Dispatches from the Hub of the Universe
Making Space for Theatre In Boston
Theatre is intimately connected to place. The art of performance grows from and returns to the communities that make it, and the spirit of that community determines the health and shape of the art. Theatre in America is troubled. For a while people have been asking why, and what we can do about it. I want to narrow the focus to one community, to see how big trends shape theatre within a city, and how, in light of those trends, we can make a space for our art form. Boston, the metro area where I live and work, and the greater Boston area, will be my microcosm. The region has a reputation: a stuffy place, with a preponderance of old guard, dearth of avant-garde, and style as staid as a Beacon Hill wardrobe. The last radical endeavor here was abolition. It isn’t a place known for its homegrown performances the way Minneapolis, San Francisco, or Chicago might be. There isn’t much to talk about here. Or so goes the rumor. The Boston theatre scene, on the contrary, has a fascinating history and is nuanced in the way it operates.
Full disclosure: I work for a theatre company in the Boston area. Apollinaire Theatre Company hired me as Development and Outreach Coordinator in March 2014. Since then, we have begun building new theatre spaces in Chelsea, ten minutes from Boston. I will be talking a lot about space, and I have a vested professional interest arguing for more space in the Boston area. I started this essay after I moved to Boston and asked myself, “Why are things the way they are here?” History, culture, economics, censorship, governance, geography, and demographics all play a role in shaping our art form. By tracing those factors through one city, we can better understand how to utilize the (cultural) space we occupy, as well as the (physical) spaces available to us.
Morality and Materialism: Boston Theatre History
Since its founding, Boston has had a weird and contentious relationship with theatre. The art always seemed to be at the heated juncture between spiritual and commercial concerns, starting with the Puritan founders. The minister Increase Mather (great name) called theatre “a danger to the souls of men” in response to an attempt to establish Boston’s first amateur house in 1687 (“A more woeful and effectual Course to Debauch the Young Generation, Satan himself cannot easily devise”). In 1750, the Massachusetts General Court passed a law banning all stage plays. This initiated decades of lobbying and debate among the clans in charge. Those arguing for theatre, who had as often as not never seen a stage play, saw performance as a tool to teach virtue and piety. Those against it, led by the great merchant-smuggler-governor John Hancock, saw it as promoting vice and managed to keep a lid on the art through the Revolution and beyond. In 1792, Hancock ordered the arrest of a local company, who, to quote John Quincy Adams in a letter to his father, “immediately assumed the form of a deliberative assembly” (a riot, he means). Democracy gave away to ochlocracy, and mobs smashed Hancock’s coats of arms from buildings. Following the riot, the Court repealed the ban, thanks in part to JQA’s efforts. The state established its first theatres soon thereafter (including one owned by JQA), but Boston remained in censorship’s grip for the next 190 years.
By the nineteenth century Boston had quite a few theatres making commercial productions, the most famous of which was the Howard Atheneum, known as the “Old Howard.” Befitting Boston’s history, the Old Howard started life as a Millerite church. The Millerites believed the world would end in 1844. It didn’t. The disappointed Millerites sold the property, and their church was reconfigured as a playhouse. John Wilkes Booth, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, and Phil Silvers all trod the Howard’s boards. The Old Howard anchored Scolly Square, a vital commercial center/seething hive of iniquities from the nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. The Old Howard was most famous for its burlesque shows, Rumba Girls, Facts and Figures, and Hoochy-Coochy. At Boston’s popular theatres we could trace the creation of vaudeville out of variety shows, and burlesque from comedic extravaganza to striptease, which gave these theatre’s critics plenty of fodder.
