In an era of twenty-four-hour news, streaming video, and digital books, the entertainment industry seems to have slipped the boundaries of time and become eternally instantaneous. Theater, of course, resists being “on demand” inasmuch as it requires audience and performers to share space and time. Yet theater, too, can seem swept up in the undifferentiated flow of cultural production, exemplified by apparently deathless long-running shows (The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Wicked), interminable workshops for new plays, and the deluge of next big things from New York to the rest of the United States. Beneath this constant movement beats a slow and steady reminder that time still matters in the theater. It is the rhythm of the season, a macro-temporality that brings order to the theater industry.
This paper explores the theatrical season by tracing its origins and considering its significance to some sectors of the contemporary theater community. Seasonality, while not ontologically essential to theatrical performance, is a historical fact of theater history in the West and, particularly, in the Anglo-American theater, on which I focus my discussion. The fact of the season and the meaning of that fact for the study of theater has been entirely ignored by scholars, despite the explicit role seasons play both in the life of theater artists and in much theater criticism. I argue that the season’s significance lies in its organization of scarce resources: talent, money, space, attention. As such, the season is the lived time of the theater profession. Although its scale is long compared to that of a gesture, an act, or a play, the season wields untold influence over the possibilities of performance and our perception of the stage.
Because seasons measure time I define theatrical seasons not by what they are, but by when they are (or have been). Answering the when may help us understand better the what. The Western dramatic tradition, for example, has its origins in the City Dionysia in Ancient Greece, which were held in the middle of Elaphebolion, a month roughly coincident with late March and early April. Medieval mystery plays grew up around Corpus Christi processions, celebrated the Thursday following Trinity Sunday (eight weeks after Easter), which falls between mid-May and mid-June. The duration of Greek and Medieval theatrical seasons, if one may call them such, coincided roughly with that of the respective religious and civic festivals that these theatrical performances tracked. Although plays performed at that time may have had an afterlife elsewhere—such as in rural Dionysia—or at other times, the season for mystery plays and Attic tragedy occurred annually for a brief and clearly demarcated period. I call such a season intermittent because performances are not a normal, but an exceptional occurrence.
The commercial stage in the Elizabethan period, though marked by alternating activity and inactivity, appears little concerned with seasons. Roslyn Lander Knutson posits that “the playing companies would have scheduled performances seven days a week, twelve months a year, year after year, if they had been permitted to do so.”1 Of course, Early Modern performers had neither permission nor the ability to perform every day: the performance calendar paused in particular for weather, holy days, and plague. Weather, for instance, encouraged a perception of distinct winter and summer seasons for the King’s Men. James Wright’s Historia Histrionica, for instance, notes that “The Black-friers, and Globe on the Bankside, [served as] a Winter and Summer House” for that troupe.2 The movement from one venue to the other entailed a natural division of the theatrical year for that company and, some have posited, of repertory between the outdoor and indoor stages. The King’s Men could be said to have had discrete summer and winter seasons, but this clear division was not the rule.
The religious calendar intruded on every troupe’s performances. When counting the number of days available for performance, Early Modern theater historians often subtract Sundays and Lent, during which times performances were technically prohibited. Melissa Aaron notes a scholarly consensus that this accounting leaves between 200 and 275 days of performances for an Early Modern company, setting her own estimate at 240 days.3 Philip Henslowe’s diaries suggest that neither religious prohibition (i.e., no performances on Sundays or during Lent) was strictly observed, however.4 Further performance disruptions came from civic ordinances to prevent the spread of plague or to properly observe periods of public mourning, for example from March 19 to early May to mark Queen Elizabeth’s final illness and death.5 The patchy enforcement of a Lenten prohibition aside, no evidence suggests that Early Modern players imagined a theatrical season as a period unto itself.
