CTC looks to future, strives for connection and inclusion

A decades-long Friend of Chautauqua Theater, Sally McClure had never missed a show in Bratton Theater.

This season, when she was unable to leave her home to attend A Raisin in the Sun, conservatory members Toby Onwumere and Chasten Harmon came to her, acting out a scene from the play in McClure’s living room. A few weeks later, on July 23, McClure passed away in her home. She was 80 years old.

During Chautauqua Theater Company’s last Brown Bag of 2014, CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy announced the dedication of a chair in Bratton to McClure.

In addition to recognizing this trying aspect of 2014, leaders of the company offered sneak peaks for next season and reflections on the past eight weeks.

“Each year, we try to build upon what we’ve done in the next year, learn from what worked and from what didn’t work,” Corporandy said.

Closing her 10th season as CTC Artistic Director, Vivienne Benesch said part of looking to goals for the future includes reflecting on seasons past.

“I’m interested in discovering how, at the same time as you’re looking back, you are pulling us into the present as well,” she said.

The company set out — specifically in the past two years — to broaden conversations on inclusion and diversity, which they plan to continue in upcoming seasons. Discussions this season included programmed talks with Chautauquans and within the company.

“We put our foot forward this year in terms of inclusion and really giving voice to a multitude of voices in one season. We want to continue that,” Benesch said. “We’re looking for ways to do that with old classics as well as new works … looking at plays that can reflect the American culture as it exists today, as well as how it was.”

The company’s roster for each season has had a consistent infrastructure in the past, but Benesch said this will continue to evolve with the company.

“We have so often here done an American classic, a Shakespearean masterpiece and a new, contemporary — that’s been our one, two, three — and there’s good reason for that, but we’re shaking up how each of those functions to reflect who we are today,” Benesch said.

The company plans to again produce three plays and two New Play Workshop productions next year, but it is also working with a constrained budget. At the last Brown Bag, Friends of Chautauqua Theater presented CTC with $6,500. The company also held silent and live auctions to supplement the funds offered by the Institution. The budget will not be entirely finalized until October.

There are, however, a few definites already established for the 2015 season. Next year’s Shakespeare production will be Henry V. CTC has also chosen its next commission, playwright Zayd Dohrn, who previously workshopped his plays Sick and Muckrakers at Chautauqua. Dohrn will be in residence with the company in 2015, and his play will be produced or workshopped in the 2016 season. The company also announced they surpassed Chautauqua’s ticket sale goals by nearly 5 percent.

“People have really responded to the excellence of the work, but also the new composition of our company, the new angle of investigating issues of race, culture and new voices,” Benesch said. “We’re not just checking off a box, and it’s really important that we actually are educating ourselves through excellent theater about stories we may be unfamiliar with.”

Next season, as well as continuing with “excellent theater,” Benesch said she hopes the company engages in an increased number of post-show talks with audiences, to give actors and other company members a chance to more explicitly share their understandings of the work.

“We want to engage the audience after what they see as much as before,” Benesch said. “We performed this for you, we had an experience working on it, you come to see it, now what’s the next stage for us? What can you teach us? What did we teach you?”

Expanding conversation after shows will include widening conservatory participation throughout the grounds.

“We have an opportunity at Chautauqua to be in dialogue across many — not only departments, but to engage in conversation from many different perspectives,” Benesch said.

Although Benesch and Corporandy said it is consistently difficult for CTC to participate in the multitudes of programming that occurs on the grounds outside Bratton, they hope to increase efforts to connect with groups on the grounds.

“We’ve been talking a lot about our role as community members, not just as artists who come here and do our work, but our participation in the community,” Corporandy said. “Being able to go to lectures, or go to other art programs to show our support, to connect, to have a conversation, to be inspired by it and then bring it back to our work.”

Company leadership also plans to extend efforts in the larger community, to connect with the region outside the Institution’s gates. Benesch said she does not want Chautauqua to be a “beacon on the hill,” and building educational and outreach opportunities is among CTC’s priorities.

CTC has seen challenges and changes over the years, like this season with the passing of their Friend McClure. But, Corporandy and Benesch said, each year’s trials bring teachable moments and aspirations for upcoming seasons.