In 1878, Boston saw the founding of the Watch and Ward Society, inspired by the famed censor Anthony Comstock, backed by Boston’s Brahmin establishment, and dedicated to the suppression of vice. The phrase “Banned in Boston” carried weight because of the Watch and Ward, who maintained close connections with the state’s governmental and law enforcement organs. When Watch and Ward readers came across objectionable material, they would inform Boston bookstores and playhouses of their grievances. The material was canceled or pulled from the shelves at the Society’s warning, otherwise the Watch and Ward would report it to the vice squads, and arrests followed under the auspices of the City Censor. Intellectuals, academics, and artists saw Boston as stultifying and left in droves. The Watch and Ward’s influence stretched across Massachusetts, but Boston was their base of operations. They banned plays by Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Helman, and Clifford Odets, along with (informally) policing more risqué material flourishing in Scolly Square. According to contemporary accounts, it was part of the job of the ticket takers at the Old Howard to recognize members of the Watch and Ward and issue advance warnings; by flicking a switch to turn on a red light hidden in the proscenium, stripteases would magically become waltzes.
While the Watch and Ward was deeply Protestant, a boom of Irish immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries strengthened their censorious stance. Clerics from both sides of Luther’s divide worked to keep Boston the most straightlaced city in America. But as the population became less Brahminic, the Watch and Ward found itself with fewer and fewer allies in high positions. American society became more liberal and modernism bloomed. The early twentieth century saw a rash of vaudeville palace and movie theatre construction in the downtown theatre district, most of them designed by Clarence Blackall, an American Beaux arts architect. The new vaudeville houses, some of the first in America, staged programs alternating vaudeville acts and early picture films. Many had capacities upwards of 3,000 patrons. Boston’s spectacular houses became an important tryout stop for Broadway shows (albeit censored ones), and productions from New York dominated Boston's regional scene. Boston audiences of the early twentieth century were hungry for commercial downtown entertainment. Yet in just a few years, commercial entertainment underwent a succession of technological changes: as films became longer and more elaborate, and film stars more of a draw, the expense of live theatre, coupled with the massive overhead of a 3,000-seat house, meant that productions had to be cut back. As the prominence of film rose, several of the houses were reworked (stages removed, screens hung, projectors and cutting rooms built in balconies) to suit the more profitable medium.
Changing demographics and a wave of urban renewal effected the seedier elements of the city as well. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, immigrant families that had settled downtown left the squalor of the city center for suburb communities. Much of the film business followed, and the invention of the television cut into profits even further. The vaudeville theatres fell on desperate times, reliant as they were on film revenue but unable to compete with neighborhood theatres because of massive overhead. The Old Howard caught fire, and was torn down in 1961. The Boston Redevelopment Authority plowed Scolly Square under in the 1960s and turned it into the concrete hamburger that is Boston City Hall. Not yet ready to give in to total depravity, the city zoned a red light district north of Boston’s Chinatown and east of the Boston Common as a second Scolly Square, right in the middle of the theatre district. This became known as the Combat Zone, a seedy (and, a scholar might say, liminal) red light district of porn, burlesque, cruising, stripping, and prostitution, ringed by the ex-vaudeville palaces. Vaudeville-era theatres now screened sex films. Boston was still a censored city, except in the limits of the Combat Zone.
In the end, what the moralists had once fought, real estate conquered. By the 70s, the Combat Zone was too valuable for its own good. It was transformed into apartments, restaurants, and Emerson College dorms. Many of the last great theatres, now film houses, were boarded up or turned to other uses. The strippers left, porn went digital.
It was part of the job of the ticket takers at the Old Howard to recognize members of the Watch and Ward and issue advance warnings; by flicking a switch to turn on a red light hidden in the proscenium, stripteases would magically become waltzes.
Redeveloping the Theatre District and Combat Zone represented a new era for the city, and for the city’s theatre arts. The shift began in the 1960’s, on the heels of the professional regional theatre movement, when the Boston Redevelopment Authority purchased a few acres of land in the South End (including the famed Cyclorama) and designated it the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA). These new spaces, completed in the 1970s, included a few black box theatres that became hubs for small, flexible, local rental companies. Boston University and Harvard both welcomed professional LORT companies in the 80s. Finally, the post of City Censor was abolished in 1982, ending the era of stage censorship. The larger theatres in Boston (like the Paramount Center, Cutler Majestic, Boston Opera House, and Wang Center) still cluster around the old Combat Zone perimeter, and almost all of them date to the Beaux arts period. Despite this, these theatres are now just another stop on the touring circuit, not places to try out a show, and there is only one company bringing Broadway shows to the city. Most artists in Boston have built their companies to be small, nonprofit, and local, working for art’s sake.
