Season announcements are a hangover from the days when printed brochures dictated a theatre’s marketing strategy.
Theatres revealed shows in batches to make the most of the limited opportunities they had to speak directly to their audiences en masse. Many continue this practice, despite brochures no longer holding the pre-eminence they once did.
But why? Most theatregoers don’t pay attention to seasons, beyond looking for individual productions they might fancy. The commercial West End doesn’t trade in seasons, focusing on selling productions on a show-by-show basis. And it seems to work fine for them.
But season announcements aren’t to shift tickets: they are for stakeholders, funders and industry commentators. They help create the mood music against which an artistic director’s tenure plays out. When handled well, they reinforce an artistic leader’s vision and, when handled badly or not done at all, they can leave an impression of a rudderless organisation or, even worse, one failing in its declared mission.
Two developments this week show the value of a well-managed season announcement.
Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Longhurst and executive producer Henny Finch unveiled an impressively broad programme – with an emphasis on new voices – and paired it with diverse creative teams and a ticketing scheme that promises greater access. On top of an artistically exciting season, the pair have laid out a road map for their tenure that will prove popular with the people they answer to.
Contrast this with the pickle the National Theatre has found itself in. One of the defining – and very welcome – features of Rufus Norris’ tenure has been his desire to open up the NT. And it undoubtedly boasts more representative programming since he took over. But that is not the impression given by its latest line-up, featuring no female writers and only one female director.
The NT has a much harder job coordinating season announcements than the Donmar – it has a more complicated programming structure and three different spaces – and so it tends to trickle them out in batches throughout the year.
But I wonder if Norris and joint chief executive Lisa Burger might wish they had been able to add some context to their recent reveal – especially if, as they insist, it sits in a wider programme of work that goes much further towards reaching the ambitious diversity targets the NT has set itself.
Because, shorn of that context, it was a massive public relations own goal.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith