In the business of show, there are few equations knottier than the one that adds up to what plays are offered each season at any given theater. In the prime venues of the western suburbs, the process can take years and involves an ever-shifting array of gut instinct, statistical analysis, subscriber polls, artists' input and political wrangling.
Those splashy adverts touting the 2015/16 seasons at Drury Lane and First Folio and Theatre of Western Springs? They're the tip of an iceberg of research, economics and passion. The sole consistency within the alchemic processes where savvy decisions and artistic acumen spin into box office gold is that there is none.
"It's a conversation that never stops. Never," says Drury Lane Executive Director Kyle DeSantis.
It's a conversation that goes on year round among DeSantis and Drury Lane Artistic Director William Osetek. As the leading creatives of a the 30-year-old dinner theatre, DeSantis and Osetek have a loose outline they follow when deciding what they'll offer their roughly 25,000 subscribers each season.
"There's five shows in each season, and each show needs to do something different," says DeSantis. "The holiday slot is always family-oriented. In the fall, we do the more risky things, like 'Next to Normal.' In the spring, almost 50 percent of our audience is tours — high school marching bands and choral groups that come through town, so we need to cater to them a bit. It's all very collaborative."
Complicating the collaboration at Drury Lane and elsewhere: The juggernaut that comes with acquiring the rights to produce the show you want.
"Title selection and then getting the rights to do the plays you want — that's the hardest part of my entire job," says DeSantis, "It took five years — five — to get the rights to Les Miserables."
First Folio's all-Shakespeare summers mean that Managing Director David Rice and Artistic Director Alison Vesely don't have to deal with licensing headaches for part of their season. Shakespeare is in the common domain — anyone can do him.
"Shakespeare's a given every summer," says Rice, "So is a gothic horror of some kind in the fall. Winter, we need to do a comedy, both for our sake and for our audience's sake. Chicago winters? Please. You need a little comedy."
Rice's own play, "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe" has been a gothic horror hit for years at the Oakbrook Terrace venue. And since Rice wrote it, he doesn't have to deal with licensing issues.
That third slot comedy is trickier. Vesely has had "Harvey" on her wish list for years to no avail. "I have a dream cast in mind for that show. But somebody's got the rights to make a film with the script. So because that potential movie is out there, we can't stage it."
While First Folio and Drury Lane each have a core group of artistic professionals who vet scripts, the Theater of Western Springs — in operation since 1929 — has a volunteer play-selection committee. The final decision at TWS is a collaboration between Sugarman and his volunteer corps.
"There's no iron-clad rules," says Sugarman. "No, 'thou shalt put a whodunit in slot two,' although there are certain kinds of shows that work at certain times better than others. For example, it's really helpful for us to end the season with a big, high energy show. We want to be sending people out feeling great and thinking about coming back in the fall. And obviously we have to be balanced. Our audiences have wide-ranging tastes."
Since Vesely and Rice founded First Folio 19 season ago, they've been calibrating audience taste and gaining audience trust. Rice estimates that they have roughly 700 subscribers this year, and have averaged a 10 percent increase in subscription sales each year for the past five years. They've also developed long-term relationships with artists including Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier ("The Gravedigger: A Frankenstein Play") and Chicago actors Kevin McKillip ("Richard III") and Christian Gray.
"We keep our artistic associates in mind," says Vesely. "We'll frequently read something and we'll be like, 'This would be a great role for this actor, or (set designer) Angie (Miller) would really eat this up."
Less gratifying than matching the production to the artist? Matching the production with the budget. Drury Lane has an annual budget that can support housing New York talent imports, the creation massive and elaborate sets from the ground up and eye-popping costumes. TWS has a steady stream of member dues, subscriber sales and donations. First Folio does things on a relative shoestring, with Rice often acting as the bad cop when unpopular decisions have to be made.
"There are times when I have to be the bad guy and say, 'yeah, this is a great show but, no. The cast is too large. The production elements are too expensive,'" says Rice.
But the very restrictions Rice lays out have opened the door on seasonal wonders such as this summer's "The Winter's Tale," which Rice only agreed to do if the show's most ardent lobbyist — his and Vesely's daughter actor/writer/director Hayley Rice — cut the cast to under a dozen and the running time to two hours. "She'd been after me for years. I told her, 'Bring me a version I can afford and we'll talk,' " David Rice says. The show was a box office hit for First Folio.
Finding that sweet spot between revenue-generating hit and artistic satisfaction is the goal for DeSantis, Rice and Sugarman. At Drury Lane, final say-so rests with DeSantis, but his "first line of defense" in fielding possible scripts is director William Osetek.
"Some of it's just logic — like you can't do 'Grease' the same season as 'Bye, Bye Birdie,' they're both set during the same era," Osetek says. "Some of it's matching up the right title with the right director. Like when Rachel (Rockwell) did 'Ragtime.' Everyone was like that's an impossible show, you can't do it without a $20 million budget. But she figured out a way, and it was huge," says Osetek.
Both DeSantis and Osetek ask for input via comment cards. And in addition to traveling to New York monthly to see shows, DeSantis keep an ear trained toward Drury Lane's ballrooms and dining areas. "I invite all the staff in the dining rooms to give me their opinions. They're the ones who are right there when people are talking about what they've seen. They've got first-hand insights that are incredibly valuable."
In the end, theater leaders concur, the parameters of programming are slippery. It's tough to imagine "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" landing in DuPage County, admits Osetek.
"Still," he says, "I've learned never to say never."
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace; Drurylaneoakbrook.com
"Peter and the Star Catcher" (though Oct. 18) — The More Creatively Risky Slot
"White Christmas, The Musical" (Oct. 29-Jan. 3) — The Family-related Slot
"Bye, Bye Birdie" (Jan. 14-March 13, 2016) — The Slot That Caters to Hundreds of Touring Groups
First Folio Theatre,
1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook; www.firstfolio.org
"The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe, A Love Story" (Sept. 23-Nov. 1) — The Gothic Horror Slot
"Jeeves at Sea" (Jan. 30-Feb. 28, 2016 –— The Comedy Slot
"Fooling Buddha" (March 26-April 24, 2016 — The Outside-the-Box Slot
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (July 9-Aug. 14) – The Shakespeare Slot
Theatre of Western Springs
4384 Hampton Ave., Western Springs; Theatreofwesternsprings.com
On the mainstage (more mainstream shows):
"Agatha Christie Made Me Do It" (Sept. 10-20)
"Calendar Girls" (Oct. 22-Nov. 1)
"Leading Ladies" (Jan. 21-Jan. 31, 2016)
"The Clean House" (April 14-24)
"Little Shop of Horrors" (June 2-12)
In the Forum (riskier shows):
"Other Desert Cities" (Oct. 1-11)
"New York" (Feb. 11-21, 2016)