It’s always a bonus when the source runs with the metaphor you’ve suggested.
So it is when the notion’s floated to Jennifer Uphoff Gray, the artistic director of Forward Theater Company that the process her company uses to select the plays that make up each new season is kind of like shopping for ingredients for a multiple-course dinner.
“We’ll have two of the three plays all set and be asking ourselves, ‘What’s missing?’” Gray says. “What’s the wine pairing? Where’s the umami? It’s all about what goes with what.”
Forward is coming off a successful three-show season that saw the company surpass ticket sales goals—including for “Learning to Stay,” its first-ever original commissioned play. They're like the chef who just pulled off a perfect three-course meal and is now looking to create an entirely new menu that also satiates customers’ palates.
A few weeks ago, Gray and company unveiled plans for the 2017-18 season, the company’s ninth. The theme effectively answered what rest of us were wondering: What’s next?
“The plays all look to the future, including what’s next for us as a company,” explains Gray. “And they move from the micro to the macro.”
The first play, the Wisconsin premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s “I And You,” opens in November. It focuses on the future of two young people—one popular and white, the other African-American and bedridden. The former is played by Alistair Sewell, who starred in Forward’s 2014 production of “From Up Here.” Shantae Miller, an up-and-comer from Milwaukee’s First Stage Theater, portrays the latter.
The season centerpiece, the Wisconsin premiere of playwright Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy,” focuses on the future of a community—specifically, a Chicago community that’s facing the imminent closure of its neighborhood school, unless a fast-talking and inexperienced administrator can mount an eleventh-hour save. “Exit Strategy” opens in January 2018 and features American Players Theatre vets Sarah Day and Melisa Pereyra in the cast.
Finally, Forward wraps its season in April 2018 with a third Wisconsin premiere: Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime,” a play that looks at the future of our society through the eyes of an elderly woman relating her life memories to a handsome young artificial intelligence. Local mainstay Judy Kimball plays the lead in a cast that also includes APT’s Brian Mani (in his first work with Forward) and Forward/Theatre LILA fave Michael Huftile.
The first show of the upcoming season was actually booked two and a half years ago, largely because the company had fallen in love with Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” one of the plays they staged in 2015.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my god. This is maybe an even better play, But we can’t not do ‘Silent Sky,’” says Gray.
As they ponder their season-booking options, Gray and her staff always have an eye cocked toward what Broadway and other regional theaters (such as Louisville and Steppenwolf) are staging. But as always, their choices are constrained by whether production rights are available. Fortunately, the delay between availability, selection and staging rarely results in a situation where the play’s topic seems stale or out of date.
“I don’t think any of the key issues we look at are the sorts of things that are going to go away,” Gray notes.
As for last season, the only hitch was unexpectedly slow sales for the opening weekend of “Learning to Stay,” which had the misfortune to debut the same weekend the Badger basketball team played its way into the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. Subsequent weekends saw full houses, says Gray.
Meanwhile, the ever-simmering question of when Forward will go from three shows to four shows per season remains unanswered, at least until the company completes its ongoing search for a managing director—a process that’s expected to wrap up sometime over the summer. Most of the prerequisites are already in place—audience interest and funding support, to name two. But like a chef wary of spoiling a dish by adding too much paprika, Gray’s planning to remain cautious.
“We’re very, very close to four shows,” she says. “The building blocks are in place.”
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.