Recently we have seen a few companies cancel or postpone shows for various reasons. And I have noticed that we are never short of shows to audition for on our TP Auditions Page. I do recall two weekends ago that about three different shows were auditioning. It wasn’t the first time and it wont be the last time I’m sure.
So costs of just about everything are going up, men seem to be a dying breed in amateur theatre, and the competition (so to speak) is multiplying constantly with more companies emerging every year. These reasons, plus scores of others I haven’t mentioned, mean that show choice is more crucial than ever for our companies.
I have managed (after much effort on my part!) to score interviews with three successful yet strikingly different companies. Babirra; who’s use of the niche market of presenting classics has produced results, Whitehorse; one of our larger companies, and ARC; a youth company that have carved out an audience that is uniquely their own. I find this to be a very compelling look of the committee side of theatre that I as a performer don’t often see; so I hope that all of you readers out there do too. It certainly makes you appreciate all of the effort and the lead up that goes into a show announcement or audition notice!
Babirra: President Owen Davies
Let me start by saying that show selection is the most important decision an amateur company makes. For us, the difference between a good and a bad choice is measured in tens of thousands of dollars in ticket sales.
We have a sub-committee, normally of four people, whose task it is to research potential shows and make recommendations to our full committee. Any decision is made by a vote at a committee meeting. Our sub-committee will normally make specific recommendations (rather than short lists). We have at different times done each of the following:
Chosen a show and advertised for directors.
Chosen a show and asked specific people to be on our production team.
Asked a director or production team to submit a specific proposal to us.
Received a specific proposal from a director or production team.
Received an expression of interest in working with us from a director or production team, which, after discussion has resulted in a specific proposal.
The most important factor in show selection for us is the appeal of the show to our audience. We must always be looking for shows that will sell, and in recent years have rejected many ideas on the grounds that the show won’t sell well enough. We try to start any discussion on selection with a decision on the style of show we want for the particular season e.g. light/comedy, serious, a dance show, strong or challenging musical content etc. We also look at the challenges in staging any particular show – sets, costumes etc. As our seasons have differing lead times for rehearsal and preparation we endeavour to assess the “fit” of the show to the time available.
We have surveyed audiences on 2 occasions and asked, among other things, what style of show they would like to attend. The results have tended to reflect the style of show that they are currently attending, but have nevertheless served as a guide. We have also asked respondents to indicate their age group and the suburb or post code in which they live. This has also helped quantify these important characteristics of our audience demographic.
There is no doubt that different types of show appeal to different people for both cast and production teams and we will take that into consideration. If we assess a show as being difficult to cast, for example, we may reject it.
Whitehorse: President Steve Cavell
At Whitehorse Musical Theatre, the committee have a Show Selection committee that is made up of a variety of talented and experienced people within the non-professional musical theatre industry. This includes directors, choreographers, performers and always a committee rep. The Show Selection committee work off a brief that is given by the committee, who then go away and work on presenting one suitable show, with recommendations of suitable production team members. As part of the committee, they go into research of things like the show’s history on Broadway and West End, productions with Victoria both professionally and amateur, as well as general costings and reasons why the show is suitable. It is then up to the committee to decide if the recommendations are suitable or not.
As for potential production teams making pitches – yes the committee are always enthusiastic about people proposing shows and production teams – these are usually considered by the Show Selection committee on its suitability, and in some instances we find the team is right but the show might not be.
What we consider in our choice: will it sell in amateur theatre and for Whitehorse, is it a known musical that will interest and be suitable for our General Public (smaller shows or ‘left of centre’ may not work for us), can we produce the show – that is, cast it, build sets for it, costumes, the right music, orchestra etc.
There are always shows that can be considered suitable or not suitable for certain production team members. Looking at a director, Whitehorse have always considered big productions such as Beauty and the Beast or Les Miserables to be suitable for people such as Chris Bradke, where as a production that is more modern we looked at people like Scott Hili for High School Musical, and David Parsons for Footloose. The show itself needs to be something that truly fits the production team, and also that the production team fit together.
As for what attracts cast members – there is definitely variety. Taking our current show of Anything Goes, the style and type of cast members we have in this show is very different to High School Musical. We do have some regular Whitehorse members that perform in a lot of our shows, but the skills and style of the show is very much specific to the show type – from tapping dance in 1930s costumes now, to basketball bouncing in jeans and modern t-shirts in High School Musical.
Our best choice recently was Seussical The Musical – this was before I was on committee, but having been involved in the production, to see it evolve with 40+ cast members from the little hall in Box Hill, to the installation set on The Besen Centre – was an amazing process to be involved in. And not only was it the fact that the show took many awards later that year at the Guild Awards, including Production of the Year, it needs to be brought back to those that made the show possible – the audiences. Seeing the faces of the kids when various Seussical characters came out into the foyer to greet them was the highlight of the experience.
