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Fall Preview / The Arts | How I Chose My Season

'Only Such Different People Could Make This Mix Work'

GILBERT CATES / Geffen Playhouse

September 15, 2002|GILBERT CATES

Sometime in late spring, the mailings start to arrive: season announcements from area theaters, providing a range of shows for nearly every taste. Usually there's a familiar name on the roster--maybe a playwright or a production, an actor or a director. Often there's a world premiere or a local premiere. Occasionally, there's a classic. Always there are surprises. For some venues, the season has already started; for others, September marks the beginning of the year. In scanning the rosters, many people wonder how these shows were selected. Is there a magical formula involved in putting together a season? We asked the decision-makers at five theaters to share how they made selections.

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Here's how it works: Three people sit down in an office. One is an actor-director from a small town in Illinois who loves Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard; another is an L.A.-bred Valley girl who prefers Shakespeare and Suzan-Lori Parks; and a third, myself, a New Yorker from the Bronx whose taste runs the gamut from Arthur Miller to vaudeville. And, believe it or not, we pick the plays. Sounds simple enough, but it's the trickiest part of running a theater.

My colleagues Randall Arney, artistic director, and Amy Levinson Millan, literary manager, help me in choosing a balanced, diverse season. And only three such different people with such diverse tastes could make this mix work.

The key for us, what makes us feel as though we've chosen successfully, is that our audiences never know what to expect when they walk in the door. Here is a peek at next season, in which we have tried to choose plays that not only satisfy us, but also appeal to a broad, venturesome theatrical audience.

Our first production, "Under the Blue Sky," by 28-year-old Englishman David Eldridge, is a wicked, intelligent play about the nature of love and sex. Bill Haber, a Broadway producer and friend of the Geffen, optioned the New York rights. Bill gave it to me to read for my opinion, and I knew I wanted to direct it. Much to my pleasure, Randall and Amy loved it as well. With Bill's approval, we are one of the first theaters to produce it in the United States.

I think it is important to keep developing the audience of tomorrow. In this vein, we have presented Mabou Mines' "Peter and Wendy," "Ennio" and, last season, "Do Jump!" This season, Debbie Allen and James Ingram have written a contemporary version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the family called "Pearl."

A goal of mine since the inception of this theater in 1995 is to bring in one event seasonally that is unlike anything our audience has ever seen. Ideally, this nontraditional, theatrical event is something our subscribers can bring their children to, although that is not always the case.

Next, we are producing the world premiere of Neil Simon's "Rose and Walsh." The Geffen had a reading of this play after the successful presentation this year of Neil's new look at the "Odd Couple," "Oscar and Felix." Lee Grant, John Larroquette, Brendan Fraser and Dinah Manoff participated in the reading. "Rose and Walsh" is a rich and profoundly moving story about the nature of love and its ability to outlive us all. We are pleased to have the opportunity to be the first to produce this play by one of America's most beloved playwrights.

"Boy Gets Girl," by Rebecca Gilman, was sent to Randall by a friend. The evocative nature of the play, which is both a thriller and an in-depth look at sexual politics in the '90s, attracted Randall to directing the play. This is important to us, as Randall and I are both looking for material that we are interested in directing, so it plays an important role in the season selection. Usually, these are the plays we discover first, and then we are able to design and balance a season around those choices.

Closing our season is Richard Nelson's "Franny's Way," which was found the old-fashioned way. Amy read a blurb about it, called the writer's agent and had it sent over. Within five days, we all had read it and moved on getting the rights. What we were most attracted to is the time and place in which the story is told. Mr. Nelson has written a new play with fresh ideas that is at once nostalgic and contemporary.

It would be insincere to say that our personal tastes do not play a role in our season selection, but the key here is that the deciding parties have very different tastes. Don't be surprised though if one of these days we have Shakespeare, Pinter and "Minsky's Burlesque" in one season.

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Gilbert Cates is producing director of the Geffen Playhouse.

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