Taking a closer look at Madison theater
May 22, 2014
03:01 PM
Stage Write

Exit Interview: Forward's Jennifer Uphoff Gray Looks Back on Her Company's Season

PHOTO COURTESY OF FORWARD THEATER

Gray: “We’re really brainstorming. What do we have to do differently to get in front of single-ticket buyers?”

Pro sports teams do it, just like many theater companies do: At the end of a season, they sit down and talk to their players/actors to debrief, take a pulse and gauge where they are and where they’re going. Now that Forward Theater’s 2013–14 season is in the rear-view mirror, we chatted with artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray to get her thoughts on what worked, what she learned and what, if anything, she’d do differently given a time machine and a stack of Stage Write posts.

The Season:
Forward kicked off with Sons of the Prophet, starring American Players Theater star Marcus Truschinski as the oldest brother in a family trying to keep it together in the face of mounting crises. Red. the middle piece, featured a tour-de-force performance by Jim DeVita (another APT vet) as the artist Mark Rothko. The season wrapped up with the hilarious OR, a Restoration-era farce that played out like a character smorgasbord for  the cast’s three role-swapping actors, Colleen Madden (yet another APT vet) and Milwaukee Rep regulars Norman Moses and Amy J. Carle.  

What Went Well:
Not surprisingly, Gray’s proud of the work her company accomplished on stage, but the place she really feels the company hit its stride was with outreach and complementary programming—i.e. working with other local nonprofits to reach out to the community and bring new people into the theater.

“We finally had the staff to be able to do it,” she says.

We’re not just talking about cast talk-backs after the shows. Each show had affiliated programming associated with it, whether it was Poetry at the Playhouse, a collaborative project with the online magazine Verse Wisconsin tied to Sons of the Prophet, or the Red-based partnership with the Chazen Museum of Art that brought in Penn State professor Sarah K. Rich, an expert on Mark Rothko, to talk about the artist’s impact. That event drew more than three hundred people, forcing a venue change to accommodate them all.

What Did You Learn?
Gray hardly skips a beat before answering this one: “The biggest thing we learned is how dramatically the arts media landscape has changed.”

She’s referring to the fact that many local print media have slashed their coverage of local theater to bite-sized reviews—or eliminated it entirely. “We used to be able to coast on advance/preview coverage,” she says. “That just isn’t there anymore.”

While Forward’s in the enviable position of getting sixty percent of their ticket sales from season subscribers, Gray’s keenly aware that they still need to sell a lot to single-ticket buyers to remain financially healthy. And it’s a lot harder to do that if people don’t know about your show.

“We’re really brainstorming,” she says. “What do we have to do differently to get in front of single-ticket buyers?”

Gimme a Do-Over
The lesson Forward learned is directly tied to what Gray would most like to have a chance to re-do. As Son of the Prophets progressed through its run last November, it was hard not to notice that, while the third and fourth weekend shows were packed, the opening weekend shows were not.  

“We went into Sons excited about how good the play was,” Gray says. “And then we were like, ‘Oh, wait, we’re not sold through for opening night.'”

Good word of mouth for the show, which received plenty of  positive reviews, obviously helped. But Gray knows that Forward can’t count on that always being the case, especially for shows lacking instant name recognition.

“We don’t want to get ourselves in a place where we can only do big-name plays by big-name playwrights,” says Gray. “Those works are important, yes, but we also want to be able to explore other things.” 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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