You might think by the time BAT is picking its 36th season, there would be a nice easy plug-in formula and off we go. That is not the case.
Lets look at how the sausage is made. This post addresses the concerns of small houses, and may not apply to bigger or well endowed theaters. With a steady income comes the ability to take greater risks, as one bad play or season will not kill the theater.
For BAT, we start with our mission statement:
Burien Actors Theatre is committed to being a leader in entertainment by producing intriguing professional-quality shows with the highest artistic integrity that excites, engages and involves both the local and expanding artistic communities in the Puget Sound Region.
Okay. So what does that mean for play selection? It doesn’t give much clear guidance, but it is a starting place.
Right now, BAT produces four main-stage shows a season. During its history, BAT has produced up to six main-stage shows in a season. Typically, at least one production is a musical. BAT’s summer slot is most often left open for experiments. This year, there will be two weekends of sketch comedy by Turbo Turkey, an improve group that has worked at BAT before.
Recently, the Seattle Playwright Studio joined BAT’s fold. SPS is a group of playwrights who work together to improve their work. SPS will also be doing a new work showcase this Summer.
These are examples of BAT helping new works come to life. Just a bit about new works, since this conversation fits well into the question of play selection.
New works are the joy and the bane of theaters. Without new works, theater would become boring. But despite how many people say theater MUST do new works, for the most part, new works do not sell well. Congrats to those theaters that can thrive on new works, they are very rare.
BAT is proud to support new works through the Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwrights Festival every other year. (The festival was held yearly, but the financial drain on the theater was just too much.) In the festival, never before produced works, submitted by Washington playwrights, are scored by a panel of judges. The four highest scoring scripts are produced. Some of the festival winners have gone on to be picked up by publishing houses and have gotten legs.
Beyond the festival, BAT obtains the rights to shows from publishing houses. BAT has also produced a number of newer scripts from well know playwrights. BAT obtained the right to these new productions while the scripts were in manuscript form, before one of the publishing houses picked up the rights. BAT negotiates the rights to these scripts with the author’s agent, rather than the publishing house. “Coney Island Christmas” was an example of this. BAT has also produced scripts before they were otherwise available in the US, this is done through the author’s “outside of the US” agent. “Martha Josie and the Chinese Elvis” was an example. BAT has also produced scripts obtained directly from the playwright, “Zombie” is an example. Additionally, BAT has commissioned works to written for BAT. BAT’s 2011 “Frankenstein” is an example.
No matter where the script comes from, what causes BAT to choose one show over another?
First, BAT is a small house, 92 seats. That means ticket sales, even in sold out shows, can only generate so much income. So the cost of the production matters. So, will the show likely draw an audience?
BAT also does not have a fly space, trap doors, or tracks. These technical limitations can often be overcome by creative set design and staging, but the limitations are real and must be kept in mind.
Next, BAT works hard to honor its audience. It is for the audience that BAT lives and breathes. Without them, BAT is nothing.
But what does honor the audience mean? BAT has never played it safe. From its beginning in 1980 BAT has pushed its audience, in a good way. Looking back, some of the shows now seem dated, but at the time, they were new and exciting. BAT continues that tradition. BAT also produces older shows, when they are appropriate. “Lysistrata” is an example. This year, one of the shows in the running was on Broadway in 1932, but it is relevant today.
I have been with BAT for 10 years. Most of that time I have run point on customer service, i.e., complaints. In that time, BAT has never had a show where someone did not complain, about something. (No complaints have been about the production values, but show choices and script content are up for grabs. For example, “reasons to be pretty” was not loved by BAT’s audience.) Nevertheless, compliments have outnumbered complaints 100s to one.
The balancing act is to engage the ticket holder, to tell a story worth telling, and not go to far too fast. Not to pick a script because BAT likes it, but because the audience will like it. For BAT there is an overlay of the fantastical, but theater cannot, and should not try to, compete with downloads of movies. For a theater BAT’s size the emotional stakes and characters, not the technology, must drive the show. If the audience does not care about the characters, all is lost.
Finally, when picking a script, the show must move the art form AND it cannot fail. If the audience does not show up, no matter how “artistic,” “cutting edge,” “safe,” “an actor’s dream” or “on message” the show is, BAT will go dark forever. No pressure here. (If BAT had an endowment or donors who would support the theater regardless of what’s on stage, there would be less pressure. But, like so many small theaters, that is not BAT’s reality.)
So with those goals in mind, BAT is down the the final readings of scripts before announcing the season. Wish us luck.