ST. CLOUD – After 19 years of planning theatrical seasons for GREAT Theatre, executive artistic director Dennis Whipple knows a thing or two about appealing to kids — and their parents.
“Children’s audiences are harder,” Whipple said. “They’re not as giving. They’re a lot more honest. … You have to be really serious with kids, even with comedy. They’re just a little too smart for their own good.”
Although GREAT has built a reputation on children’s theater, the company has used the past few years to branch out to more adult-friendly fare, like 2016’s “Sister Act” and the upcoming “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.”
Audiences pack the house at the Paramount Center for the Arts in downtown St. Cloud for GREAT’s plays and musicals, but there’s one drama that doesn’t play out onstage: the process of planning and selecting the company’s theatrical season.
Whipple breaks down the season’s shows into distinct genres.
“We’re starting with Broadway musical theater, which can be comedic or dramatic, and we do try to alternate from year to year. Then we have our literature for ages 8 and up. What we’re looking for is really a book that we can present on stage in play form and that teachers can use in their classrooms,” Whipple said.
“Then we have the holiday slot … and typically in January we have the literature for ages 12 and up. Then it’s literature for ages 3 and up … like this year’s ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ We do a family musical, which this year is ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ And then we’ve started something new, which is the dinner theater.”
With those genres in mind, Whipple and his team then think about the number of seats they must sell. It’s this challenge, Whipple said, that keeps GREAT from producing lesser-known or more controversial works.
“There’s 800 seats at the Paramount, so when you think about a run of a show, you really need to be producing something that can sell up to 10,000 tickets,” Whipple said. “That doesn’t really allow you to get into niches.”
In December, the GREAT team sends out a survey to its season members and actors who have participated in past shows to determine the interest in more than 50 shows it would be interested in producing at some point.
Whipple said audience preferences tend to lean toward modern, popular selections over classic works or shows with edgier themes.
But that doesn’t stop the company from taking the occasional risk.
“ ‘Ragtime’ gave us an opportunity to examine how immigration and race hasn’t changed since [the turn of the 20th century],” said Whipple of their September 2015 production.
Once the surveys have been filled out and returned to the company, the team makes tough decisions. When the final consensus has been reached, the laborious process of gaining performance rights to each show begins.
Then, all that’s left is for GREAT to decide which shows will be performed at what point in the upcoming season.
“For example, doing ‘A Christmas Story’ right after the election, and having it have nothing to do with the election, and it just being about the fun … that was exactly what we all needed at that moment. It allowed people the opportunity to use theater as an escape,” Whipple said.
“And comedy is always safe in an election year,” he said, laughing.
GREAT Theatre will announce its 2017/18 theatrical season March 24.