How do we narrow down the 300-plus list of plays and musicals to select our 6 to 7 show season each year?
The quick answer is tons of reading. We seek plays from the writers and agents we have a relationship with, from like-minded theatres, from festivals, prizes and award lists, as well as from targeting a diversity of new playwrights. We are constantly gathering new scripts to be read and evaluated. Our nine-person artistic team reads and discusses many of the finalists, but only after a diverse group of 25 volunteer readers help us find the plays that fit our San Diego REP mission:
“San Diego Repertory Theatre produces intimate, provocative, inclusive theatre. We promote an interconnected community through vivid works that nourish progressive political and social values and celebrate the multiple voices of our region. San Diego Repertory Theatre feeds your curious soul.”
While there are many factors that go into the final selection process, including ensuring a range of themes and diversity of stories by multiple playwright perspectives, director tastes and availability, casting requirements, and overall budgetary needs, first we must narrow down our search to a short list of plays that will speak to our audience.
Each week the artistic team—which consists of Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse, Associate Artistic Director Todd Salovey, Managing Director Larry Alldredge, Production Manager Chelsea Smith, Associate Producer/Casting Director Kim Heil, Latinx Programs Producer Patrice Amon, Playwright-in-Residence Herbert Siguenza, Company Manager Sarah Zimmerman, and myself as Literary Manager—gathers for a 2½ hour meeting. We talk about the various details of each upcoming project and also discuss the merits of the plays read that week.
Of the plays that rise to the top, we are often unanimous in our recommendations, like with Madhuri Shekar’s House of Joy and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. Other plays, however, spark a hearty debate. Such was the case with Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced
or Robert Askin’s Hand to God
. If you have seen those provocative plays, you might imagine the passionate discussions we had. Often times, it is this passionate discussion that leads us to select a show for our season. If it inspires curious conversations within our team, we expect our audiences’ interest to be piqued as well.
In our upcoming season, I picked a good example for a play we hope will tickle your curiosity. We are producing a politically themed play by award-winning playwright Aaron Posner called JQA
(after the incomparable John Quincy Adams who was a diplomat, a one-term President and a congressman known for his eloquence, arrogance and integrity.) The play imagines conversations between some of America’s most dynamic figures including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln.
Theatre reviewers have noted that “Posner distills the essence of a play in ways that intensify its emotional flavor.” (Washington Post) and “Despite its serious, retrospective premise, one of the delights of JQA is that it's also quite funny—the show finds humor in most of its heavy subjects, and draws laughs from the audience as it winks at modern events and mindsets.” (BroadwayWorld)
Now we are pulling back the curtain—or rather opening the conference room door—for you to see how the conversation went within our artistic team. Here are some of our first responses to reading the play and, ultimately, why it ended up within our season right before the 2020 election.
Sam said: What is the name for an emotion of warmth and tenderness and pride that comes from hearing John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln talking about what remarkable and flawed country we live in and that it is a dream like no other? Is it patriotism? If it is, this is the first time a play has made me feel such.
If we want to do a play during the Fall 2020 election finals leading into voting day that inspired the audience to DO RIGHT FOR AMERICA when they vote, this is it. The play is filled with powerful arguments about what role a government should play in our lives and what the American government should do for its people in terms that transcend any particular election year. The quote from Abigail Adams, "To be good, and to do good, is the whole duty of man..." and the one from Frederick Douglass, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress" both sum up what this play is about.
While it is not the most emotional and vulnerable of plays, it is among the smartest and provocative I have read in a while. As always, Aaron Posner has written a very smart play.
Danielle said: The conceit of this play—having four diverse actors/actresses portray John Quincy Adams throughout his life—is hip and Hamilton-esque. What makes this play sizzle is not the bio-pic slice of history scenes showing who John Quincy Adams was, but rather the conversations about the creation of government and how it informs our nation now, all of which are voiced from a cast that looks like America today. Overall, I was engaged with the political overlay between past and present. This would be an interesting choice to put before the 2020 election as it offers a nice reflection of our governmental leaders and practices without hitting the nail on the head. It is also interesting to see the inner-workings by pulling back the curtain on conversations between famous leaders of our nation.
Kim said: This would be a powerful show to produce a month or so before the election takes over all of public media. It examines the values of the constitution and our forefathers while taking a critical Hamiltonâ€‹-esque eye by placing people of color and women in the center of an otherwise white male story. Before reading it, I wondered if this casting gimmick could be as impactful as it was in Hamilton, seeing as audiences have already gone through this viewing exercise. But, Aaron Posner doesn't merely rely on gestures to make his point. His writing is thoughtful, intelligent, and packed with insights that have resonance today.
Todd said: It was a fun read. You can certainly see Posner as a post post-modern George Bernard Shaw. I love how he uses “historical” scenes to put words in Andrew Jackson or others’ mouths that have super-resonance with thinking of today. However, I don’t like how the writer is generally telling me what the right way to think about things is. Yet, I love the multiple casting of a small diverse company in range of historical roles. I think audiences will see the contemporary resonance of the historical figures debating issues. It’s a smart, funny, and oddly moving play.
Patrice said: This is a tight script where the history doesn't stand in the way of the storytelling. This script is free from the burdensome language of the past, the 'thees' and 'thous' that make history feel so distant from our lives today. Posner's language is contemporary—not as ultra-contemporary as Qui Nguyen—which allows him to bring historical figures to the stage without losing reverence. The story is a biographical sketch, touching down at moments in JQA's life and had some fun moments that connected to today. The reference point between the infantile Andrew Jackson and his reliance on self-educated voting blocks especially resonated with the current administration's reliance on voting blocks. Still, I felt like the play was a bit removed from our world, even the Jackson piece stops short of calling out the blatant racism of the world that now structures our current reality.
Herbert said: I was worried I would be bored by the history, but this play educated me about one of our early Presidents who was born into privilege and raised to lead, (think Bush or Kennedy,) yet was passionate about literature as well as political fairness. I wanted to dislike the clever premise of portraying John Quincy Adam’s political career through four different actors of color. But gosh darn it, Posner is a master craftsman who is able to convey complicated ideas as easy as reading a comic book.
After seeing “Hold These Truths,” I’m convinced a typical Rep audience member loves text with great acting. This is exactly that, times four. This is a thinking person’s comedy that requires four terrific actors.
It is provocative, eye opening and painfully funny. The Henry Clay scene made me roar with laughter! “Compromise until your balls are blue!” Yes. Ideally, our government is a game of compromise, checks and balances. It’s obvious that Posner wrote this play NOW to show us how far we have gotten away from this in the self-serving bi-partisan politics that aren’t currently serving the people who elected the politicians in the first place. It’s not a cautionary tale, but rather a call to go back to the fundamentals that have (mostly) served us well so far.
So, to sum up the responses we have: three raves that say "we must do this play this fall," two strong recommendations with a few concerns or caveats and one reluctant reader who became an avid advocate in the end.
We can’t wait to hear YOUR take on this play.
Sam Woodhouse will be directing JQA
, which will play October 8 through November 1 in our Lyceum Space, closing just two days before the 2020 presidential election. Come, share your thoughts, and then make sure you vote!
Written by Danielle Ward, San Diego REP Literary Manager