Season Planning in Six Easy Steps!*

In her latest An Artistic Director Prepares column, Joanie Schultz writes about the process of selecting a season. (Note the asterisk.)

published Friday, January 26, 2018



Addison — So here I am, one year in. It’s hard to believe I’ve been Artistic Director of WaterTower for an entire year, so much of the first half was just getting my footing: moving across the country, learning a new place and people, figuring out the ins-and-outs of the position…oh yeah, and planning this season.

Last year I started on the job Jan. 1 and had about two months to program the 17-18 season. It’s an understatement to say that was an accelerated process. This year, with more lead time, we’ve gotten to be more methodical about how choices are made, even as I continue to learn and will keep refining how I approach the curation of the season every year.

I was telling my sister (not a theater person) about this on the phone last week, and I realized through her questions, that most people don’t have any idea the multitude of things that go into planning a season. Why would they? I didn’t even know fully until I found myself on this side of it.

So, I’ll just put this out there first: I don’t just pick plays I like and decide to produce them.

In a way that sounds so simple and freeing, but it’s also too limitless and irresponsible. Sure, I was hired to be discerning about plays and have good taste. But there are lots of other considerations for each play and the season as a whole.

We only have five mainstage shows every year, which makes each of them precious to us. How do you pick five plays? This is the classic desert-island question (i.e. if you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, what five albums would you want with you) put into annual practice. We live with these choices for over a year and the echoes of these choices resonate for years to come.

So while I certainly love the plays we decide to produce, there are a lot of other things we consider. Once it’s gotten past the test of “do I like it” here are some things we think about:


1. Does the play excite us in how it fulfills our mission?

Our mission states that we “create innovative, diverse theatre that builds community through fostering empathy and dialogue.” Is the play fulfilling that mission by being innovative and fostering empathy and dialogue? Does it tell a story we want to hear and that will be relevant to our community? Is it saying something new? Is it saying something timeless in a new way? Do we appreciate the writer’s voice and the craft of the piece?

These questions basically expand on the question of liking a play, but focus us on what the organization rather than our own fancies. There are tons of plays that I love that I don’t think are right for WaterTower right now. The question of “why this play here and now” is one of the most valuable to us in our season planning process.


2. Who are the artists attached or that we’d like to connect to with this play?

It is important to us to be a supportive home for artists to create their best work, therefore we consider who the artists are or the potential artists are when we are deciding what plays to do. We get plays in lots of different ways. Some are pitched by directors, some come from playwrights, some from agents, some just from knowing the field and talking to other practitioners across the country. If someone is attached to the piece, we take that into consideration. If the playwright is someone that we are excited about connecting with, or that we could potentially have at our theatre to work with, that’s an exciting prospect. We also consider our local artists and who might make a play shine here in DFW. What directors/designers/actors are we hoping to bring to our theatre? If the play doesn’t seem like it would be a fit for at least one lead artist we can identify in DFW, it probably won’t make the cut.


3. Is it producible at our theatre?

Every theatre space is different and lends itself to certain types of work. As the great American theatre director Bartlett Sher says, “all theatre is sight specific.” Our mainstage is amazing and unique, a flexible black box with a ton of vertical space. Certain plays work within this, and others don’t. So we need to picture it: Can it/should it be done in our theatre space? Is it too big or too small for our stage? Does it require things that our space can do?

Also: is it castable locally? Does it require people with specific talents or of ethnicities that aren’t in our local community? How many people would need to come from elsewhere?

Basically: can we fulfill everything the play requires to do it right?


4. Can we get the rights to the play?

This is a fun one, and one that most Artistic Directors will relate to. Hopefully this question is answered before you get serious about a play (it passed questions 1-3), but the rug can also get pulled out on you. Sometimes you fall in love with a play and know it will be perfect for your season. And then for some reason, you can’t get the rights to do it for reasons like: a larger theatre has the rights; or any another local theatre has gotten the rights first; or there’s a tour coming in; or this theatre is doing it in Houston and doesn’t want anyone else in the state doing it; or the rights are tied up because there’s a Broadway dream attached to it even though you know it won’t work on Broadway; or my new favorite, the playwright no longer wants this play produced for some reason.

If you can’t get the rights, you can’t do the play.

But, when a play passes questions 1-4, things get really exciting. Now we put together the season. How do the five plays fit together and create a diverse, exciting season? We return to the desert island question as an example: even as a Madonna fan, I’m not going to pick five Madonna albums to bring on my island, her music would become tedious. Our plays need to create a season together, not just be great separately.

So, this leads us into a new set of questions: 


5. Is the season an articulation of our mission?

Do these plays together as a season “create innovative, diverse theatre that builds community through fostering empathy and dialogue”? We are committed to diverse seasons: are we fulfilling that in the voices we are putting on our stage? Do we have different kinds of shows from classics to new work to musicals to comedies? Does each play speak to the others in an interesting way, and yet is each play different in point of view and social position of the lead artist or artists?

This is the key consideration in putting the season together, and in some ways, it’s the hardest part. It’s the curatorial riddle, and to solve it is an art-form, creating a journey for your audience throughout a year. A season is much more than one play, or a series of plays that happen to be occurring at that theatre in that year. A season is a story, too, and the truest articulation of an organization’s mission.


6. Does the season as a whole fit within our budget?

Saving the best for last. Yes, we live in the real world. Unfortunately, every play can’t be a large ensemble play with multiple sets and period costumes, it’s just not affordable within the theatre’s constraints. Any producer could tell you that. (Also, it doesn’t sound like that season passes the test for question five.) The joy of budgeting is the name of this game. But once you’ve fit it all in and the numbers check out, you have yourselves a season!

There you go: season planning in six easy steps!*


*Except, of course, if you just did it in this linear way, you’d probably fall behind, because you lose a play in no. 4, or you realize you made a mistake in no. 5. So, you must always keep your mind on no. 5, think about no. 4, return to nos. 1-3, and do the math for no. 6. Instead of thinking about these things one at a time, we actually have to think about them all at once. Nos. 5 & 6 are tricky, because they reference the whole season, so instead of a list, season planning actually looks like a bunch of if/then equations. There are phantom seasons that never get produced and perhaps exist in parallel universes like the movie Sliding Doors. I’ve made countless alternate reality seasons that are on the cutting room floor already, and we won’t even be solidifying and announcing our season for months.


» An Artistic Director Prepares runs on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.



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Season Planning in Six Easy Steps!*
In her latest An Artistic Director Prepares column, Joanie Schultz writes about the process of selecting a season. (Note the asterisk.)
by Joanie Schultz

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