ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — After 19 years of planning theatrical seasons for GREAT Theatre, Executive Artistic Director Dennis Whipple knows a thing or two about appealing to kids — and their parents.

"Children's audiences are harder," Whipple told the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/2jI36ew ). "They're not as giving. They're a lot more honest. And they're a lot more about the immediate reaction. You have to be really serious with kids, even with comedy! They're just a little too smart for their own good."

And while GREAT has built a reputation on producing children's theater, the company has used the past few years to branch out into more adult-friendly fare, like 2016's "Sister Act" and the upcoming "Tony n' Tina's Wedding."

"We have really tried to grow our seasons to be for everyone," Whipple said.

Audiences pack the house at the Paramount Center for the Arts in downtown St. Cloud for GREAT's colorful and inventive plays and musicals, but there's one drama that doesn't play out onstage: the process of planning and selecting the company's theatrical season.

There's a method to the madness for Whipple, who breaks down the season's shows into distinct genres.

"We're starting with Broadway musical theater, which can be comedic or dramatic, and we do try to alternate from year to year. Then we have our literature for ages 8 and up, and what we're looking for there is really a book that we can present on stage in play form and that teachers can use in their classrooms," Whipple said.

"Then we have the holiday slot ... and typically in January we have the literature for ages 12 and up. Then it's literature for ages 3 and up, which is really for preschool audiences or higher, like this year's 'James and the Giant Peach'. We do a family musical, which this year is 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' And then we've started something new, which is the dinner theater."

With those genres in mind, Whipple and his team then think about the limits of their space at the Paramount — namely, the number of seats they must sell. It's this challenge, Whipple said, that keeps GREAT from producing lesser-known or more controversial works.

"There's 800 seats at the Paramount, so when you think about a run of a show, you really need to be producing something that can sell up to 10,000 tickets," Whipple said. "That doesn't really allow you to get into niches. We think very broadly on the Paramount stage. That said, with our shows we do always try to have diverse opportunities, which is a really relevant thing in St. Cloud — to make sure audiences are seeing their peers onstage."

Costume designer Cindy Freet said the inclusive nature of GREAT's productions is one of her favorite parts of her job.

"I am a relatively new member to the team, but I value all the rewarding moments being part of an organization that works tirelessly to offer opportunities to everyone," she said. "The work is amazing, and it's so rewarding to see a season come together with so many opportunities for people to be involved in."

In December, the GREAT team sends out a survey to its season members and actors who have participated in past shows to determine the interest in over 50 "dream titles," or shows that the company would be interested in producing at some point.

"That's what kick-starts (the season planning process)," said Whipple. "We're asking them what they want to see, what they don't want to see and what titles they don't know anything about. We want both our audience and our actors to enjoy our shows."

Whipple said audience preferences tend to lean towards modern, popular selections — he cites "The Lion King" and "Mamma Mia!" among the most-requested shows — over classic works or shows with edgier themes.

"GREAT has a younger audience than a lot of community theaters, because our audience came out of kids. Their knowledge (of theater) is a lot more modern," Whipple said.

But that doesn't stop the company from taking the occasional risk.

"'Ragtime' gave us an opportunity to examine how immigration and race hasn't changed since (the turn of the 20th century). Our audience did not know what that title was, so that's where we surprise them with where we'd like to go (with our selections)," said Whipple of their September 2015 production of the Tony-award-winning musical.

Once the surveys have been filled out and returned to the company, the team makes tough decisions based on which shows ranked the highest among their season members and actors, and which shows are available for performance. When the final consensus has been reached, they begin the laborious process of gaining the performance rights to each show.

"That's the lengthiest process, because we're negotiating with either individuals or companies on what we're going to pay and how we're going to pay it," said Whipple. "And sometimes that does affect which shows are performed. A show like 'Sister Act' or 'A Christmas Story', that's an $18,000 royalty. So that can play into it."

Then, all that's left is for GREAT to decide which shows will be performed at what point in the upcoming season. While the order of shows is largely influenced by the genres to which Whipple prescribes as well as the school year — the company frequently partners with local schools for field-trip performances and performance tours — there are some other considerations.

"For example, doing 'A Christmas Story' right after the election, and having it have nothing to do with the election, and it just being about the fun ... that was exactly what we all needed at that moment. It allowed people the opportunity to use theater as an escape," Whipple said.

"And comedy is always safe in an election year!" he laughed.

Freet said the production schedule greatly affects her job, which includes creating patterns and building costumes, managing costume fittings and rentals, and overseeing the budgets for the main stage season.

"The dates we are producing shows directly affects how I plan the season in the costume shop," Freet said. "During the process of choosing the season and when we discuss a show's requirements, I will research the cast list and costume plot to see what specific requirements the concept and context of the play require, and consider how our organization can accommodate that show's needs."

Ultimately, the shows selected by Whipple and the GREAT Theatre staff each season place an emphasis on entertainment, kid-friendly appeal, rich storytelling and diverse opportunities for performers; even the shows that feature casts comprised entirely of adults skew towards lighthearted, fun fare. While there are pragmatic, business-savvy reasons for the company's upbeat tendencies, perhaps the trend also reflects Whipple's earnest, sunny attitude towards the work.

"It's the best part of my job," said Whipple of the season-planning process. "It's the one part of my job that I've never given up in all these years, with all these things I've handed off."

GREAT Theatre will announce its 2017/18 theatrical season March 24, but Whipple is looking even further into the future.

"At some point we'd like to see the audience flip (their opinion on lesser-known titles) and say, 'OK, I don't know that title, but GREAT is doing it, so I'll go,' " he said.

"We want to see our audiences trust in us."

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Cloud Times.