Geva Theater Center's artistic director Mark Cuddy calls the huge piece of kraft paper his "planning wall" for the season he is working on — lists in different colors with dividing lines between them, but also extra sheets of paper tacked up helter-skelter to give it the look of the organized chaos it probably is. Yet that list of more than 50 titles eventually leads to the six main-stage plays (plus the annual production of "A Christmas Carol") that Geva is betting on for the next 11 months.
As the fall theater season neared its September start, I spoke to Cuddy, Blackfriars Theatre Artistic Director John Haldoupis, and Pittsford Musicals' longtime board member John Hennessey about how each theater organization selects a year's worth of plays. They represent three different kinds of companies: Geva, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is a professional regional theater with a resident staff, but whose Actors' Equity cast members arrive from elsewhere to rehearse, perform, and depart; Blackfriars, beginning its 63rd season, is what Haldoupis calls "a professionally oriented community theatre" for "theatre artists who have chosen to make Rochester their home"; Pittsford Musicals, dating back to 1968, mounts two musicals each season, often with very large casts of community members.
Although people at all three theaters are reading plays all the time, Cuddy describes an unusual approach. Rather than thinking about such practical matters as casts and costs, he, artist-in-residence and director of education Skip Greer, and director of literary and artistic programs Jenni Wener start out "talking about the world, then about the U.S., then about Rochester, then about our audience — what's going on, what's resonating, what are people talking about. This is before we ever talk about plays," Cuddy says.
Despite the differences between the three companies, Cuddy, Haldoupis, and Hennessey kept returning to two related ideas — what they called "balance" and "variety." That includes their finding it impossible to talk about art without soon talking about commerce. As Cuddy says, "Geva is artist-centered and patron-centered. Being an artist is introverted, private work," but a theater also has to attract an audience and pay its bills. "The risks I take are shaped by what I believe Rochester will come around to. I can't risk the institution by pushing too far, but I never do a project I'm not in love with. I have to balance the comfort zone with the risk."
In the end Cuddy chooses what he calls an "American classic" (this year, it's Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take It with You"), a "world classic" (Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), and three contemporary plays. The list is set by the end of December for the following September, and then the collaborative work of mounting the plays begins.
Haldoupis also puts together a wide-ranging season of five plays, almost always including at least one musical. But his approach feels as if it might be the opposite of Cuddy's. "We start with one major piece," he says, "that becomes the motor for the season, for how things have to fit. The budget, but also the texture, the feel, of a season."
This year, Haldoupis is working with singer Melanie Safka (who performs using only her first name) to develop her life story into a dramatic evening featuring her songs. She is, says Haldoupis, the only singer at Woodstock who took the stage as an unknown and left as a star. Haldoupis' decision led to the inclusion of two other shows, both about music: "[title of show],}" a Tony-nominated musical about writing a musical, and in the spring slot where a musical usually fits, "33 Variations," Moises Kaufman's 2009 drama about Beethoven.
Haldoupis adds that he has to consider his core audience and its preferences: "not too many period pieces, not too many long plays without an intermission, what actors can we draw on for a given play or a given role," he says. "When people try to peg us, I laugh. It's impossible. It's always been about the balance." At the same time, Haldoupis believes that if each audience member likes everything Blackfriars does, "something's wrong. Our subscribers trust us. I can't be responsible for every individual's taste. Even when they don't like it, do they think we did it well?"
With only two shows per season, and both of them musicals, Pittsford Musicals probably has an easier time putting a season together. "We're known for doing big, classical musicals in the fall — big choruses and a lot of dancing," says Hennessey. In recent years, Pittsford has tackled "Carousel," "Annie," and "Oliver." But the organization also recognized a need to keep people interested as both performers and audience members, so "two years ago we added a second show in the spring. It's usually edgier and riskier. Everybody is familiar with the titles of our fall shows, but the spring show might be more unusual or more obscure. But since we run for only two weekends, it can be hard to build an audience." The two spring productions have been "Company" and "Chicago," with "A Chorus Line" scheduled for spring 2013, compared to the conventional, crowd-pleasing "Sound of Music" this fall.
Hennessey says that the company's preliminary list of possible shows to do goes back to the 1940's, after which a committee cuts the number to a dozen, then to four with close consideration of available talent as well as the artistic and budgetary needs for orchestra, costumes, and sets, and then recommends one show to the board.
Like all theaters, Pittsford Musicals has concerns about the age of its audience and struggles to draw younger people to the theater. All three theaters have loyal but aging audiences. Geva has had a lot of success drawing a younger core audience in recent years, but Haldoupis says that the average age of Blackfriars' audience is 60. He asks, "Who will be our audience in 20 years?" The key seems to be a "balanced" recognition that people increasingly turn to the theater later in life, but theater organizations need to vary their seasons to include a different kind of show to appeal to a different kind of audience. Pittsford Musicals' spring show, Geva's recent production of the edgy "Avenue Q," and Blackfriars' upcoming "Melanie and the Record Man" are cases in point.
You make lists, you discuss, and you choose, and then casts rehearse while saws whirr and sewing machines chug — all out of public view. And then a show opens to be seen by thousands of patrons, and reviewed by the likes of me. The miracle is not that a play is good, but that it opens in the first place. As Mark Cuddy says of the theatrical life, "It's not for the faint of heart."