A Decade in the Trenches, and a 30,000 Foot View
Before we begin, let’s get something out of the way—there’s no use in pretending I can achieve objectivity here. I’ve lived in the Boston Metro area for ten years, which makes me practically a local, but the community of theatremakers here is deep and wide. I can’t speak for everyone, so I’ll do my best to be transparent about my subjectivity (I’m a dramaturg—I can’t help it). In my professional life, I’ve invested deeply in the training of young artists and the nurturing of the region’s surprisingly large playwriting community. I’ve worked at both ends of the spectrum, in huge and tiny companies alike. I’ve worked on staff, as well as freelance, and I’ve founded my own company. I don’t have the answers about Boston theatre, but I’ve seen enough to have strong opinions. This is true for all the writers I’ve invited to be part of this week’s Boston City Series on HowlRound; they speak from but don’t represent the totality of voices from sectors including directing, acting, dramaturgy, playwriting, criticism, producing, and of course, the audience. We welcome your thoughts, disagreements, counterpoints, and all the rest. We’re here to spark the conversation. Join us, won’t you?
Boston is The Hub, the Shining City upon a Hill, the population center of New England. It’s a small urban metropolis wearing big-city britches. That’s a lot of weight to bear for those who make their art here.
To live in Boston is to live side-by-side with both the weight of its history and the reality that it’s a city of transience. According to the 2010 Census, the median age for the city of Boston is thirty-one; its youth is a result in part of the more than fifty institutions of higher education in the Metro area. Education is the bread and butter of this city, and that plays out in the theatre ecology as well. Not only do most mid-size and larger theatres have serious education programs featuring after-school and summer classes, many have formal partnerships with the charter and public school system, providing curricular support and opportunities for teaching artists.
The Boston theatre community often looks to cities like Chicago and Minneapolis (and New York—always New York) as models for artistic capacity, but the loss of our emerging artists remains one of our central challenges in achieving that goal.
This leads to one of the defining characteristics of Boston-area theatre professionals: more often than not, we earn our dosh and benefits package (if we have one) with a teaching gig. Playwrights, directors, actors, dramaturgs, designers, and administrators spend a lot of time with the next generation of theatre artists. While this can be vivifying for one’s art outside the educational system, it carries its own challenges. To put it in the language of physics (and Tom Stoppard), as a community, we suffer heat loss. Our professional artists invest exceptional amounts of energy and effort into the emerging artists in college theatre programs, but if those students leave Boston after graduation, we’ve missed the opportunity to build the genealogy of performance linking generations of artists to one another, strengthening the community, and nourishing the soil from which new collaborations and ideas might grow. The Boston theatre community often looks to cities like Chicago and Minneapolis (and New York—always New York) as models for artistic capacity, but the loss of our emerging artists remains one of our central challenges in achieving that goal.
In 2004, The Huntington Theatre Company (New England’s largest regional theatre) christened the Calderwood Pavilion, built in concert with the Boston Center for the Arts, creating a dynamic campus for theatre, visual art, music, and dance in the heart of the rapidly gentrifying South End. The Pavilion brought with it the 370-seat proscenium Wimberley stage, the 150–250-seat flexible Roberts Theatre, two rehearsal rooms that also serve as small performance spaces holding 45–150 seats, and a multipurpose Arts Resource Room. It was the single largest expansion of new performance and rehearsal space in the city in eighty years.
The Wimberly was inaugurated with the premiere of local playwright Melinda Lopez’s Sonia Flew, which the Huntington had developed from a seed of an idea to full production in less than a year as part of the Huntington Playwriting Fellows (HPF) program, which (full disclosure) I founded. The day before the boards were laid down, I donned a hard-hat and spray-painted Melinda’s name, the title of her play, and “New Plays, New Theatres” on the stage floor of the Wimberly. This was to be a place for dynamic new work, and I’m pleased to see, eight years on, that the Calderwood has lived up to its promise. As of this coming spring, twenty-two local playwrights will have gone through the HPF program; eight of their plays will have been produced by the Huntington, and at least twenty additional plays by HPF writers have appeared on other Boston stages since 2004. I will not even attempt to enumerate the plays by other local playwrights unaffiliated with the Huntington that have been produced on stages around the region in that time—happily, there are too many to count.
I highlight the Huntington here because they’re the most high-profile example of the changes that have occurred in the Boston theatre landscape over the past decade, but they certainly don’t encompass the only notable developments. Perhaps the most important indicator of the health of our ecology is the emergence of a vital fringe theatre sector over the past five years, now organized under the mantle of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston.
