Sunday, March 11, 2018

Setting the Season

The Upcoming Season at Ivoryton Playhouse

            It takes a lot of time, talent and perseverance to put on a show (and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt), but what if the onerous task of producing not just one but seven shows in a single season falls on your shoulders? Would you, like Ayn Rand’s Atlas, shrug, let the weight fall from those shoulders? Well, Jacqueline Hubbard is not one to shrug, and she hasn’t for close to two decades as she has boarded plays and musicals at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse, where, as the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, she is hip-deep in the details of creating the venue’s 2018 season.
Jacqueline Hubbard. Photo by Peter M. Weber
            I met with Hubbard at the Playhouse’s offices, which thankfully had power – the theater itself, down the road, was still dark after a Nor’easter had recently blown through the town. As I walked into her office she was fielding a phone call and giving directions to an assistant – something about the code for the alarm at the theater. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was also juggling three multi-colored balls in the air and tap dancing.

            In a British accent shaded and softened by her years in the States, Hubbard explained the process of bringing seven shows to Ivoryton.

            “As soon as the last season is finalized,” she said, “I set up a big board for the next season and I start moving different plays around. We have plays that plop in different slots over the course of the year. We know that we’re going to put musicals in the two big summer slots and we know where we’re going to try a comedy or a drama.”

            The Ivoryton Playhouse has a supportive board of directors, but over the years Hubbard has earned the board’s trust, so what goes where in the season and what finally occurs when the curtain rises is really her call – and she agonizes over the selection, and it’s not just a simple matter of material to produce.

            “I really wanted to do a new play – we ended up going for two new plays, both by women, which is kind of nice. It never really settles until November – there might be five or six shows that I’m definite about but there’s always one or two that I go backwards and forwards on until something pushes it over the edge.”

            What gives the push? Well, consider the last show slated for the 2018 season, the world premiere of “Queens of the Golden Mask.” The play was originally submitted for consideration for Ivoryton’s Women’s Play Festival, but it was two acts and the festival limited the submissions to one act. Hubbard called the playwright, Carole Lockwood, complimented her on the play, explained why it couldn’t be considered for the festival but suggested that it might make a wonderful movie. Lockwood told her a deal might be in the works. Fast forward two or three months – the deal had fallen through over script changes the playwright didn’t want to make.

            What’s the play about? Well, it’s set in the early Sixties and deals with women involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Current events – specifically the Charlottesville protest and its aftermath – brought the play back to Hubbard’s mind. “I re-read it and I met with the writer,” Hubbard recalled, “and I said to her that I was going to do a special reading of the play during the festival. She was very excited. That was in September, and in October I woke up one morning and said to myself: ‘What am I doing? This play should be produced.’ And that was it.”

            Hubbard is an actor, a director and a producer. She has been involved, one way or another, with theater since she was a young girl and, given her years at Ivoryton, she is painfully aware of the economics that often determine what is and is not produced, and yet the theatrical seasons she creates are by and large also determined by her gut instincts. These instincts are extremely important when selecting the two musicals that will run at Ivoryton over the summer.

            “Often with the big musicals it’s availability,” Hubbard explained. “We are a small theater. People who hold the rights to plays want to make the most money that they can. So, when I apply for the rights to a play, and I have 280 seats, and another theater applies and they have a thousand seats, and it’s at the same time and we’re within a hundred miles of each other, I will lose.”

            It often all comes down to money as to whether or not Hubbard can “lock something down.” It all depends on what’s in the Ivoryton coffers at the moment. “Rights to do a big musical,” she pointed out, “usually run around $30,000, and they usually want $5,000 or $10,000 up front, which is a lot of money for us. If we’re doing well at the start of the year, with subscriptions and whatever, then I can lock down some of the bigger musicals.” However, “lock down” isn’t an absolute – sometimes it’s a “Yes” followed by a “No, sorry.” Those who hold the rights to the plays giveth and taketh away on a regular basis, especially when there’s a national tour in the offing.

            Although she may not want to admit it, Hubbard has a certain “nanny” mentality when it comes to scheduling some of the shows for the season. By that I mean she senses what her audience – and not just her subscribers – might be needing, that spoon full of sugar that might help the medicine of current events go down just a bit easier. Hence, the decision to schedule “The Fantasticks” as the opening production of the season.

            “I thought… feeling extremely…weighed down by the complete mess the world is in,” Hubbard said, shaking her head, “and feeling that we had to open the season after months of hibernation and overdosing on CNN with something that had a bit of a fairytale quality but  also a touch of realism…’Fantasticks’ has that.” It also doesn’t hurt that David Pittsinger, who will play El Gallo (and, yes, sing “Try to remember”) and his wife, Patricia Schuman, were available for the show. Over the past few years, Pittsinger, a world-renowned bass-baritone, and Schuman, a diva known for her stunning portrayals of operatic heroines, have graced the Ivoryton stage.
David Pittsinger
           Pittsinger and Schuman, along with R. Bruce Connelly, who will play Henry, have become Ivoryton favorites, but Hubbard understands that Ivoryton’s future must rest with expanding the venue’s audience, even at the risk of possibly alienating some of the “old-timers” who still help fill the house.