Strikingly, historiography of that period remains wedded to a seasonal model, referring to, say, a Christmas season. Knutson writes that the play Seven Days of the Week was held over “from one season to the next” because it remained in the Admiral’s Men’s repertory after two consecutive “summer breaks.”6 Knutson’s assertion, quoted above, of Early Modern theater practitioners’ desire for an uninterrupted performance calendar better fits available evidence than her modern references to “seasons” organized around regular breaks. A year’s passage seems not to have meant much to the operation of an Early Modern theater company. More significant were the cyclical ebb and flow of business—good during Christmas, bad in the summer—and the interminable interruptions of religious observance.7 An Early Modern theatrical season is not significant in and of itself. I name this seasonal model, if seasonal it is, continuous in that performances are the norm, periods of dormancy the exception.
After the Restoration, the Early Modern theater calendar persisted into the 1670s. William J. Burling, in his study of London’s summer theater, reads quarterly payments to the Master of the Revels as “clear evidence of continuous theatrical activity” in 1664.8 Burling declares 1673 the first true “summer season” of performances because it featured “hirelings” only, rather than sharing company members. The “experiment” seems to have lasted only two years.9 Short summer seasons appeared regularly in the 1680s during July and August, leading to Christopher Rich’s rental of his playhouse to hirelings for thirty days in 1694. That model—under which the patent theatres and their leading players ceased operations for an extended summer period, giving way to a separately managed company—developed and then persisted well into the nineteenth century, becoming particularly regularized in the Little Theatre in the Haymarket under Samuel Foote’s management.10 The summer theater analyzed by Burling is, of course, the negative of the main theatrical season during the Restoration and the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, namely that at the patent theaters. In the Restoration, the season ran “from October to June, with less frequent acting from June through September.”11 Although these dates shifted slightly—for instance, thrice-weekly performances were common in September at Lincoln’s Fields during the early eighteenth century—this rhythm lasted into the 1870s and, effectively, down to the present day.12
The Restoration theater’s season shares three distinct characteristics that make it the predecessor of what I call the modern season, which may be either continuous or intermittent. First, the modern season conceptually encompasses a calendar year, though its commencement does not coincide with the civic calendar’s New Year. Second, the modern season includes a fallow period after which the next season commences. And, third, and most importantly, theaters’ legal and financial operations explicitly recognize the season as an organizing principle.
For instance, today’s Broadway season, though technically continuous, has a number of discrete boundaries. William Goldman’s definition in his book The Season gives a sense of the season’s contours in the late 1960s and follows the definition of a modern, continuous season. First, Goldman complains: “I’d like to explain just what ‘the Broadway season’ is, since that’s what this book is about, one Broadway season. I’d like to explain, but I can’t quite, because I’m not really sure.” He then names some parameters defining the season, including actors’ contracts, which “expire on the last day in June,” “theatrical records,” and the frustrating habit of excluding works that, by either of those measures, should indicate the commencement of a new season. Throwing up his hands, Goldman simply observes that “the bulk of openings takes place in a six-month period,” with three-quarters of shows in the 1960s opening between October 1st and late March.13 In other words, just like during the Restoration, the summer is a more or less fallow period in terms of new play development: “There are always houses [for musicals] available in the summertime,” notes Goldman, five in the season about which he wrote.14 Today, the industry defines a season for its own archival reasons: the Broadway League, a trade association for Broadway producers and theater owners, counts the season as beginning on June 1st and ending May 31st in its online database of Broadway productions.15
Whether intermittent or continuous most seasons since the eighteenth century are modern in the sense outlined above. At the Comédie-Française in the eighteenth century, for example, the season traditionally began the Monday following Easter week, which, as a lengthy holiday, provided a natural break in an otherwise regular theatrical calendar. The company’s financial records mark those post-Easter performances as the first: “Première Représentation,” read the company registers.16 More intermittent seasonal forms persist, particularly in the form of modern theater festivals, which may operate for but a few months or weeks. The New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park season, for instance, takes place in the summer and consists of two productions only.17 The Metropolitan Opera’s season, which features a distinct summer period without performances is continuous along the Restoration model. Broadway and the West End occupy the extreme continuous end of the spectrum. In those commercial theater capitals, as long as a show makes money, it goes on (and on and on).