The Four Factors
There are four factors that Boston’s 300-year-long struggle between censorship and commerce in the performing arts has produced. First, when we talk about theatre in Boston as it now exists, we are talking about a way of doing theatre that is only forty or so years old. It’s post-Company, post-Equus. Second, theatre in Boston is nonprofit. There is a long history of commercial theatre in Boston, but for the most part, that legacy has no successor. Almost every company is a 501c(3). Third, because of a deep cultural ambivalence about what can and can’t be staged, productions here tend to be straight plays that premiered a few decades ago and tried-and-true methods of production, even among fringe companies. Older plays are far more common than premiers, and they are almost always done by the book. Finally, the spaces designated for making theatre are few and far between. There were no new theatres built in Boston between the 1920s and 2004, and many of those built at the beginning of the last century were destroyed by the 80s. Even nearby communities, Chelsea, Charlestown, and Somerville, only built theatre spaces in the 90s. In 2002, Clear Channel Communications purchased the grand B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre in the Theatre District, refurbished and reopened it as the Boston Opera House in 2004. The Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, which includes two theaters, opened under the auspices of Huntington Theater Company in 2004, which added two large theatre spaces, and Emerson College finished refurbishing the Beaux arts Cutler Majestic in 2003, and the Art Deco Paramount center in 2008. Nonetheless, we have a space shortage that leaves lots of theatre companies without adequate, affordable space to rehearse and perform. So, shaped by a three-century legacy, theatre in Boston is recently configured, nonprofit, conservative in its programming, and lacking adequate, affordable space.
The Big Hockey Stick: Boston Theatre at Present
Let’s look more closely at the situation history has produced and what it means for artists today. At a glance, Boston has a robust theatre scene. Lots of shows happen every weekend, and many of the local colleges are nationally renowned for their theatre programs. There are a dizzying number of organizations, houses that host tours and nationally renowned artists, and student productions. With that in mind, I am going to focus on the local nonprofit theatre organizations, which produce works primarily using artists based in the Boston area.
Surveying the organizations, theatre companies stratify into three categories, with a few outliers. These three categories have very specific similarities: the artists they use, the size and makeup of their administrative staff, choice of programming, production and program revenue, salary expenditure, public support, union ties, and expenses all correlate among these stratifications. If we were to chart all the companies in the city by revenue, Boston has a long tail of smaller companies, a few companies in the middle, and two big companies making up the end of a hockey stick. I’ll call these three categories the Fringe Theatres, Mid-Sized Theatres, and the Two Big Houses. I collected all of my hard data using the 990 tax returns of the companies, and data self-reported by companies in response to surveys by the local theatre service organization StageSource (for those companies that aren’t yet 501c(3)—and there are many companies producing that aren’t—data was a little more difficult to find). I found all of my soft data on the companies’ own websites, or by talking to and working with local professionals.
Fringe Theater Companies
"Hardest to pin down or qualify are the Fringe Theatre companies. These companies include Apollinaire Theater Company, Zeitgeist Theater Company, imaginary beasts, Brown Box Theater Project, Flat Earth Theater, the Circuit Theater Company, and many, many others. They can be long-standing institutions incorporated as nonprofits with their own theatres, a few people with a shared interest who want to produce plays in their spare time, or recent graduates with an ambition to create great work. What ties them together are their tiny budgets—generally under $100,000, with many of them coming in below $50,000. They almost exclusively produce using local actors and artists, unless somebody wants to crash on a couch for a month or two. They may have one full-time, stressed out administrator, maybe two, but that’s pushing it. Almost all work done for the company is volunteer, and any artistic work that is paid is under-compensated, with a (very) modest stipend. Some companies have armies of volunteer administrators, who spend as many as forty hours a week building the company, and some don’t have any. Their earnings from public and grant contributions are at most a few thousand dollars, so they rely on ticket sales for their budgets season-to-season. Many of the artists they work with (actors especially) have degrees in theatre, but their work with Fringe Companies doesn’t earn them a living. Only rarely do they run any programming beyond productions.
