What happens when a group of artists transitions from running their touring ensemble to leading it, programming venues and becoming a midsize theater institution?
In the beginning…
We thought we would be a touring troupe forever. In 1979, a group of like-minded Puerto Rican actors joined together in the fashion of Caribbean and Latin American colectivos, or performing ensembles. The initial objective was to collaboratively create touring works that would reach thousands of people outside the purview of mainstream theaters. We gravitated towards adaptations of literary classics, contemporary short stories, and a broad range of non-dramatic material, from declassified government documents to recipes. We staged the pieces via improvisations, image theater techniques, with lean designs and musicians on stage. Slowly we built a touring repertory performed in Spanish and English, for small and big stages.
For Pregones Theater, having a venue of our own was not in the mix thirty-seven years ago. Our seasons were either a series of short residencies or runouts, traveling with our newest original production, which we would perform for as long as we could. We were a touring ensemble in love with our nomadic life. Then it happened. In 1985, we transformed the gym of historic St. Ann’s Church into our first Bronx theater venue, then we moved on to outfit a performance studio, and finally, in 2003, we purchased and transformed a virtually discarded building into the beautiful theatre that is our Bronx home.
It’s 2015 and we are down to the last stretch of our merger with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT). Founded in 1967, the PRTT is a pioneering theater founded by Miriam Colón, one of the most influential Puerto Rican actresses of our time, who is now our Senior Artistic Advisor. As co-founder of Pregones and Artistic Director of the new outfit, I am leading the transition to managing and planning seasons for two theatres: one in The Bronx and one in Manhattan.
Pregones/PRTT champions a cultural legacy of broad impact with a mission to create and perform original musical theatre and plays rooted in Puerto Rican/Latino cultures, and present visiting artists who share our twin commitment to the arts and civic enrichment.
Pregones/PRTT is run by teams who work in concentric circles: artistic, management, facilities, and education. Those of us in the artistic team—myself and Associate Directors Alvan Colón Lespier and Jorge B. Merced—are the most involved in crafting each new season. As artists, we shape the concepts for the new works to be developed by the ensemble. Our Musical Director/Resident Composer Desmar Guevara works closely with the team as the season draft evolves. Artistic team members don’t always take turns in originating a new piece. The impetus is always artistic, so the one(s) with the most developed concept step(s) forward. Each project strives to cast from the pool of ensemble artists, although not exclusively. Today our original Puerto Rican group of actors has expanded to include a diversity of artists from various national origins and races.
The Season—the dream
As Artistic Director, I take the first shot at designing a season arc each year. I then present the artistic team a calendar that will morph with their input. Nothing fancy, just a gigantic wall calendar with lots of color-coded flags that that are easily moved as the conversation flows.
For our Mainstage, I look at both our existing repertory and the new works percolating within the artistic team and among ensemble artists who show interest in incubating new projects. The scale of the new works varies from piece to piece and the season needs to reflect that mix. With actors and musicians on stage, our productions tend to use four to twelve performers. All our works are translated into English or into Spanish via projected surtitles for our very mixed audience’s comfort and access.
Our presenting is multidisciplinary in nature, with a special affection for music. Vast in scope and diversity, varied in its related events, music has taken center stage in our presenting program, along with guest theatre productions from the regional or national Latina/o scene. Highlights each season include March Is Music, an international series presenting a range of composers, music ensembles, and soloists from a variety of genres: traditional, contemporary, classical, and new music. The series is curated by a member of the Artistic Team in dialogue with our Musical Director. Related presenting events include:
Artists Space At Pregones/PRTT, short multi-disciplinary residencies via space grants, and Plataforma, a showcase of Latina/o artists from around the country in our Off Broadway venue. There is also the occasional surprise, which many times emerges from our international collaborations.
Our season also includes Asunción Playwrights Project, which affords us the opportunity to showcase the work of LGBTQ playwrights and guests via a national, juried competition and Remojo /Soaking, a way to share our artists’ ideas currently soaking in creative juices.
The Season—reality check
The end result of the artistic team’s process is a fine-tuning of our common dreams. We shake hands on the ideal season. Then, with the involvement of management staff, we budget. We know we will most likely have to reshape, revisit, redesign. But why take the fun out of season planning before we give our ambitions a shot?
The Season—all those other essentials
Each season, we strive to present a minimum of three mainstage productions—preferably two premieres and one repertory piece. Music, dance, performance, and multi-disciplinary artists are presented throughout the year, alternating with our mainstage work. Each season we are committed to align ancillary events, inspired by our mission: public readings by participants in our education and training programs, performances by elder actors, livestreamed public conversations with artists participating in the season, open rehearsals, and exhibits by both emerging and established visual artists. We strive to create a vibrant atmosphere that provides opportunities for all artists around us to enhance the viability of their careers. The season, while concentrating its work from October to June, truly runs year round.
It is a joy to create and produce work that takes into consideration the talent in and around our community of collaborators.We occasionally infuse additional energy by inviting guest artists—actors or musicians—to join the development of a new work. Our international collaborations have infused excitement around working on multiple language and aesthetic platforms.
Year after year, the final season design becomes the X-ray of what we are feeling and thinking at the moment of planning. It also sheds a spotlight over our desired future, shielding us from stagnation, frustration, and potential financial distress. A well thought out season is what keeps artists in our company and guest artists engaged at different levels.
Driving The Bronx Manhattan Theater Express
It is so important to plan way in advance, and yet so difficult. Each of our theatres is very distinct in architecture, location, and significance. We pay attention to the roster of events planned and assign them to the venue we feel is the most appropriate. We are often asked if we begin work in The Bronx and then transfer it to Manhattan. Quite the contrary. We don’t see a transfer to Manhattan as an upgrade for a Bronx-born production, although we recognize the value of a Broadway District location. We plan and create for each. We are still planning sequentially, alternating between our two venues. Our goal is to build the stability of resources that will allow us to run simultaneous programming within the next three years.
We know that, given resources and time, creativity is our leverage. It is what our audience cherishes the most. What else would move audiences to see something they know nothing about; a brand new work? Why would they attend a concert by emerging musicians and composers? We believe they keep coming because they trust our artistic judgment. They come to see the work of a theatre they trust.
Driving The Bronx Manhattan Theater Express first appeared on HowlRound.com on 9/18/2015 with the following introduction by Fran Kumin:
As a field, we talk frequently about the results of season planning, but we rarely are given the opportunity to examine the myriad decisions season programmers need to make. Transparency about this demanding and sometimes exasperating process could be helpful to the relationship between artists and theater organizations as well as a fascinating read for all of us who enjoy performance. Find the rest of the series here (http://howlround.com/tags/series-season-planning).
Rosalba Rolón leads an ensemble that collaboratively creates its own work. She programs two fenues that are miles apart in New York City. – Fran Kumin