Season Planning — An Insider’s Look

Yikes–we’ve gone ahead and announced our 2015-2016 Season and have totally neglected to blog about it!

I’m going to remedy that by sharing a show-by-show account of what excites me about each production and insights into why these 6 plays (plus musical revue) ended up in our line up.

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Illustrations by Donald Ely

The process of season planning is equal parts thrilling and daunting. We start with a clean slate; key questions (what do we want to talk about next year? what themes do we want to address?); and a list of titles. These may be plays we read a month earlier or three years ago–but they are all stories that stuck with us, that resonated then and now as the stories we should be telling. And then we open up the conversation. At Theater J that means discussing the plays with staff and our committee of volunteer readers, mostly members of our smart and intuitive Theater J council. And the list gets shorter, and shorter, and then sometimes longer again, and then shorter, and shorter. And then we do a very fancy high-tech layout of post-it notes with plays written on them stuck to one of our office doors. Super sophisticated.

Door

This is THE door, without any post-it notes (we wouldn’t want to give away too many industry secrets.)

Okay, so not very sophisticated, but it works. The post-it notes start to resemble a calendar. Dates are tweaked and negotiated. We step back and consider balance. How many larger cast shows do we have? Which ones will need a longer load in period? Which are likely to exist in a world that is more physically spare? How about gender parity of the mix? Representation of diverse voices and playwrights of color? Ratio of comedy to drama? And when we have a line-up that feels like the right mix of plays we are passionate about, we start conversations with agents and publishers. Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service are the two largest licensing agencies, so for published plays the conversation continues there. And finally, when contracts are signed and rights are negotiated, we have a season. Simple, right? Not always, but…

On to next season!

We start the year with:

QueensGirl_Poster_D

September 16-October 11, 2015

A world premiere by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

Starring Dawn Ursula

It’s summer 1962 in Queens, New York. The sounds of doo-wop music fill the night and 12-year-old Jacqueline Marie Butler is on the verge of adulthood. When Jacqueline’s parents abruptly transfer her to a progressive, predominantly Jewish school in Greenwich Village, she is thrust out of her comfort zone. As one of only four black students, Jacqueline discovers a new city and a whole new world.

Part of the 2015 Women’s Voices Theatre Festival and Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Festival

Caleen wrote about her play in 2010 when it was presented as a reading at Round House with its previous title Cream Soda and Creme de Menthe, reflecting “Make it personal. If you’re not sweating, if you’re not scaring yourself to death, if you’re not asking yourself – ‘Do I dare to write this?’, why the hell should an audience pay money to see it?” … [this play] most closely parallels my own story at one of the toughest stages of my life. Of course I don’t know anyone whose pre-adolescence was a bed of roses. But I dared myself to try to tell the truth with just enough artistic license to make it accessible, funny and moving as well.”

We started a dialogue about the play in 2013 when Caleen submitted it as a potential project for our Locally Grown festival. We loved the excerpt we read–which captured the voices of a whole world of characters vividly and specifically and would clearly be a tour-de-force for the right actor (it’s written to be a solo show) and when we sat down to meet with the playwright, we discovered we loved Caleen as well (anyone who knows Caleen is thinking “Yeah, duh, of course you loved Caleen–everyone does” right now.) She’s been an important voice in this community for many years–as a playwright, an activist, a teacher and a mentor, and the collaboration felt wonderfully inevitable. When we matched the script up with director Eleanor Holdridge (who directed The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, After the Revolution and others here at Theater J) and actor Dawn Ursula  (a company member at both Woolly Mammoth and Everyman Theatres) it was clear that we had a truly formidable team to take this project to the next level.

Reading image

Dawn Ursula brings the play to life at our Locally Grown workshop.

The reading in June was stunning. Even with script in hand Dawn masterfully moved from embodying the central character Jacqueline Marie Butler, a 12-year old black girl growing up in 1960’s Queens, New York; to playing Dr. Charles Norman Butler–Jacqueline’s precise and opinionated West Indian father; then transforming into Karen Rubin–the braces-wearing, “other-worldly worldly”, child-of-divorce-before-that-was-familiar Jewish girl Jacqueline befriends when she is transferred to a progressive school in Greenwich Village…and the list goes on.

Since the 2014 reading we have a new title (Queens Girl in the World) and two new chapters in the play (Jacqueline moves to Nigeria–yes, Africa!; and then to Bennington College–both locations that start out foreign and alienating to our young protagonist). It has been thrilling watching this team of artists continue to grow this play, which will be our entry into the DC-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Mark your calendars and plan to join us for what is sure to be an evocative evening–pulling from the history, music and imagery of the time and asking questions about identity, race, class, and family that remain just as timely in our ever divided United States of America today as they did then.

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