Agents of Change? or, the struggle for a theme

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A Theme for This Season’s Plays: that’s kind of a “theaters-announcing-their-season” thing, right? I’ve worked with a few artistic directors following all sorts of models for planning a season, and I’ve learned that the capital-t Theme emerges in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s the element that helps to focus the planning team’s energies when considering dozens of scripts, sometimes (real talk) it’s a request from the marketing team for helping drive the messaging, and often, it’s a trend you start to notice as you’re hammering the final details of the final play into place before announcing.

Last year’s theme—“EPIC”—was a perfect way to describe 2018’s plays. It also evoked the sheer amount of work every artist, administrator, artisan, and technician involved had to undertake as a member of the company. EPIC is a marketing-friendly word, sure, but it also helped name and frame exactly what we were undertaking, how much fun the audience had to look forward to, and what we had achieved at the end of the season.

This year, the through-line is a little harder to capture with a single word. Wearing my marketing hat, I find this tricky. But with my dramaturg glasses on, I find this FASCINATING.

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Last September, our Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly wrote some initial thoughts about our two Shakespeare plays in conversation with each other. She mentioned the themes of witchcraft, the social constraints placed on women, and, surprisingly—climate change (sort of):

“There is so much in Shakespeare about elements in the climate reflecting/portending human states of being. Pathetic fallacy means that nature mirrors, and finds ‘universal’ expression for, a human state of mind—for example, the wind and rain in King Lear that batters the king and gives physical expression to the torment of his internal being.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the perversion of the seasons expresses the perversion of human goodness and orderliness. Old Hiems (winter) wears a necklace of spring flowers. In the topsy-turvy emotional world of Midsummer, everything in nature is affected by the struggles and constraints of mortals and fairies: everything in nature is thus distorted and damaged, thirsty for nurture just as the humans and fairies are thirsty for love.

In Macbeth we have a terribly unruly night presaging the death of Duncan:

The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.”

In an email I wrote to Artistic Director Eric Ting, I said, “I’m trying to build language for next season that runs a through-line. I think I’m landing on something about humanity’s influence (power? manipulation? transformation? alchemy?) on the world and the people around them, but I’m trying to find a pithy way to put it. The other day you mentioned the plays addressing a “panoply of humanity” which is pithy but not quite what I’m going for. Thoughts?”

This was the thematic brainstorming that resulted:

The Consequence of Our Humanity
Agents of Change
Manipulators Abound
We’re Not All Gods
Move Fast and Break Everything
Witches, Fairies, Gods, and Women: Changing the World Around Them Since Like, Forever.

…no? Well, like I said, this year’s capital-t Theme is not lending itself to a single word or phrase.

But it’s there, that overarching refrain. That we manipulate the people in our lives to get what we want, even if (perhaps especially if) we think it’s also what we deserve. That Mother Nature is strong, but she’s losing the battle royale against our human whims. That when given power after having had none, we often abuse it. That when losing power after having had it, we often revolt, in ways large and small. That we all affect the world around us, often—despite the best of intentions—for the worse.

That it’s never too late to set things right, no matter the cost.

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