A TV series wouldn’t think of opening the season with reruns. Audiences want something new and fresh (the nostalgia-fueled menus of Me-TV notwithstanding).
Yet, the performing arts are predicated on familiarity — reruns, if you will. Orchestras find their biggest audiences with Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Haydn. Theaters may mix last season’s hot Broadway hit with something from the established canon, but a world premiere represents a rare event.
And what holiday season isn’t populated with a “Nutcracker” or three, not to mention “Messiah” and “A Christmas Carol”? People know what to expect.
New work, though, can leave audiences skittish. Familiar subject matter (last year’s “Glensheen” at History Theatre) or a known commodity (Minnesota Opera’s “The Shining”) certainly helps. And there are those arts consumers who actively seek out new work even if it leaves them shaking their heads. The experience of seeing something new can be energizing or frustrating — or both.
“On the creative side, you need to make sure the work is ready for whatever exposure you’re going to give it,” said Michael Robins, co-producing director of Illusion Theater. “New plays are fragile.” Nonetheless, he said, it’s a necessary gamble. Illusion this fall will give the world premiere of playwright Carlyle Brown’s drama “Finding Fish,” about sustainability wars involving fishermen, scientists and regulators in Maine.
“It is the future of the art form,” said Elissa Adams, who has helped shepherd new plays onto the stage of Children’s Theatre Company for nearly 20 years. “There is a buzz in the backstage shops and in the rehearsal hall and the marketing departments — all through the building — when we are working on a world premiere.”
CTC is in that cycle of creativity this fall with “The Last Firefly,” a play by Naomi Iizuka that has been in development for nearly eight years. Originally, the company and playwright discussed a play steeped in Japanese folk tales. Many drafts later, the piece was pushed to create its own mythology.
“A different story evolved, and we sent it in that direction,” Adams said. “New work can take sharp turns and on occasion it can be a test to not get frustrated and discouraged on both sides.”
Risk is part of the business
“There’s always an element of risk, and it’s important not to judge a piece the first time it is read through,” said Kyu-Young Kim, artistic director and principal violin of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “It takes time for players to wrap themselves around it. That’s the challenge.”
The SPCO, which commissions three to six new works in a season, is in the midst of an ambitious five-year project involving pianist Jonathan Biss. He and the company are commissioning five piano concertos inspired by the work of Beethoven. Timo Andres kicked off “Beethoven/5” last year and it continues with British composer Sally Beamish in January on a program that includes Biss playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
“It lets us create a substantial body of work,” Kim said. “The audience is trusting us. You don’t know for sure what you’re going to get, but you’ll have a new experience.”
Jungle Theater artistic director Sarah Rasmussen wanted to get more new work into her season when she took the job in 2015 and has proven true to her word. This summer, “Le Switch” turned into a pleasant hit that exceeded its box-office goals. Playwright Philip Dawkins had developed the comedy about marriage equality at the Playwrights’ Center in 2014. At the end of August, the Jungle opened Idris Goodwin’s “Bars and Measures” — a dialectic work about brothers cleaved by circumstances but restored by music.
Rasmussen points out that even established plays carry some risk. Shakespeare, once a guarantee, can be tough to sell. If you want to do Eugene O’Neill, beware that theatergoers need to be transfixed for more than three hours. And what works in other cities can fall flat here.
“You hear that new work is risky,” said Rasmussen. “As a nonprofit theater, we’re called to take those risks. I don’t want our theaters to look identical to everyone else.”
Dance is a new-work leader
When you sift through the fall season, new work pops up here and there in the theater and classical music worlds. By far, the richest vein of untested and original work is in dance. Dana Munson, erstwhile marketing coordinator for Cowles Center, ticked off a stream of concerts that had at least some new pieces.
“Katha Dance is doing something new, there are six original pieces in the Solo project, Zenon includes a world premiere, Ragamala’s ‘Written in Water,’ Contempo is new, Threads Dance Project is new,” Munson said.
In addition, Ananya Dance Theatre premiered a work at O’Shaughnessy this weekend.
“New work is pretty much the norm for most dance companies,” said Caroline Palmer, a freelance dance writer.
In marketing dance, Munson said, new work is a definite plus. Audiences are guaranteed a look at something they haven’t seen before, and companies frequently bring in guest choreographers, which promotes variety.
“The audience wants to see new things,” Munson said. “It’s cool that they bring in these different choreographers — that helps sell the ticket.”
The “Solo” project, in which six McKnight Dance Fellows were allowed to pick their own choreographers, illustrates another facet to new work. While artists always want an audience, there is something deeper to the experience.
“There is pressure on an artist to articulate an idea,” said Philip Bither, performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center. “I feel for them, expressing their dreams.”
The Walker is a leader internationally in commissioning new work. The 2016-17 season will include nine originals, the highest number in at least 20 years, Bither said. One-third of his annual budget might go to commissions, and that doesn’t include the use of Walker facilities and personnel. Money, though, is only part of the equation.
“For the Walker to say, ‘I believe in your idea and we will be your ally’ makes such a difference,” said Bither. “It’s saying that a large institution is willing to make a leap of faith with you. We’ve got your back and we’re gonna go the distance.”
The Walker features Czech-American artist Pavel Zustiak and choreographer Karen Sherman in separate new pieces this fall. “Choreographers Evening” is a staple of the art center’s fall programming.
The Walker’s embrace of artists who push boundaries can be a double-edged sword for audiences and funders. Not everything in the avant garde world hits like it might have been intended. Yet Bither, who raises money for new work, says funders are generally understanding.
“If risks weren’t taken, art forms will get stymied,” he said.
Finding a future life
Composer Kevin Puts is one of the artists who hope their work will land with audiences or lead to recordings.
Puts won a Pulitzer Prize with his score for “Silent Night,” a Minnesota Opera world premiere in 2011. He returned for “The Manchurian Candidate” in 2015 and has written many pieces for instrumental ensembles — from chamber groups to symphonic orchestras. In May, Puts had “Two Mountain Scenes” performed by the Minnesota Orchestra.
This fall he will head the orchestra’s Composer Institute, which selects young writers to have their works performed by the ensemble. “I tend to choose composers who are advanced and can benefit from the experience and exposure,” Puts said. “It’s rare that they have the opportunity to write under ideal circumstances, but they should have that.”
Puts most frequently writes on commissions, which is the way to make a living at this business, though he sometimes dreams of writing on spec.
“Commissions often have predetermined parameters and sometimes they are for a specific event,” he said. “Sometimes you want that freedom without any expectations — to work on something large and impractical and not worry about the conventions.”
Orchestras, Puts said, don’t want to program long new works, for example. Keep it short, put it at the beginning of the concert and then get into the concerto or the symphony.
Puts makes an interesting point about the ongoing life of new work. Second and third performances can be more important than the premiere. Does a new play or dance piece generate interest among other presenters and producers? Can a symphony or a concerto get a recording, or can a play get published?
Bither said the marks of a successful new piece include subsequent tours and an ongoing influence on other artists.
“You want to hit a play at the right time,” the Jungle’s Rasmussen said. “If you put it up too soon and it’s not ready, it dies on the vine.”
There are no guarantees.