Every Production Is a Moonshot: Research on Improving Repertoire Selection

Conclusions

As the case studies were completed, we asked the companies to assess their experience of Moonshot. All five found the overall process, documentation, and summary report of observations and recommendations highly valuable, and they felt that the deep dive exercise was particularly meaningful. Tara Mallen, artistic director of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, told us, “The process of looking back at our full history and discussing the successes and failures openly was absolutely invaluable.” Newer leaders gained richer understanding of the history that had shaped the company culture they’d inherited. Leadership teams learned each other’s internal calculus and arrived at shared language. Managing directors understood artistic leaders’ approaches and considerations more deeply and saw opportunities for their new strategic filters to inform fundraising, marketing, and community engagement efforts as well.

The case study companies identified recommendations they planned to implement, but the pandemic’s disruption of the play selection and production cycle prohibited assessment of implementation and outcomes. As a result, we believe that Moonshot’s hypothesis–that nonprofit theatres can improve their repertoire selection processes and practices and that this will result in improved outcomes–was supported but not confirmed by the project. Confirmation will require evaluation over several years to determine if companies make and sustain improvements to their practices and if successful production outcomes increase.

Even with these limits, Moonshot provided a rare chance for the case study companies to confirm and realign around what is central to their work as theatremakers. The process strengthened their sense of identity, gave them a firmer grip on the increasingly challenging context in which they produce, created tools for play selection grounded in their values, clarified their aspirations, and suggested ways to assess and measure the results of their decisions. Miranda González, producing artistic director of UrbanTheater Company, wrote,

“Being a historically underfunded organization and gaining access to a grant that supported us moving through this process was satisfying. We were finally allowed to take the time to deepen and clearly communicate our purpose and aesthetic. Creating language together, as an organization, with outside facilitation gave us a perspective that was invaluable.”

Theatre artists and leaders are creative, persistent, and adaptive. Those are the qualities that will bring theatre into a new epoch.

Moonshot introduced practical alternatives to what is often a chaotic process. Case study companies emerged with navigational tools and a map of their practices that can be updated as they learn and evolve. While Moonshot’s focus was on improving repertoire decision-making, the benefits of doing the foundational work go well beyond repertoire decisions. The case study companies’ work in Moonshot helped inform their strategic planning and leadership as well.

Since the case studies concluded, the companies have told us that Moonshot’s recommendations and the tools we developed together have become springboards for operational improvement. Lisa Dillman, Rivendell’s literary director, recently shared,

“We had a great ensemble retreat and are making terrific headway with our season planning while keeping all the great ideas mined from the Moonshot process in the forefront.”

Megan Carney, artistic director of About Face Theatre, who had participated in our pre-pandemic roundtable and reviewed a draft of the full Moonshot report, wrote,

“I had a powerful experience of being professionally seen and validated. The report reveals extended thoughtful labor that is often invisible. I would like board members, funders, freelance artists, and any and all stakeholders to read this, not to prove anything but to reveal, to create more transparency. You captured the nuances of holding and attending to so much data and changing circumstances in the midst of constant decision-making.”

While the challenges to theatres have multiplied, we conclude with an affirmation: theatre artists and leaders are creative, persistent, and adaptive. Those are the qualities that will bring theatre into a new epoch.

Moonshot has made a small contribution to five Chicago companies’ efforts. We hope the Moonshot approach will be helpful to many others as well. The full Moonshot Report offers an in-depth walk through the repertoire selection process, additional analysis, more detailed practical recommendations, and links to tools and other resources that can help others bring more order and intention to one of the most complex and daunting tasks theatre leaders perform. The invitation is open. As you engage with these ideas and recommendations, we would love to hear from you. We all have much to learn.