To summarize, we might best imagine theatrical seasons along a spectrum: at one end, the truly intermittent seasons of Ancient Greece and Medieval England, at the other an almost continuous season in Elizabethan England. The modern season may take either form, but it exists in relation to a calendar year (or years), includes a fallow period preceding its commencement, and receives explicit recognition in legal and financial practices. The question then arises, what is the modern season for? Or:
I suggest that the uncertainty around the season’s definition reveals not a failure to define the season properly but, rather, competing definitions of the season from different stakeholders. The season is an indefinite thing not because it is inherently nebulous. People use the term to refer to the theatrical calendar all the time, with little confusion. Rather, there exists no agreement about what seasons mean outside of a particular circumstance. In the remainder of this paper, I sketch out some of the season’s meanings to shed light on the work the season performs for the multiple constituencies that use the term. My case studies are theater historians, regional theater companies, and Broadway producers.
For the theater historian, and particularly for the chronicler of theater, the season frequently demarcates the passage of time. But seasons are neither necessary nor accurate pictures of historical practices. As mentioned above, Early Modern theater practitioners had little sense of a season compared to Restoration managers or performers. Yet historians refer anachronistically to say, “the 1596-97 season.” Even Knutson, who recognizes the subtleties of the Elizabethan theater calendar, combines our modern season with a more historically meaningful reference to meteorological seasons, to bizarre effect. Giving examples of “revivals,” she describes “the returns of Long Meg of Westminster to the stage at the start of the fall season of 1596-97, of The Wise Man of West Chester at the end of the spring season in 1596-97, and of Doctor Faustus at the beginning of the fall season in 1597-98.”18 This incoherence—does a hyphenated year at all clarify to when “the beginning of the fall” refers?—reveals how much theater historians are accustomed to think with the modern season, even when the period they address does not fit our contemporary model.
The concept of a season has provided a useful framework for many chroniclers, but not all. Thomas Allston Brown’s three-volume History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, though often mentioning seasons, uses theater buildings to structure his narrative. The late nineteenth century witnessed the rise of season summaries, some published in periodicals, others collected in volumes edited (or solely authored) by leading dramatic critics. Burns Mantle’s Best Plays series has persisted, under various titles, from 1919 down to the present day, collecting not only a season catalogue, but also texts of ten selected plays, alongside various other statistics from the year. George C. Odell’s fifteen-volume Annals of the New York Stage relies heavily on seasons as an organizing principle.19 Boston critic Edward Fuller was thinking seasonally when he gathered reports on major events of The Dramatic Year, 1887-88 and included an essay by William Archer on the season in London. Archer, somewhat self-consciously, dates that London season from July 28th, an unusually early start. As he apologetically explains, British “melodramatic managers  venture an important production just at the time when in Paris, and, I believe, in America, things are at their very dullest.”20
Archer’s own series, The Theatrical World, appears to be a template for later models, though he surprisingly forgoes the season as an organizing principle, collecting his writings instead under the banner of a calendar year. The thirty-fourth entry in the 1894 volume thus opens a review of two plays that premiered on September 5th with the incongruous declaration that “The season of 1894-95 could scarcely have opened better.”21 When Archer complains in his epilogue that 1894 was not “such a stirring and memorable year in the theatrical world as eighteen-ninety-three,” he quickly acknowledges that the year’s “comparative barrenness” is not “of any particular significance” but, rather, “purely fortuitous. A year is in reality an arbitrary division, so far as theatrical history is concerned.”22 The critic goes on to give examples of new work by both Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Irving that appeared in 1895. Had Archer divided his collection seasonally, the resulting narrative would have differed slightly. Why Pinero and Irving’s work was not produced in 1894 is of little moment to Archer and his agenda. For Archer, who saw the anthology as a means to promote the modern drama’s development, a bad year or season meant nothing, given that both divisions are equally “arbitrary.” But is Archer’s view accurate from the perspective of Pinero or Irving? Might not the season mean something else to the men and women of the stage?