There were always plenty of tiny companies knocking out great work, but I believe the building of the Calderwood forced a seismic shift in our community. Suddenly, small companies had mid-sized producing spaces within reach—yes, they were expensive to rent, but there was a feeling of aspirational producing that took hold. Miniscule companies that used to produce in the 40-seat venue at Boston Center for the Arts moved up to the BCA’s 90-seat Black Box (especially after that postage-stamp sized venue was demolished to make way for a restaurant). Black Box companies moved up to the 140-seat Plaza Theatre, and Plaza companies began producing in the Roberts and Wimberly. The Calderwood’s rehearsal halls became performance spaces for theatres of all sizes to experiment. A mile west of the BCA, the 49-seat black box Factory Theatre in the old Piano Factory was becoming a hot commodity for fringe companies, and like the Boston Center for the Arts, now hosts resident fringe theatres. Meanwhile, a mile-and-a-half to the east, Boston’s historic theatre district was seeing a massive wave of city-led revitalization, including rehabs of old movie and touring venues like the Boston Opera House, the Paramount and Colonial theatres at Emerson College, and most recently, the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University.
Across the river in Cambridge, The Central Square Theater was built as home to the unique partnership of The Nora and Underground Railway, and opened in 2008. The following year, Harvard and the A.R.T. transformed their four-year-old flexible-space Zero Arrow Theatre into the nightclub/theatre/performance art venue Club Oberon, inaugurating new kind of theatregoing with Diane Paulus’ New York hit, The Donkey Show. In many ways, the arrival of Club Oberon was as impactful on the fringe scene as the Calderwood was on the growth of small and mid-sized companies.
While many decry the now three-year-old run of Paulus’ bachelorette-party-magnet production as frivolous or “not theatre,” three things must be acknowledged. First, The Donkey Show regularly employs a rotating cast of young actors unlike anything else since Shear Madness ensconced itself in the Charles Playhouse in 1980 (with no end in sight). Second, it brought a new audience to the theatre, positioning it as an entertainment option that’s cool, hip, and sexy—not esoteric, elitist, or effete, which is a charge that was historically lobbed at A.R.T. productions in the pre-Paulus, avant-garde era (deserved or not). Third, the space itself took on the qualities of a nightclub, complete with dark seedy corners, a bizarrely lit and oft-beglittered bathroom, and most importantly, a bar. When Oberon opened itself up for programming by fringe, sub-fringe, and one-off groups, it radically shifted the ability for theatre and performance art on the margins to find its audience. Producing at the Oberon is simple: the group guarantees a certain take for the venue from bar service, making up any shortfall. Anything above that minimum that’s earned from the door and ticket sales goes to the renters. It’s actually genius—audiences for the kind of groups that book the Oberon are younger than average for the Boston theatre scene and like an overpriced beer while they watch these highly interactive events (and I should say: so do I). Performance that used to be largely underground—ironic burlesque, drag king shows, and boundary-pushing or genre-bending amateur work—now has a home.
So, while it’s safe to say that in the past decade Boston has seen an explosion of new spaces of all sizes, for many fringe companies, truly affordable and regularly available space is still a challenge. Unlike other metropolitan centers whose downtowns suffered economic downturns in the 1970s and '80s, Boston has never had significant tracts of blighted urban property awaiting an influx of artists. Or if we did, they were in areas artists refused to go. It’s an historical challenge for us, how we might follow the lead of storefront-heavy theatre cities like Chicago. I hear a yearning from our community for this kind of space, that there’s a real hole in the spectrum for scrappy producing organizations. But we’re a small-footprint city, and too expensive; the developers are too hungry for spaces that in other cities are transformed by the creative class.
Given my examination of the roles our two major regional theatres have played in the transformation of the landscape over the past decade, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up space for the countervailing observation: that even as small and fringe companies have found access previously unknown to them, the A.R.T. and the Huntington have significantly shifted their programming towards the commercial sphere. Unsurprisingly, this is coincident with the turnover in artistic leadership at both companies (in 2009–10 for Diane Paulus, and 2007–08 for Peter DuBois). Both companies have moved toward programming that has a Broadway destination even before it premieres on our local stages. Over the past four seasons, both regionals have taken on characteristics of import, rather than export, houses. More productions are planned in concert and in advance with Broadway producers, stopping in Boston before heading off to New York. In some ways, this trend couldn’t be more old-fashioned, what with Boston’s historic identity as a tryout town. What feels different today is that when juxtaposed against the other strong trend in Boston theatre—by which I mean a new focus on the local—pre-emptive programming of plays for New York audiences rather than Boston audiences can feel somehow out of step. Additionally, it throws into even greater relief the prevailing lack of truly experimental theatre and performance art here—a role once filled by the A.R.T. and now only partially addressed by the presenting programs at ArtsEmerson and the Institute for Contemporary Art.