Fringe companies produce the majority of programming in the Boston Area. They also represent the greatest variety of organizational structures, from collectives to volunteer professional companies, to, as one friend of mine put it, “Houses of Despotism.” Finally, they tend to be artist-centered. Audience numbers tend to be small, perhaps a few hundred for an entire season. Even though they don’t have much to lose as far as audience numbers go, their programming is relatively conservative. A sampling of some recent plays include Translations by Brian Friel, The Flick by Annie Baker, Bent by Martin Sherman, Shaw’s Pygmalion, Krapp’s Last Tape, and lots of Shakespeare. Even the few companies producing new works trend toward straight plays. They produce at the small black box venues of the BCA, the Charlestown Working Theatre, the Boston Playwrights Theatre if they produce new works, the Chelsea Theatre Works, and, up until November 1 of this year, the Factory Theatre, a fringe venue in Boston’s South End whose lease expired and is now slated to become a pilates studio or dog meditation chamber or something equally bougie. In general, the Fringe Companies rehearse in classrooms at MIT or Boston University open in the evening to public use, unless they are fortunate enough to have their own space, a residency, or a connection to a larger company whose offices they can unlock at night.
Many mid-sized theatres operate under the New England Area Theatre Equity contract as 501c(3)s. A few don’t due to specific aspects of their mission. These theatres include Lyric Stage, Gloucester Stage, The Theater Offensive, SpeakEasy Stage, Actor’s Shakespeare Project, New Repertory Theatre, Stoneham Theatre, Merrimack Rep, and the Nora and Underground Railroad theatre companies. They all have revenues between $500,000 and $2 million, which, in some other cities, would still make them small players. The majority of their revenues come from programming, especially if they are NEAT theatres. Almost all of them are resident in a theatre from season-to-season, and very few are floating companies. Their actors tend to be union or EMC, as well as their stage managers and designers. They have around ten administrative staff members. They often run educational programs, which are expensive, but popular with young actors. They are able to produce on two stages. They program shows that were successful in New York and written by brand-name playwrights. Some recent selections from mid-sized theatres: The Color Purple, The Whale, Death of an Audience Salesman, Assassins, Shakespeare. Their artists tend to be regarded as professionals, and it is common for an artist from the fringe scene to make the jump to the mid-sized theatres and rack up union credits. However, a persistent complaint among actors at this level is once they make the jump to Equity, the mid-sized theatres that would once hire them won’t any longer, and they can no longer work at fringe theatres. This creates a degree of fluctuation between Equity and non-Equity status among experienced actors in the city.
The Two Big Houses
Finally, there are the Two Big Houses: Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater. The Huntington and the A.R.T. both have national recognition, and both operate under a LORT contract. They hire many of their actors from out of town, though their multitudes of administrative staff and designers live in the Boston area. Their revenue hovers around $13–14 million. About half of their revenues come from donations and grants, the other half from programming. Both of them have institutional underpinnings: the Huntington was founded by Boston University in the 1980s, and the A.R.T. operates under the auspices of Harvard, after Robert Brustein decamped from the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1979. The two big houses’ visions, though, are distinct. The Huntington fulfills the functions of the area’s local big theatre. They operate a theatre owned by BU on Huntington Avenue, as well as the Calderwood Pavilion, both of which are large spaces. They have something of a commitment to staging new work by local playwrights, interspersed with classics and plays-of-the-season. The A.R.T. is Diane Paulus’s house, churning out original, Broadway-ready productions with big names attached (this season: Eve Ensler, Susan Lori-Parks, Mandy Patinkin, to name a few) in Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center. The A.R.T. has, debatably, taken up the mantel of trying out shows for New York. The A.R.T also operates the Oberon, a second stage which produces circus acts and immersive pieces. Both of these theatres have strong donor and audience bases, and for many the A.R.T. and the Huntington are theatre in Boston.