Consider the case of a manager like Irving. Irving’s company was a repertory company. Each season brought with it two related considerations: (1) the variety of productions presented to the audience, and (2) the allocation of resources to those productions. Although a manager may design a season with an eye to the first problem, the second dominates season planning, particularly the hiring of actors and other seasonal employees. Although the September-June season arose for a variety of reasons, it became an important reality when it began organizing employment. A sample contract for Drury Lane in 1827, for example, includes no explicit reference to the season as a duration of employment, but guarantees the all-important, salary-supplementing benefit performance once every season. Given that many company members were guaranteed such benefits, the season concluded naturally with a string of benefits at which patrons could show performers their gratitude for the season now past.23 Later nineteenth-century contracts explicitly engage performers for or by the season. An agreement between Augustin Daly and a stage manager, for instance, names “a period of one season, that is to say: commencing on or about the 1st day of June 1874.”24 Actors’ availability is, for historical reasons, organized around the season: both what is owed to the actor and, reciprocally, to the manager, is owed for a season only.
To generalize from this point: if the theatrical management entails organizing and distributing resources, then the season is the time during which a specific set of resources are available for the manager’s use. To clarify this point, think of a season at a modern regional theater or a university theater company. What parameters determine that company’s season? The available cast, surely. One can produce only a highly unusual production of Top Girls if the crop of performers includes insufficient female talent. Budgets play a tremendous role in season planning. A large-cast musical with multiple sets may be exciting, but four in a year would be prohibitively expensive. One period-set Restoration comedy might be manageable, but a contemporary show with simple wardrobes (This is Our Youth, say) will keep the costume shop from being overwhelmed. Now, the calendar year could just as well have been the timeline within which these resources needed to be allocated. But with the relative timing of the theatrical season a historical given—and, in the case of university theaters, conveniently coincident with most academic calendars—the season serves as the unit for managing the raw materials of production.
Significantly, the scarcity of resources in a season helps determine artistic plans for that season. For instance, many theater companies believe strongly in producing new work, either a premiere or a relatively recent play. How many such premieres one produces a season depends both on the company’s mission statement and on the audience’s expectations. A troupe committed to staging the classics might risk last year’s Pulitzer-winner at little cost, but five new works from Soho Rep and Playwrights’ Horizons (let alone the Ontological-Hysteric Theater) will not a season make for our imaginary company. Some seasons have themes, focus on single playwrights, or include holiday-themed performances in the December/January slot. Again, the season need not be September-June, but the season itself is the organizing principle. In this case, the season organizes an artistic vision both for the company and for the company to sell to an audience, particularly an audience of subscribers. When one buys tickets for the 2014–15 season, one weighs the benefits of buying seats for all five or six shows against the cost—in price, but also in seat quality and benefits—of tickets to the two or three shows about which one is excited. Subscriptions are a topic unto themselves, but from the perspective of this paper, they indicate the import of seasonal thinking for companies.
With this in mind, the case of Irving’s fallow year appears different. For Archer, the absence of a significant new Lyceum production in 1894 was meaningless, particularly given that King Arthur appeared in January, 1895. As Archer notes, seasonal counting would have moved the premiere of Becket (the previous Irving triumph) to the 1892–93 season and relocated King Arthur to 1894–95, leaving the same lacuna between openings, but this time of a season (1893-94), rather than a calendar year (1894). The choice matters not to Archer’s history of London theater as long as Irving’s company is still working and working well. But by effacing the season, Archer misses how Irving develops new work and how Irving situates that work within his season’s finances. Becket, for instance, opened February 6, 1893, and played 112 times through the end of that season.25 The company then toured America with their new success, staying through March of 1894, at which point they reproduced Faust in London.26 Only then was Irving settled enough to consult with Edward Burne-Jones on the design of King Arthur, which had been in the works since 1890, and which, like Becket, subsequently toured America.27 In other words, Irving was essentially splitting seasons between London and the United States, using a show’s London success to develop the cultural capital that would sell his new production in an extensive American tour, where he made back the money he had lost developing new work in London.28 By not attending to seasons, Archer misses how embedded Irving’s process is in the model of London premiere/American tour. Without the tour (and the resulting lack of a new Irving production in the 1893-94 season), Irving could not afford to develop King Arthur. Irving didn’t need a calendar year to make enough capital to design King Arthur, he needed almost a full American season of performances of Becket.
