it comes to figuring out what shows to produce: their instincts. Yet gut feelings aren't always reliable when it comes to programing.

I recently heard that the AD of a major San Francisco theatre went ahead and programmed a show even though she personally disliked it. Her decision was understandable in a sense -- the production brought with it well-known television actors, dealt with some big life issues in a not-too-strenuous way and did good box office. Many of the company's core subscriber base of middle-aged females loved the production as it covered territory with which they were familiar. So, in a sense, the programing decision was a success. Then again, many people I've spoken to about the play in question loathed it with a passion. And those few within that group that happen to know that the AD had staged the play in spite of her own misgivings about it, have subsequently lost what little respect they formerly had both for this AD and her theatre company.

A contrasting example, though, shows that when an AD has a strong gut feeling about a particular play, things can also sometimes go wrong. I recently saw a production at another well-known San Francisco theatre which had the AD's stamp of approval written all over it. The themes in the play seemed very much in line with this particular person's religious and political interests. The problem was that the play lacked theatrical merit. It felt like something that might have been staged in an ethics or women's studies class at a high school. In this case, the AD's personal instincts came so strongly into play that she lost sight of her audience and forgot her sense of dramaturgy.

What I suppose I'm driving at is that instincts alone are not to be trusted, but they're still about the best tool ADs have with which to feel their way through the programing jungle. To ignore them is to betray your vision, your theatre and your community. To give into them fully, however, isn't always the wisest choice.


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