The company did survey audience members years ago – unfortunately the results of the types of shows were big blockbuster shows such as Phantom of the Opera. Even though General Public can give good indications of the show they enjoy seeing, they don’t understand how involved show selection can be. From things like if the rights are available, to can it be produced with our theatre/budget/resources, to will it even sell. These are all things that even as a committee we are always looking at developing our knowledge and understanding of show selection.
General Public and fellow theatre goers need to understand and appreciate the difficulties committees on behalf of company’s have to go through when it comes to show selection. At the end of the day, we are a business marketing a service. We need to ensure that we have the right product, at the right time, attracting the right people. We spend a lot of time working on one single show, and even then we sometimes get it wrong. But that is the journey within amateur theatre that we all enjoy going on.
ARC: President Julian Campobasso
At ARC, the whole process is handled by the previous year’s committee. We only do one show a year and we like to announce our new show before the completion of the previous one so it leaves us with no real choice other than leaving show selection to the old committee. Announcing the show early means we can get a jump on promotion and we can better sell it to the existing cast in the hope that they’ll stick around for another year. Being a youth theatre company, we always have committee turnover so by the time the show comes around the people who selected the show sometimes aren’t involved anymore. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though as often you’ll find that if a person knows that they’ll be there the following year they’ll push for shows that suit them rather than what would be best for the company. In the three years that I’ve been on the ARC committee the process has worked really well. Our committee also acts as producer for all our shows so it gives the new committee a clear direction to head in as soon as they’re elected, minus the fuss.
The process itself is quite a unique and exhausting experience for all involved but in the end you need to be as thorough as possible with it. Selecting a show is easily the most important decision that any company makes as it’s the basis for nearly every decision you make from then until it’s finished. If you choose the wrong show then you’re only making things difficult, especially if you’re with a small company where an unsuccessful show can mean a lot more than a bad review, these days especially.
We have a set of criteria that we follow when narrowing the shows down to a shortlist. Being a youth theatre company that aims to provide opportunity we like to make sure that we are able to cater for a large cast and that the show will appeal to our age range of 15-28. You’d actually be surprised at the kinds of shows that are attractive to young people. You wouldn’t think it, but traditional “older” shows are actually really popular with the young musical theatre crowd so we don’t shy away from selecting them if we feel the urge. We always try to select shows that have a name that people know (the non theatre crowd included) and that haven’t been done for a while, at least a couple of years if possible. It’s hard to generate interest if people have never heard of the show or it’s been done to death. Money and feasibility are also important. We don’t generally consider shows that we think will strain the budget or we don’t think we can stage from a technical stand point. Having said that we do like to challenge ourselves and what we consider to be doable on a certain budget or in a certain space others may not agree with. We’re pretty ambitious in this regard.
We haven’t necessarily surveyed them but we always like to find out where a person heard about the show. I think that most theatre companies would find that a huge chunk of their audiences would be friends and family of the people involved. This is especially true with us as most of the people we have performing are still young and (it sounds bad but it’s true) they have a much easier time getting their friends and family to see them perform then what a seasoned performer who has done a stack of shows would. This is one observation we’ve made at least.
We do always consider what we think an audience will want to see when we select a show but in truth very few shows sell themselves anyway so attracting an audience to come and see it is as much about how you market the show as it is about what show you’re doing.
You’re always going to attract different sorts of people depending on your show choice. The trick is to get people to come back to the company after doing a show. If you can create the kind of environment where people want to return regardless of the show then that’s the key. Being a youth company we’re always going to have a high turnover of people but we need to make sure that we have enough returning year to year to keep the company wheels turning. This obviously isn’t easy to do but we are lucky in the sense that the culture of our company lends itself to that kind of involvement maybe a little more so than usual.
West Side Story last year was a great choice for us. I’ve never been involved in a show like it, everything just clicked. The show itself was fantastic from an artistic standpoint and we were really lucky to perform almost all our shows to full houses which was incredible. Reviews were great and the audience loved it.
Probably our biggest gauge on success for the show wasn’t what happened on the stage, but what happened off it. Never have I ever seen a tighter cast or one that genuinely enjoyed each others company more. This kind of success we value higher than any. If theatre isn’t fun then why do it? The fact that the show ended 7 months ago and ever since there hasn’t been a week gone by that at least half the cast haven’t met up to socialize is testament to success of the show. I’ve never seen anything like it. So many of these guys have now gone on to fill leadership positions at the company which is great and it looks like we’ve found some real long term ARCians out of it which is brilliant.
an is currently writing his PhD in musical theatre at Monash University and holds a master's degree in musical theatre, a bachelor's degree in drama, an AMusA in flute performance, and a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. His honours thesis was entitled Transposition in Jonathan Larson's RENT, and his master's examined Jason Robert Brown's early-career compositional techniques. In his extra-curricular life he is a sought-after musical director and runs a thriving vocal studio from his home in Clayton South. Visit www.iannisbet.com for more information.