Annex’s Emily Sershon Interviews Artistic Director Catherine Blake Smith

Annex Marketing Coordinator Emily Sershon sat down with Artistic Director Catherine Blake Smith to get to the bottom of Annex’s unique RFP and season selection process:

EMILY SERSHON: Hi Catherine! Annex just opened it’s annual Request for Proposals. What is that, exactly?

CATHERINE BLAKE SMITH: Annex Theatre puts out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to choose its upcoming season. It’s been a long-standing tradition to eschew the traditional practices of having a sole literary manager field all the incoming scripts and choose them with the Artistic Director, and instead have the Annex Company choose the season. The RFP is the precursor to an interview process, which we call the Pitch Sessions (20-minute interviews with members of the Annex company).

ES: The Company chooses the season? How? And how big is the Company of Annex?

CBS: After visiting as many pitch sessions and reading as many scripts as they are able (different folks use different tactics: some read every single submitted script to help us screen, some people only read the proposals and read the script if the person intrigues them in the pitch session, etc.), then the Company of Annex gathers in what is (now) called Season Showdown. We’re splitting it into two sessions this year, so that we can spend the first day discussing every proposal and the second day selecting the season.

The Company size changes depending on who is available. Last year there were more than 30 people in the room, in previous years I’ve attended there have been about 12. No matter who is in the room, we use the session to discuss the possibility of producing every single considered proposal, through consensus. If we give the person a pitch session, then we talk about their proposal, even if no one advocates for it.

ES: Ok, so the Company that decides the season can be very different year-to-year as the Company changes – and being a Company member just means you’ve worked on a show and are invested in Annex – but you have to be present in the room to participate… Honestly, it sounds a little bonkers to pick eight shows by consensus. What if there’s one hold-out person who won’t let something go? Do they ever get overridden?

CBS: It is a difficult but rewarding process. The first time I experienced it, I wrote about feeling out of place yet belonging. But everyone is welcomed and encouraged to talk about what they did/didn’t like about a proposal, and how it speaks to them as an artist. We use a ‘temperature taking’ vote early on in the day to see what speaks to the room, and that helps guide the conversation.

So the day starts off bonkers but the discussions/topics that people value rise to the top. The role of the Artistic Director on that day (still) isn’t to decide the season, but to listen and respond to what the company is excited about and help create markers/milestones. I’ve only ever experienced [Artistic Director emerita] Pamala Mijatov doing this, and I’m definitely nervous about leading my first process.

ES: Your blog post about the process is from 2012. I love the line you wrote: “By the end of the process, everyone has to agree. Otherwise, not everyone is in support of the season.” That seems like a really valuable point in an all-volunteer organization.

CBS: Yes, it’s the Rousseauian social contract that attracted me to Annex in the first place. At Annex, making decisions through consensus means we talk about which art moves us and what is percolating in the community. It’s really awesome.

ES: What kind of art have you proposed to Annex in your own RFP submissions, and how did the pitch experiences go?

CBS: I have pitched several projects at this point: as a playwright with an unfinished play, as a director for 3 different projects (one was selected), and as curator for festival concepts (both of which were selected). I also participated in the first festival I pitched.

The pitch experiences were great, even from the first one. Since I had witnessed so many, I felt like I had a good handle on how to prepare. The questions in my case have always been more conversational, which can change depending on who is in the room and being interviewed of course!

One year, I was SO nervous I was flushed red. There’s a picture of me, because I was pitching a play about technology and its pervasiveness in our lives. I took a selfie and posted it during the interview. #oldmillennials

ES: Right now Research & Development Wing just closed at Annex, which you curated with company member James Weidman. I understand the concept was conceived during Season Showdown?

CBS: Yes, it was initially conceived during the 2015 Season Showdown, since we were starting to get way more proposals than for which we had slots. James loved the idea of inviting artists who would be a great fit for Annex but maybe didn’t pitch projects that moved us, and I did too. He and I joined forces to pitch in 2016 for the 30th season, because it seemed like such a perfect fit: a season within a season. In a way, it was an extension of The Zig Zag Festival (Summer 2015) and yet way different.

ES: There must be a ton of talent that just doesn’t fit into only eight slots.

CBS: Yes, in the years I’ve participated, there are more people who submit great plays than we have room for.

ES: Attention all badass artists proposers: Keep submitting! We’re sad we can’t choose you all!  Catherine, are you proposing anything this year? Any hint about what it is?

CBS: I am proposing this year, as director of a play that has been evolving for 7 years with a (currently) local and talented playwright. And maybe another iteration of Zig Zag/R&D Wing? But that’s all I can say so far!

ES: Gah, I’m excited! Ok, well before we finish, do you have anything you want to say to potential proposers?

CBS: Talk to company members! See shows at Annex! Be yourself!

ES: Aw. Thank you Catherine! When can the rest of the world expect to hear what’s decided at the Season Showdown?

CBS: July? August?

ES: Summer!

CBS: Maybe September if we do an announcement party again?

ES: Yessss. Ok. Thanks Catherine! Viva Annex!

CBS: Viva Annex!

Bookmark the permalink.