Originally created 08/25/02

Sculpting the perfect arts season

Before a single note is sung or played, before one line is delivered or one deft step executed, arts organizations must mount their most complicated production of the year - the development of a successful performance season.

Between September and May, Augusta theater groups, musical ensembles, dance companies and visual-arts institutions will present a variety of works, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. For the arts professionals who choose the works, programming a season means balancing issues both economic and aesthetic. Decisions about which pieces and programs will attract patrons, challenge artists and educate both are weighed against production costs and calender slots.

Katherine DeLoach, managing director of the Augusta Opera, said two-thirds of the season is always sure-fire productions that will attract an audience. She said that by scheduling two "hits," the opera is then offered the opportunity to roll its artistic dice with a riskier piece.

"What we always want is quality," she said. "That's of the utmost importance to us. That's why we try to offer at least one thing that allows people to branch out a little bit. It's funny, people always say they want to see those pieces they know. But if you do those pieces time and again, then they wonder why you keep doing Carmen."

This year, the Augusta Opera changed the way it programs a season and has lined up productions through 2006. It's an approach the Augusta Ballet has always taken. Zanne Colton, the ballet's artistic director, said that because so many of the company's productions are Augusta Ballet originals, season planning may start years in advance.

"It's a huge, huge, giant, giant puzzle we have to put together," she said. "There are some ideas that I will have or that Peter (Powlus, Augusta Ballet choreographer) will have that will take years to develop. A production like Hatfields and McCoys will take about three years to develop. So we have a lot of burners and a lot of pots to watch as we figure out what we want to do, what we are able to do and how it fits."

Ms. Colton said that keeping an audience satiated is important, but she also must consider the continued development of the ballet's dancers. It's an aspect of season selecting that any company with professional performers must consider.

"The audience is always foremost in your mind," said Donald Portnoy, Augusta Symphony musical director and conductor. "But performers need to grow as well. An orchestra needs to grow. By choosing pieces that challenge the orchestra, we are able to increase the number of things we can do. It means that we can play some of the giants of the orchestral repertoire - Mahler symphonies and that sort of thing."

Barbara Feldman, executive director of Storyland Theatre, said that developing a season of plays for school-aged children means drawing from a different pool of literature, but that her goals are the same as any other performing-arts group.

"Our goal is to expose audiences to a variety of theatrical techniques and forms," Ms. Feldman said. "That's how we start. We want them to think about what these shows are about. Other groups have the challenge of finding different productions that will appeal to different audiences. Our audiences are so diverse that we have to try to do productions that will appeal to every audience."

Because an arts organization cannot live on applause alone, the economics of a production must be considered before it can be included in the schedule. Production costs include costumes, theater rental, royalties, performer payroll and publicity.

"We all have to look at the economics," Ms. Colton said. "For us, a new production, mounted, can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. So before we stage a piece, we have to look at the possibility of income."

Ms. Colton said that high production costs preclude many organizations from doing as many original or high-profile pieces as they would like. This season, the Augusta Opera decided to forgo staging the Strauss opera Die Fledermaus because the large-scale production would have been too great an economic risk.

Cost issues mean that organizations such as the Augusta Ballet and Storyland Theatre restage productions already in their repertoire and that groups such as Augusta Symphony and Augusta Opera may mount productions that use smaller ensembles or cost less to obtain rights.

"You can't get away from thinking about what the cost of a program will be," Mr. Portnoy said. "For instance, to rent contemporary music can be very expensive. The standard stuff, on the other hand, is not that expensive to do. However, I feel like people need to hear that modern music, so the bottom line becomes a compromise between doing these things you are thinking about and making them fit economically."

The greatest challenge of developing a season schedule, Mr. Portnoy said, is making it seem effortless. Patrons aren't interested in the angst and agonizing that goes into finding those perfect performance pieces. What an audience is interested in is the final result, the magic that happens when the curtain goes up and a performance begins.

"That's our responsibility," Ms. Colton said. "It is our job to perform, to heighten their cultural experience, to educate and to entertain. To do that, we have to maintain the highest standard of artistic excellence and we can never pander or play down to the audience. We have to give the very best we can."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.


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