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By: Kathy Boylon, Board Member
A question that surfaces with some regularity among Actors’ Theatre patrons is, “How do we choose the plays we perform each season?”
I thought the best way to answer it was to sit down with my good friend, Kitty Carrico Carpenter, chair of the play selection committee, and get her views. I’ve been on the committee a few times throughout my years on the board but Kitty is the current chairperson and can give us an up to the minute report…. Maybe even a preview of what we may see next year. Who knows…?
Kathy: Kitty, Can you explain to our readers what the process is for choosing a season of plays?
Kitty: Well, we start with a wonderful committee, a “Dream Team”. This year it consists of Maureen Kirkwood, past-president of the board. Surprisingly, Maureen has never served on this committee before. She’s very excited about being on it. Amy Osborn Kaechele, who Actors’ patrons will recognize from the many characters she’s portrayed on stage. The wonderful actor, Sammy Publes, most recently seen in Top Dog / Underdog our opening show. Will Gearring, another terrific talent, a young actor and budding director who recently joined the board at Actors’ Theater; and Jon Clausen, a continuing-ed student, like myself, who is also a talented actor currently focusing on directing. He is also the student intern working in the office at Actors’ Theatre.
Kathy: Isn’t Fred on the committee? I thought he was always the “final say”.
Kitty: No, he’s not on the committee, but more on that later.
Kathy: How is the Play Selection committee formed? Can anyone apply to get on the committee?
Kitty: You kind of answered your own question. People suggest someone who has expressed interest in serving on the committee. We get a mix of board people and non-board people, but they all have to have some connection with Actors’, either as someone involved in the shows or as patrons. Our niche is so different from the usual fare. People have to understand – and have experienced – our mission statement when they see or work on a show. We’ve had committees where only one or two people are active in theatre and the rest are interested patrons and volunteers. The current committee is all performers or directors. I have names of people to suggest for next year’s committee, and a number of those people are patrons. We just try and choose people who are willing to commit to the time involved. Reading and reporting on a large number of plays in a short period of time is a huge commitment.
Kathy: OK… well, when does the work start?
Kitty: It starts in August and we meet through April.
Kathy: What do you do during all those months?
Kitty: The committee reads and evaluates scores of plays.
Kathy: Where do you get the plays?
Kitty: Plays are recommended to us; we’ve read about them and they piqued our interest. There is a cache of plays here at the theater that we keep and go through. We try and keep it current and new.
This year for the first time we have a Literary Manager, Randy Wyatt, chairman of the Aquinas College theater department. Randy is a playwright himself and has his finger on the pulse of new works coming out across the country.
Kathy: How do you keep track of all these plays and what people thought of them? Between August and April I would barely remember that I read a play let alone what I thought of it.
Kitty: We have a point system, from 0 – 10. I keep an excel spreadsheet with each reader’s scores and it there’s a macro built in that averages the scores. If they want to use it, each member of the committee has a form they can fill out with various criteria to help them remember what they were thinking about a play as they read it
Kathy: What happens at the meetings?
Kitty: We discuss the plays and people assign scores.
Kathy: So it’s kind of like a book club?
Kitty: It’s much livelier than that.
Kathy: Livelier, huh? That makes me think of my sister, Mary Vee’s book club in Seattle. She told me that some of the rowdier members have gotten into shouting matches about a book. Apparently, they get very …er, passionate…How about Play Selection meetings? Does it ever come to fisticuffs?
Kitty: Fisticuffs? Where the heck did that come from? No, it never gets really heated.
Kathy: What fun is that?
Kitty: Oh, it’s lots of fun. Sometimes a person hates a script but majority rules. A person who loves that same script will try to persuade everyone to his or her point of view.
Kathy: So when you’re reading & discussing the plays do you have any specific criteria for the scoring?
Kitty: Mostly we use the Mission Statement. We want to know does this play fit our mission statement.
Kathy: As a reminder to our readers, the Mission Statement says: “Actors’ Theatre is committed to bring West Michigan the best in entertaining, innovative, challenging and thought-provoking theatre.”
Kitty: Also when Fred started Actors’ Theatre it was for the actors. So we look at is it good play for actors to do. Would they be challenged?
Kathy: Do you look specifically for controversial material?
Kitty: No. Challenging doesn’t mean controversial. We are theater that makes you think. Our audiences may love or may hate our shows but they are rarely ambivalent.
Kathy: So you’re saying that you really don’t look for controversy? C’mon….. don’t you want to shock your audiences?
Kitty: We look for good quality scripts that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen in this market. Sometimes that means a controversial script.
Other theaters do classic and mainstream plays and musicals but our mission is different. Whether it’s a play with a gay theme or a play about a serial killer or a play with a crazy wacky theme like Kimberly Akimbo they all have a message and should be seen. Shows like that in a theater like Actors’ add spice to Grand Rapids and make it a more interesting market. Think “Cool Cities” and stuff. We’re the spice. We have a “green” art museum, bike paths, Actors’ Theatre. All together it makes it an interesting place.
Kathy: What about Corpus Christi? I stage-managed that show we had protesters kneeling in the snow; we had to move off the GRCC campus for our second week and we were in the news and in the letters to the editor for a year. But it was a top selling show.
Kitty: We don’t pick shows to piss people off. Corpus Christi was one we wanted to do. It wasn’t picked because of the controversy. It was heart wrenching to be kicked out of our theatre. But Fountain Street Church welcomed us and we had four times the seating. It’s bittersweet to be kicked out of your own home. We thought Corpus Christi was very spiritual.
Kathy: What about money?
Kitty: Well, I get paid a lot to do this. And I pay the committee to choose plays with roles I could play. (laughs.) No seriously, budgets are actually in the next level of criteria but we do keep it in mind while reading.
A play like August Osage County, for example, has a huge set that might eat up the budget for the whole year. And we pay actors so shows with a large cast cost more. Right now one play we’re reading would require buying a whole magic act. It’s a great play but can we afford it? A lot of that goes into consideration.
Kathy: Anything else?
Kitty: We don’t want a season with all male or all female characters. We look for balance towards the end of the selection process. For example this season there was a sort of domino effect because the rights were not available for one show and then some shows were too similar in themes so it ended up that three plays had to be changed.
Kathy: What about musicals? We aren’t doing any this year. Don’t you always have to have at least one in the mix?
Kitty: I can’t comment because I was not on the committee that chose the season. Kyle has asked that we consider some for next season. But sometimes there just aren’t any available that fit our criteria. Also, I don’t vote on any of the shows, not just the musicals. I have no ear for musicals. There are people on the committee that do so I will not vote on those. I just administrate [the committee].
Kitty: At the end we present a slate of 10-12 plays from which to choose a season. The people deciding the final season will be the directors, with Kyle, and with Fred, We may also consult with Don Rice about the technical aspects of the shows and Catie Dreher about the lighting.
We choose a slate instead of a season because of the above and are the rights available? And even if they are at one point they may be pulled because the show goes on a road tour.
Kathy: So, what plays are you doing next year?
Kitty: A lady never tells her age – or her play selection slate….
Kathy: (sigh) No scoop here I guess….
Incidentally, you can see Kitty onstage in our upcoming production of “Frozen” opening on December 3rd.