For theater companies that operate on seasonal schedules, the season is the unit of resources: capital, raw materials, labor, income. These resources are scarce and need attention in a way that balances expenditures—of both financial and artistic capital—against earning potential. To think seasonally with a company is to think of a troupe’s balance sheet.
On Broadway and the West End today, companies are few and far between. What does the season mean to a seemingly eternal show such as The Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King? What can seasons possibly mean to Cameron Mackintosh’s accountant? Does Broadway need seasons, even the confused season described in the Goldman passages quoted above? I suggest that Broadway’s seasonal mentality, like that of theater companies, depends on resources, but primarily performance spaces, star actors, and, above all, critical attention.
As Goldman’s remarks above note, theater vacancies in the middle of the summer are relatively common. An unoccupied theater in November or December is almost unheard of and, given the money to be made in that busy season, financially absurd. Finding a good theater at any time is, of course, even more difficult. Not every show is suitable for every house. The tiny Booth Theatre, for instance, with its capacity of 766, is an impossible house for musicals (you couldn’t make enough money to cover running costs), while the Gershwin, currently home to Wicked, would swallow whole a small-cast drama. Further, not every theater’s location is equally attractive. The Cort Theatre, at 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue is less likely to attract foot traffic from tourists looking for a show. The Broadway, August Wilson, and Neil Simon Theatres are all north of 50th Street, making them riskier destinations as well. A hit show with great press can certainly overcome a location at the perimeter of Broadway’s circuit. But many producers feel that proximity to the TKTS booth and the heart of Times Square—not to mention to sold-out shows leaving audience members looking for an alternative—can mean the difference between a moderate success and an abject failure. Theaters, in short, are a valuable and surprisingly scarce resource, particularly at certain times of the year. If all the good musical houses are booked, it may be worthwhile postponing production until a season when a house will be available.29
The same scarcity, of course, applies to star performers, who can commit only to so many shows at a time. Again, seasonal thinking plays a role here: most performers are unlikely to commit to multiple roles in a Broadway season, particularly if a show might have an indefinite run. And, of course, stars sometimes take other work outside of Broadway: James Corden, set to star in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, took a job in late night television, causing producers to release their theater in Spring 2015 and plan for a later date while they recast the role of Pseudolus.30
While these examples make clear that scarce resources on Broadway create pressures on a production’s timing, it is not readily apparent why the season should still be the important measure for that timing. The missing piece of the puzzle, I propose, is critical attention. Audiences, critics, and, above all, awards are bestowed seasonally. Think of critical praise for the “Best Musical of the Season,” “Performance of the Season,” or “The show this season has been waiting for!” Certainly, these phrases apply too to annual criticism: the top ten plays of the year, for example. But the season is also the unit of awards, particularly the Tony Awards. The Tony committee annually establishes a cut-off date for that year’s awards, a date usually near the end of April, and over a month before the actual awards ceremony. Recently, more and more of the Broadway season opens right around Tony nomination time, so shows can make an immediate impression on voters and have fewer performance weeks to fill before, producers hope, winning an award, free publicity, and an attendant box-office boost. As evidence, recall that Goldman observed that seventy-five percent of openings in the 1960s fell between October 1 and the end of March. In the 2000s, a full twenty percent of shows opened in April, while January and February openings have all but disappeared compared to the 1960s (see Table 1, with the 1960s and 2000s highlighted for January, February, and April).
This is a significant shift in the rhythm of production, an elimination of cultural space at the tail end of the season and, effectively, an increasing scarcity of resources. If anything, the Broadway season is more pressing a force than it has ever been.
The season, then, has no single meaning: its boundaries are not—and have not been, historically—clear; its function differs according to circumstance; it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient explanation for anything that happens in the theater. And yet the season or, better yet, seasonality underlies how theater is made, consumed, and chronicled. Above all, the season makes thinkable the scarce resources available to each and every production, whether those resources are financial, material, artistic, or critical. Thinking seasonally helps us think about theater as a product of scarce resources and, in so doing, better account for the precious experiences that come and go on stage.