The A.R.T and Huntington's huge audiences and donor bases sometimes overflow into mid-sized and fringe seats, though the general populace is often unfamiliar with fringe companies. That means a lot of great shows are only seen by people “in the know.” Among the wider scope of Boston’s arts organizations, even the A.R.T and Huntington are small players; the Boston Ballet and Boston Symphony Orchestra draw huge audiences and incomes, not to mention Broadway in Boston. The Museum of Fine Arts takes in eleven times what the Huntington does. One of Boston’s self-styled monikers is “The Athens of America,” and Boston audiences seem to prefer visiting art’s Acropoleis over local shrines.
Support for Artists
The fringe companies pay a stipend of around $200 total for rehearsal and performance, with only a few offering over $500. That’s a little less than the cost of public transportation. If you’re driving a car to and from rehearsal, you’re working at a loss. Mid-sized companies might pay $200 per week nonunion, $371 union. Ticket sales are just barely enough to cover your budget if you’re a fringe company, and public support is a pittance. If you’re a mid-sized company, you’re still cash-strapped. Of the mid-sized companies whose 990s I could drum up, artist stipends and benefits as reported in “program service expenses” were usually under half of operating expenses, from less than 20 percent to above 40 percent, with most falling in around a third. Many fringe companies spend as much on rents as they do on artist stipends.
State support is lacking for artists, but it is there for facilities in Boston. Sizable grants exist for building spaces where creative industries can operate. Procuring this funding is extremely demanding and requires that companies maintain a level of administrative capacity that is somewhat unrealistic on even the mid-sized end of the spectrum. Grantmakers ask for significant due diligence and demonstrations of feasibility and demand. As Rebecca Novick noted in a great article from a few years ago, funders in general tend to fund institutions, rather than the artists. Why does the state support creative placemaking, but not support the people who want to create? Real estate is a very effective place to pour capital: arts spaces make nearby buildings more valuable, bring in more business to local businesses, and require specialized skills to build. Theatre buildings need significant capital to operate, and they are like heat sinks for that capital. Very little capital finds its ways into the artists’ hands. There isn’t much capital earmarked for artists.
Running an Empty Space
What is keeping theatre companies from paying their artists well in this city? In part, the theatre buildings themselves. Of the four factors defining Boson theatre, the lack of space is the most troublesome. Artists have trouble developing their work because they are forced to rehearse, direct, write, and build in peripheral spaces. Those rehearsal spaces that are rentable are often too expensive on a tight budget. Occupancy costs hit fringe companies the hardest, since those costs are fixed and often keep small theatre companies from paying their artists anything like an equitable wage. But unfortunately, rental income rarely covers the capital necessary to maintain spaces. Spaces need to be subsidized by other income streams. Take the BCA as an example: the BCA only made $166,846 from “performing arts rentals” in 2012 (their latest 990), which represented only 6 percent of their revenue. They spent twice as much maintaining their building. Most of their revenue came from renting their Cyclorama space as a function hall. The BCA also makes revenue from setup and per ticket box office fees, which were a little harder to trace, but the overarching picture is that the BCA makes very little money from theatre companies playing there, and the BCA is built as a performing arts space.
The BCA is one of the city’s gifts to the arts, and it is fortunate that it is able to survive through income streams beyond those of rentals. One of the cheapest and smallest spaces available for rental at the BCA, the “Black Box,” capacity 90, renting for $1450 per week, was vacant just under seven weeks in 2014, while the “Plaza,” capacity 142, stood vacant 15 weeks. Though the Black Box made less money overall, the dark weeks in the Plaza represented three times the Black Box’s amount of lost rental revenue.
Other cheap rental spaces include Rehearsal A (run by the BCA) and Deane Hall (by the Huntington) both renting for $850 per week.
Larger spaces with better amenities are hypothetically desirable, but few small companies can afford to pay for mid-sized spaces, and often don’t draw the audiences to justify even slightly larger spaces. There is virtually nowhere for small companies to start up and grow their craft and audience base. Because real estate costs in Boston are skyrocketing, developing even a small theatre space would be costly.
