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Failing and Trying – The Advantages of Theatremaking in the University Setting

A topic that’s been circulating back around on the blog in the past few weeks has been the BU School of Theatre’s place in the larger university setting, specifically in terms of uniting with the larger university curricula and sharing what we in the SOT have to offer with a university-wide audience (See: Rachel Rees’ post “They need it more than we do“, Abi Oshins’ “We need them. They need us. Where’s the problem?” and my own “BU SOT, Why Are We Even Here?“). But I’ve also been thinking of something else that is unique about working within a university school of theatre setting that affects our role in the larger American theatre community – the opportunity we have to be a laboratory for new work, fringe work, and in general plays that are hardly or rarely produced.

Today in my Scenic Design 1 class, our professor Jim Noone spoke about the general lack of willingness to take risks among professional theatre companies. This mentality certainly exists on Broadway, but also extends to theatres in all branches of professional theatre. The fact remains that if a theatre chooses to produce a “risky” play – a play that is controversial in content or subject matter, a play that is little or lesser known, or even a classic that has been reimagined or adapted in a way people may find challenging – they run the risk of losing money and suffering as a company. Theatres are businesses after all, and businesses have people to pay. It is not surprising that most theatre companies would rather produce plays that they think will sell than take a chance that may end in significant company losses. Even startup theatre companies with bold mission statements about changing the face of American theatre need to consider this as well, lest they go bankrupt halfway through their inaugural season.

On the other side of things, those of us operating within a university theatre setting have the special privilege that we can create theatre for explorative learning purposes. We can develop challenging production concepts that stretch our imaginations and our ideas of what is possible for us as theatremakers. We can take a stab at a work that literally every other theatre in the country would never touch.

We can also fail gloriously, over and over again. We can produce works of theatre that no one may come to see except our parents and our professors who are grading us. We can adapt a classic play terribly. We can create works that others may find to be in very poor taste.

Certainly we as student theatremakers will never aim to fail, and will do everything in our power to make work that we believe in and that we think should meet our audience. But if it doesn’t work out, we will have learned so many lessons from our experience that would otherwise be unteachable. We are able to proceed into our next challenge with that information under our belts, smarter and better prepared as makers of theatre. In the university setting, there is no real loss after our failures – only gain.

As an example, I am currently part of the stage management team for BU’s production of Pacific Overtures. To say that Pacific is a lesser-known Sondheim musical seems somewhat of an understatement. The show has had three keynote productions – 1976 Broadway premiere, 2004 London premiere, and a 2004 Broadway revival. This year, Boston University is one of two American theatre groups who have purchased the rites of production for the musical. The other producing theatre, according to our music director, is a middle school in –  Arkansas? Illinois? I can’t recall exactly. Suffice it to say, ours is pretty much the only major production of Pacific this year.

This was not accidental. In some of the first rehearsals and design meetings, Jim Petosa – the musical’s stage director and the director of the BU School of Theatre – described his specific reasons for why he believes this play should be produced in this moment, in our specific community. But he also said that it was important to him that we at BU did not produce the most popular musicals, shows that are done often and could be seen anywhere. Though he did not say this specifically, my impression was that we are not particularly concerned about getting butts into the seats of the Wimberly Theatre. We are exploring this play that others have shied away from producing in order to learn and grow as theatre artists. And that is our privilege as makers of theatre at Boston University.

We are entering our first week of staging rehearsals, and already I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement and a little bit of terror at how large, crazy, and complex (literally and ideologically) our production of this musical is going to be. The undertaking is certainly a huge one, and though our team is more than capable, there certainly exists the possibility of failure. There certainly exists the possibility that our audiences will find our production jarring or challenging in ways with which they are not comfortable. These possibilities exist, and that is undeniably part of what makes being part of the production so thrilling. I am grateful for our opportunity to fail! I am grateful for our opportunity to give it all we have.

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