From Script to Stage
While Shaker Bridge Theatre goers are attending spring shows, Founder and Director Bill Coons is already thinking ahead to the next season. He actually begins reading scripts at the start of each calendar year. By May, he’s usually gone through around 100 of them.
When Bill first reads a play, he visualizes what it would be like if it were performed. He’s on the hunt for plays that will give his audience a complete and valuable experience. If a script doesn’t seem like it will live up to that standard, then it’s out.
So, how do those 100 scripts sitting on Bill’s kitchen table turn into the five that will be performed once fall arrives? Here are the other things Bill has to consider during his planning process…
● Is the play contemporary and something that may go unseen in the Upper Valley if it’s not performed at SBT, an off-Broadway hidden gem so to speak?
● Are there a fairly equal number of male and female playwrights being represented at SBT?
● More technically, would it work in this specific theatre? SBT certainly has space limitations, but with a little creativity those can be worked around. The real challenge is that Bill does a lot of the set design himself. For example, Bill read a script this year that he liked but the set required four doors and a stairway. That would be a lot to try and fit on the SBT stage, but more importantly, there really just isn’t enough time for Bill and crew to try and get something like that together. Bill sometimes hires carpenters who specialize in sets, and this can help with the restrictions some.
● Is the cast small enough? Of course, this has something to do with the physical space in the theatre, but it has more to do with quality over quantity. SBT has to be careful with their budget in order to hire the caliber of professional actors that they do. Here’s a big insider insight: if you hire four or more actors that are part of the Equity Association then you also have to employ an Equity stage manager, who actually gets paid even more than the actors do. Bill says it’s usually worth it, but just like in any other business, eventually numbers come into play.
● Are there any specific actors Bill has worked with in the past that he’d like to bring back for the upcoming season, and if so, are there roles for them in the scripts he’s considering? This is a huge influence in Bill’s decision-making process. Once he finally gets those 100 scripts down to 10 contenders, he physically lays the scripts out, carefully considering the characters in each play. Then, he writes the names of the actors he’d like to work with on individual cards. From there it becomes a sort of matching game. Trying to get the ideal plays and the ideal actors to line up can be quite frustrating, but worth it in the end.
After Bill has picked his five plays and contacted the actors he has in mind, it’s time for a trip to NYC! Any roles he hasn’t filled at that point are auditioned for. After spending a few days in a rented studio on 29th Street meeting the people behind the resumes and headshots Bill can finally return to the Upper Valley.
Of course, there are always wrenches to be thrown in this process. This year, Bill got really lucky and was given rights to every script he chose, but that is rare. Usually, at least one script (often more) gets vetoed because of something outside of Bill’s control. One thing that can forcefully influence which plays SBT gets to produce is whether or not any other nearby (really anywhere from the Upper Valley to Boston) theatres are vying for rights to the same play. If another “bigger” theatre in New England wants rights to a specific script, they will probably be given them over SBT. Playwrights and publishers make the final choice on who gets rights to a script, and they can really make that decision based on any criteria they choose, but it usually has at least a little bit to do with money.
After Bill’s process is complete, he heads to Maine where he can finally read something other than scripts (most likely a few mysteries). Even on vacation though, Bill’s thinking ahead. Once he gets the rights, he likes to get a head start. At this point sets, props, lighting and sound become priorities.
The thing is that Bill is a self-proclaimed compartmentalizer. Because of this, when he is going through the process of reading scripts and planning a new season, it’s pretty much all he can think about. Although, Bill claims that this is part of how he finds such good plays. If they’re going to take over his life, they have to be pretty enthralling.