More than Money
But theatres create value that can’t be measured in dollars—that’s why we’re nonprofits, right? And when you atomize theatre down to the level of the artists, you find, of course, that people do it for reasons other than making money. Some people have a story to tell. Some yearn for a connection with an audience, some for a connection with other artists. Some because it’s the only thing they are unequivocally good at, some because they feel comfortable with everything, and have found that creating the worlds within worlds of suspended disbelief is the only way to encompass all they experience. What are the benefits of an actor’s, director’s, designer’s training? It’s often given in broad terms: you benefit as a human being. It is soul work. You become more empathetic and more keen. Coming to this profession is never a fluke, always a choice. Beyond the institutions, what is life like here for individuals who have made that choice?
Overall, the community of Boston theatre is very tight-knit. The majority of those making theatre here are doing it because they love it. Because of that intense devotional aspect, theatre is a subculture and a lifestyle. The subcultural aspect means a rather narrow audience base for many companies, but artists are intensely devoted to each other’s work. Part of that may also be commiseration: pay is exceedingly low. Pay for a job is low because there is more labor than there is available work, and sometimes (as is the case here), laborers voluntarily take low-paying positions for the promise of future payoff, or alternative payoffs. Having great artists definitely increases theatre revenues, since they draw audiences to the theatre. Talented, well-trained actors in Boston are always getting work, but pay is still minimal. Artists daylight as ghostwriters, servers, receptionists, programmers, and nannies, and some are fortunate enough to not need a day job despite the low pay. Many young, talented artists move to Los Angeles or New York City to further their careers in film, television, or commercial theater. They have a better shot of making it there, because there is no film or television industry to support them in Boston. There is no space for the surfeit of actors who graduate from the local colleges (which happen to have some of the best programs in the nation), or who simply want to work here. This situation rings true for many people making theatre in small cities across the United States.
Because of the capital crunch, theatres are reluctant to take a risk on an unknown director. A production can lose money (as they often do), but they can’t hemorrhage. Which means that there is no entry point for young directors. Think of them as puppies: young directors need to do their fair share of peeing on the carpet, but in a world of antique Persian rugs, directors who aren’t house-trained yet won’t be let in. More and more directors are following their craft into small, flexible companies: theatre in churches and bars, funded by Kickstarter or other global crowdfunding campaigns—theatre in the off hours. However, many of these small theatre companies have trouble thriving. Few companies last beyond five years.
Boston theatre doesn’t have many diverse voices, specifically companies committed to doing plays by, with, and for people of color. The Boston region is very diverse, but the theatre scene here doesn’t reflect that. Going hand in hand with this, there aren’t many new plays by local playwrights here in general, but that may be changing (witness a recent 13P-inspired effort in Boston—Boston Public Works—to produce plays). Why is it that despite Boston’s wealth and high level of education, the performing arts are underfunded? Maybe some aspect of the Yankee sensibility keeps the purse strings drawn tight.
Councils and Accelerators: Potential Theatre Futures
This brings us to our final question: How can we make more space for theatre arts in a small city? Given my earlier investigations, of the geography, history, and economics of theatre in Boston, I’m going to look at programs that can help small theatre companies thrive. Small theater companies struggle the most, and they are also important avenues for young artists and new audiences.
Make Room! Make Room!
This first argument is obvious: we need more spaces, not only for performance, but also for rehearsal, building, writing, and meeting. Shows currently begin life in classrooms and are transported in trunks across town. Quite simply, floating theater companies need an affordable rental space of their own. This would advance the quality of work and provide professional development.