For me, the most exciting development of the last ten years has been a vigorous and passionate embrace of artistic work by local artists, be they playwrights, directors, designers, or actors. In 2009, Regis College theatre professor Frans Rijnbout released a study entitled "Theatre in Greater Boston: A Major Force with a Minor Inferiority Complex." Though primarily focused on the experience of actors, it expressed the strong feeling of area theatremakers that there remained a constant comparison to—and preference for—artists from New York. This isn’t surprising. If you know nothing else about Boston, you probably know about our visceral rivalry with the Yankees. Sports and the arts aren’t so divergent. It’s indicative of a pervasive chip-on-the-shoulder identity (maybe born from our Broadway tryout city lineage?) that New York = Good, and Boston has to constantly prove itself worthy of similar respect. And yet, just three years on from Rijnbout’s study, it feels different around here. Informal polling of my colleagues in all areas of theatre practice indicate more hiring of local actors, designers, and directors, and a surprisingly tangible uptick in productions and development of plays by local writers. Partially the explosion in spaces, and thus the fringe scene, has necessitated this. Show me a fringe company that can afford to hire from New York or can compete with even the mid-sized companies for new titles, and I’ll introduce you to my friend Nessie from Scotland. Necessity is the mother of localism, as it turns out. Another contributing factor—more arts graduates are staying in town for a year or two, testing the waters.
This of course is a mobius strip of an explanation—the more graduates who stay, the more opportunities that will eventually seed the field for future grads, but it’s that first wave who have it the hardest. I’m consumed by the question: what else can we be doing to make it easier for our youngest, most economically vulnerable artists? Boston has a lot of money running through its blueblood veins, but we don’t see much of it in the theatre. Well, scratch that—we don’t see much of it trickle down from the largest companies. Unlike Minneapolis, we have no local foundations fully committed to nurturing the theatre. Corporate giving most often goes to high-profile social service organizations (like the Jimmy Fund, run by the Red Sox, for instance), and flagship cultural institutions (like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) that bestow upon individual and corporate donors the patina of participating in A Tradition. Even amongst the arts in general, music and visual art are higher profile destinations for donor dollars than the theatre. Most of our funding comes from grassroots individual donations (many who give at high capacity to the regionals) and local government support. We’re fortunate that playwrights can apply for Massachusetts Cultural Council grants every other funding cycle and that the Boston Foundation has begun extending its reach into the small-to-mid-size scene, but in the Boston Metro area, the most fruitful path for money dedicated to local arts is often municipal coffers. Since the start of the recession, these coffers have been woefully bare, the grassroots have been through a withering drought. It’s a challenge we’ve not yet begun to solve.
I couldn’t be happier to see the resulting seasons, which are exploring stories from more than just a black/white notion of diversity.
Finally, I can’t address the state of Boston theatre without taking a moment to acknowledge one of the largest, often invisible, weights on our collective shoulders. As I said, to live and make art here is to do it side-by-side with history. Boston’s relationship to race is complex and painful, and whether you’re a native or a recent transplant, you walk into the ramifications of this history everywhere you turn. It manifests in the population distribution, who feels welcome in our theatres and who doesn’t, and the stories we tell—or don’t. We have a poor track record as a community of giving space to ethnically diverse artists and narratives, in all sectors of the field. Few companies have this kind of audience and artist development formally stated in their missions, despite the fundamental need for such a commitment. (Another moment of full disclosure: Company One, where I am the director of new work, is one of the few, and it’s a mission in which I deeply believe.) Recently, two $1 million-plus companies received substantial grants from a local foundation devoted to youth and poverty issues to seed risk-taking regarding the programming of non-white plays. You will not see these grants advertised as such in press releases from these companies. Perhaps it’s a pilot program, and one could deduce that this foundation felt the telling of such stories was important enough that these high-profile companies—with no previous track record of exploring notions of diversity—needed a push. I couldn’t be happier to see the resulting seasons, which are exploring stories from more than just a black/white notion of diversity. But what does it say about our community that some of our strongest mid-sized theatres need someone else to indemnify them against the “risk” of producing non-white narratives?
To be sure, we’ve made great strides in this respect over the past ten years, but the numbers are stark. In an analysis of twelve different theatres’ seasons, taken from across the sector, there are seventy-three productions scheduled for 2012–13. Of these, only ten pieces are by playwrights/lyricists/composers of color (and four of these are in a single company’s season); only three of the seventy-three have directors of color.
It’s clear that we’ve come a long way as a theatre city in ten short years. We’ve gained national stature, in large part due to innovation from companies of all sizes—whether that’s focused on the development of new plays (like the HPF program, or New Rep’s participation in the National New Play Network, or emergence of fringe companies dedicated to local writers), new audience engagement programs (like Central Square Theater’s MIT/Catalyst Collaborative), or in the white-hot interest of New York producers and audiences hungering for our commercial transfers. The task ahead, as I would propose it, is for us to acknowledge our collective histories and not shy away from the hard conversations. I’m hoping this City Series will provide a launching pad for new threads of investigation, dialogue, and innovation, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.