            “I think that, twelve or fifteen years ago when we were still in the process of building a subscriber base our demographics heavily influenced what we put on. Less so today. Of course, I have to think about them, but I also know that we have to attract a new audience, so we try to let them know,” meaning the old guard, if you will, “that that is our plan, that we want to produce theater that they will enjoy but also we are going to produce things that may not be their first choice…but please come, and let me know…and they let me know!”

            Hubbard has received letters from subscribers suggesting that what the Playhouse is producing doesn’t appeal to them. She responds to them, politely, but points out that the times they are a’changing.

            As a nod to the Playhouse’s demographics, Hubbard has scheduled “Love Quest,” by Mary Maguire and Steven McGraw, to follow “The Fantasticks,” with Hubbard directing and starring Linda Purl. It focuses on two women, one in her 60s, the other in her 30s, who are both, well, questing for love in the strange new world of Face Book, speed dating and cybersex. “It’s a new play,” Hubbard said, “and [the playwrights] are open to working on it.” As to why she has chosen this particular vehicle: “I have to find something to connect with in a play. It’s always been to the detriment of the piece if I haven’t.” Hubbard has worked with the writers and she believes that Ivoryton can make the play fun, funnier “and have a few more layers.”

            And what if it isn’t fun? Well, that’s always a possibility, especially with a new play. You just never know until it’s on its legs and all you can do is hope that it doesn’t stumble. “I will know,” Hubbard said, “by the Thursday evening of the run, because I will have had my complete audience demographic by then for those three performances.” And if the show isn’t working? “My instinct is to run away,” Hubbard admitted, “but I rarely get farther than the tavern across the street.”

            Hubbard explained that minor adjustments can be made during the run of a show, but if major surgery is required the patient is left to gasp out its last stertorous breaths and then is silently put to rest. “We simply don’t have a long enough run to make major changes,” Hubbard said, then added: “I try to get directors I trust. There have been times…well…I won’t dwell on the past.”

            Following “Love Quest” on the schedule is “A Night with Janis Joplin,” a show that, after previews, ran for 141 performances on Broadway in 2013-14. Again, it’s a show that was lodged somewhere in Hubbard’s mind and she associated it, and the demographic that the show might appeal to, with the same demographic that had made “Million Dollar Quartet” such a hit at Ivoryton.
Janis Joplin
She wondered what had ever happened to the Janis Joplin musical and so she did a bit of research, sent an email, and then “my phone rings and it’s the guy who owns the show and he starts talking to me about the show, saying he’s putting together a tour.” Hubbard’s response: “Well, keep us in mind.” It turned out that the show ended up being staged by North Carolina Theatre in May, and so Hubbard opted to “piggy-back” the production with the North Carolina venue. “We cast it together,” Hubbard said, “and we’re bringing in the whole production – sets, costumes, everything. It’s not a little show – it’s got an eight-piece band! In costumes…and wigs.” Hubbard smiled waggishly: “I just love that music, so that’s going to be fun.”

            For the summer, undoubtedly the most important part of Ivoryton’s season, the venue will be boarding “Grease,” immediately followed by “A Chorus Line,” both to be directed by Todd Underwood, who has become the go-to man for staging many of Ivoryton’s musicals. To say that the run of these two shows will be make-or-break time for Ivoryton is an understatement.

            “These two productions represent the bulk of our revenue,” Hubbard explained, but then added a BUT: “”They cost us almost what we spend on them. They are our anchor shows – they bring people in and if somebody comes to one of them and says, “Hey, I’ll buy a three-play subscription,’ well…in some ways these shows are ‘lost-leaders,’ we sell out but they’re so expensive for us to produce – expensive for housing, for everything else that goes along with a big musical.” Hubbard paused, then shrugged. “Nobody will come out for small shows in the summer,” she said, “so we have no choice, but they give us the freedom to do, well, the other stuff.”

            The nanny in Hubbard influenced her choice for Ivoryton’s penultimate show, “Once.” Again, she’s offering that spoon full of sugar for a world she sees as somewhat weary and woebegone. “I saw it several times on Broadway,” Hubbard said, “and I thought it was a little gem but…well, nobody has heard of it,” the “nobody” meaning the folks who normally patronize Ivoryton. She sees “Once,” as she does “The Fantasticks,” as a bit of a fairytale, something that just might lighten the hearts, if only for a moment, of those who attend.

            As experienced as Hubbard is, she knows that she can be wrong and is willing to learn from her mistakes. She referenced the recent women’s play festival and, well, here’s how she explains it: “One of the writers came in with a piece and it ended with four minutes of silence, a couple just looking into each other’s eyes. That’s it. I said to the author, ‘You can’t do that. That’s death on stage,’ and she said, ‘I’d really like to try it.’ Well, this is the reason we bring these writers up here, to try these things. So the play was about a couple who was separated and the husband is trying to get the wife back, to get her to stay, and throughout the whole play, well, you just want her to stay, and he asks her to sit, just for four minutes, that’s all he’s asking for. And…you know…the audience held its breath for four minutes and at the end of it, when the lights went out, they were all on their feet and I thought, well, I’m happy to say I was wrong. I thought it would be disastrous. but it worked, so there are things we can do that I didn’t think were possible…and there you go.”

            Yes, it worked, and much of what Hubbard does at Ivoryton “works.” The lady doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses, but she, nested in the Connecticut hinterlands, does love theater, and loves what she does, and that is evident, and perhaps it all works so well because, quite simply, she cares…and can smile even when the power goes out.

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