Small Company Council or Collective
The council would be modeled as a governing body, with an elected board serving as administrators. An important role of this collective would be to take some of the administrative weight that small companies usually struggle with off of their hands, so that they can function as more flexible, artist-led ensembles. As a collective, companies can share their physical resources and sweat equity, and negotiate en masse with venues, equipment rental organizations, and organizations that represent other artists. The power of negotiation is an important argument for this hypothetical collaborative. By, say, guaranteeing the booking of space for nine months, coordinating load-ins and load-outs among its member organizations, managing ticket sales and online presence, and offering to take care of other types of stewardship, the collective would be able to lower rental prices and labor time for all the companies involved, and overall labor prices for the venue owners. They can also coordinate space sharing between companies, whereby companies rent spaces for twice as long, in repertory, playing on and off every other night. As cities become denser (and they will) spaces will become more expensive. A collective can advocate for art spaces within the context of ongoing gentrification/urban renewal. A collective can instigate the process of creative place-making by lobbying for performance outfitted spaces in new developments. Furthermore, a collective can coordinate identifying and recruiting young artists as a ‘one-stop shop’ to intercept resumes, introducing recent graduates to small companies that would be friendly to new work, creating a pipeline for new talent and ideas to connect with other theater professionals. The Small Theater Alliance of Boston fulfills some of these roles, but could be expanded given more investment from the community,
Sweat Equity Credit
Anybody working for a small theatre company is grossly under-compensated for their skills and labor. A professional actor, designer, or stage manager making at most $300 for the entire run of a show won’t make a living at it. Theatre companies already leverage underutilized resources for the sake of artists they have a prior relationship with (“Sure, you can borrow our costumes, since you built our set”), but one degree of separation, and you might as well try to trade yuan for yap stones. It can become even more uncomfortable between companies and artists when work falls into ill-defined “friend spaces” (“She’s done so much for the company, but do we rent her costumes for free, and then charge someone else to borrow a chair?”). A collective of small theatre companies could establish a way to make sweat equity into “sweat capital,” to bank and trade it. This is the potential of the Culture Coin concept, which I hope gains more traction for artists.
Adoption of Small Theatre Companies
Is there anything large theatres or institutions devoted to the arts can do to help small theatres grow? Large theatre companies can “adopt” emerging companies for one or two year periods, offering artistic support, rehearsal and performance space, and administrative oversight. Large theatre companies will often offer residencies for emerging playwrights and directors, why not offer these benefits to all the artists in one company? The large company can mentor the small as they romance donors, write grants, and navigate their own expansion. They can introduce them to marketing best practices. This residential program would combine the benefits of being a small resident company at a theatre with an individual artistic or administrative fellowship/year-long internship at a large organization.
Several organizations around Boston call themselves “nonprofit accelerators,” and they operate much like a tech startup accelerator would—providing advice, mentorship, and tools for growth for the benefit of companies with a social mission. We could design an “artistic accelerator,” which would nurture collaborative and artistic skills among early-career artists, as well as acclimate them to the world of running a nonprofit. When you make a decision to go into the arts chances are running an artistic organization is new to you, even if you’ve worked a few internships. It would be helpful to have a system whereby you not only grow as an artist, but also learn how to assemble the infrastructure which will allow you and the people you work with to make your art viable. An “Artistic Accelerator,” which would exist not to create theatre but to teach the creation of theatre to new companies, would be a successful model for growing theatre in a small city.
We gain a better understanding of how we can structure the future of our art by considering the many ways it is influenced by our society. Boston’s theatre climate has been shaped by its Puritan and mercantile tendencies, by its location, by its relationship to its art places, by its dichotomy of artistic high priests and holy beggars. Today, we have a small city with broad potential, and it is an exciting time to watch its growth and evolution. Recent events like the appointment of a Cabinet-level Arts Chief and initiatives like the New England New Play Alliance are moving Boston in the direction of an independent theater city of successful, home-grown productions. However, our art form evolves in accordance to the spaces given to it. Our geographies evolve depending on the art we make in them. Contextualizing how and why we make the art we do can give us an idea of how to make work within and for our communities. The product of theatre is a shared communal experience. Given the changes our country, and therefore our art, will face over the next decade, it is our responsibility to ensure that theater has a place in our rapidly growing urban communities.