1. Roslyn Lander Knutson, The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company (University of Arkansas Press, 1991), p. 27.
2. James Wright, Historia histrionica: an historical account of the English stage shewing the ancient use, improvement, and perfection of dramatick representations in this nation. In a dialogue of plays and players (London: William Haws, 1699), p. 5.
3. Melissa Aaron, “Theatre as Business” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare, edited by Arthur F. Kinney (Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 424n8.
4. Knutson, pp. 28-29. For example, one could purchase a dispensation from the Master of Revels for some performances during Lent. Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve, Government Regulation of Elizabethan Drama (Columbia University Press, 1908), p. 75.
5. Gildersleeve, p. 196.
6. Knutson, p. 23.
7. The legal calendar also plays an organizing role here, with its succession of four terms (Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter, Trinity) separated by vacations. But there is no evidence of a contemporary theatrical year mapped on to a legal year.
8. William J. Burling, Summer Theatre in London, 1661-1820, and the Rise of the Haymarket Theatre (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000), p. 23.
9. Burling, pp. 24-25.
10. See Burling, passim.
11. William van Lennep, ed., The London Stage, 1660-1800, Part I: 1660-1700, p. lxvii.
12. Emmett L. Avery, ed., The London Stage, 1660-1800, Part II: 1700-1729, Vol. 1, p. liv.
13. William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (New York: Limelight, 1984), pp. 23-24.
14. Goldman, p. 403.
16. My thanks to Jeffrey S. Ravel for this information. See the digital [Projet des registres de la Comédie-Française](http://app.cfregisters.org/) for evidence that the company’s annual book-keeping begins after Easter.
17. Such a clear seasonal demarcation shares more features with team sports such as baseball with its lengthy period of inactivity than with individual sports such as tennis, which features a six-week pause between the final tournament of the year’s champions and the commencement of the next year’s competition. Consider the oft-quoted remark by baseball Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” Hornsby’s poignant image would be inappropriate for a more seasonally continuous activity in which the fallow period was a mere pause for refreshment and recuperation in an otherwise perpetual flow of action.
18. Knutson, p. 215n16.
19. George C. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 15 vols. (Columbia University Press, 1927–1949).
20. William Archer, “The Season in London [1887-88],” The Dramatic Year, 1887-88, ed. Edward Fuller (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1889), p. 22.
21. William Archer, The Theatrical World of 1894 (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1895), p. 223
22. Archer, Theatrical World, pp. 347–349.
23. Leman Thomas Rede, The Road to the Stage; or, the Performer’s Preceptor. Containing Clear and Ample Instructions for Obtaining Theatrical Engagements; with a List of All the Provincial Theatres, the Names of the Managers, and All Particulars as to their Circuits, Salaries, &c., with a Description of the Things Necessary on Outset in the Profession, where to Obtain Them, and a Complete Explanation of all the Technicalities of the Histrionic Art! (London: Joseph Smith, 1827), p. 70.
24. Contract with J. B. Wright. “Daly, Augustin,” Theatre Autograph File, Box 24, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
25. Bram Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, Vol. I, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1906), p. 242.
26. Stoker, p. 249.
27. Stoker, p. 253.
28. See Tracy C. Davis, The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 219–225, for more on Irving’s finances. Davis estimates that Irving lost over £21,000 running the Lyceum. “It was through touring, and especially foreign touring, that Irving’s business succeeded,” Davis explains (221).
29. For instance, a planned revival of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s musical Titanic announced postponement to 2015-16 “due to the lack of an available Broadway theatre during the 2014-15 season.” Adam Hetrick, “Broadway Revival of Titanic Postponed,” Playbill.com, May 21, 2014, http://www.playbill.com/news/article/broadway-revival-of-titanic-postponed-218591.
30. Adam Hetrick, “Broadway Revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Postponed,” Playbill.com, September 8, 2014, http://www.playbill.com/news/article/broadway-revival-of-a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum-postpone-329956.