“A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practised by Some in New-England.” A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practised by Some in New-England. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://www.covenanter.org/IMather/increasemathertestimony.htm.
“Forgotten Chapters of Boston's Literary History.” MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL COURT, “An Act for Preventing Stage-Plays, and Other Theatrical Entertainments,” 1750. Accessed January 29, 2015.
Guthrie, Tyrone. A New Theatre. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
King, Donald C. The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2005.
Reardon, William Robert. Banned in Boston: A Study of Theatrical Censorship in Boston from 1630 to 1950. Ann Arbor: [University Microfilms], 1952.
Whitehead, Jaan. “Art Will Out.” American Theatre. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/2002/art.cfm.
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"Boston theatre doesn’t have many diverse voices, specifically companies committed to doing plays by, with, and for people of color. The Boston region is very diverse, but the theatre scene here doesn’t reflect that."
Trip, thanks for a great article about a complex scene. It's a welcome 30K-foot view of some of our current issues, and where we could direct some attention in this moment when the arts are a rising presence at the city and state governmental levels.
I don't disagree AT ALL with the fact that Boston has a long way to go in terms of representing diverse voices across the area's stages (lordy, we do), but don't overlook the work that is being done by theatres like The Theatre Offensive, the 16-year old Company One* (whose entire mission is to produce work that reflects the complex diversity of the region), Hibernian Hall, TC Squared, much of the work at The Strand Theatre, Sleeping Weazel, and others. Also worth noting: the role of our region's largest funders in rewarding, furthering, nurturing, or ignoring the existing work. It's a complicated ecosystem.
[*Disclaimer: I work with Company One Theatre, which for the purposes of this article was too large to be in the "small" category, and too small to be in the "midsized" category, but probably should not be overlooked in conversations about space, sweat equity, diversity, and the development and production of work by local playwrights --- particularly those whose voices are not in the mainstream. Obvs, the point of view expressed here is my own and not my theatre's.]
Ilana, I think I recall you and I have at different times said the same thing: When we first moved to Boston one of the first things we said was, Where are all the black people? Thirty-four years later, I'm still asking the same thing. There are pockets of diversity in theater--all the ones you mentioned and of course C1--but I don't know how many times just in the past couple of years I see actors on stage and ask, couldn't that be a multiracial family? Why is the cast all white when the script doesn't call for it? And what's worse, hiring of whites extends all the way through the design teams. Gender, race, sexual identity, and let's not forget age in this very young city, are all voices that aren't represented that have to be presented in the theater for our art form to be truly embraced by the entire community. Until then, theater will continue to be the bastion for white people in Boston.
Thanks for your in-depth piece, Trip! But you left off the details about the important work that you and Apollinaire are doing in Chelsea around space and community. I hope you'll do a follow-up with more details on what you're doing and how you're making it happen. I appreciate the mention of the New Play Alliance--though I think when our attendance data report comes out in a few weeks, you'll see that you undersold the new play sector here a bit. There are far more new plays being developed and produced here than most people realize (and I'll bet it more than in most cities our size). One thing we have going for us in Boston, that many small cities don't, is StageSource, which can and does serve theatres and theatre artists across the board, and doing important work in organizing discussions around space, new plays, and gender parity.
Really puts Boston in perspective, doesn't it? As a new producer/playwright here, I think Trip nails the plight of the fringe artist. In the 34 years I've lived here, I could never understand why it's so conservative here. I think one thing that Trip doesn't hit upon is what a sports crazy city this is and how that affects the arts, though I guess other cities are, too. It just seems that, despite Boston being the Athens of America, culturally it really is a backwater with only pockets of real cutting-edge, e.g. the ICA and ArtsEmerson. Even the ART lapses on the tried and true, e.g. The Glass Menagerie and Pippin.
Wondering if you're aware of Ian McKinnon's recent piece/song cycle
Theatrophobia in Massachusetts: Invitation to an Exorcism
just performed at the Democracy Center in Cambridge last month.
Thanks for this comprehensive and thoughtful examination of the vicissitudes of being in theater. Much of what you say here applies to NYC.