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The Dream of a Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College

Ten years ago we connected in a moment of mutual frustration at a TCG gathering in Portland, Oregon, called New Works, New Ways. We recognized instantly in our feeling on the outside of that conversation, that we had found in the other (stealing a phrase from Rob Orchard) a “close conceptual collaborator.” We spent the next ten years in numerous conversations with other conceptual collaborators, including Diane Ragsdale and Todd London, considering how to create a more hospitable environment for making new work and finding more space for artists within institutions. When we began to think about the best home for the work we’ve been doing together, though mostly in separate institutions, we dreamed of a place that could activate our mutual desire to stay intimately tied to the world of professional artistic practice, while simultaneously documenting and studying what we were learning from our own practice and the work of others about how to do it better.

We recognized a need for a place outside the LORT model where transparency could be primary, and research and study a part of the program. When we sat down to lunch at a seafood restaurant near Emerson College with Rob Orchard, Ruth Davidson, and Jonathan Miller, well, let’s say it was nothing less than a spiritual experience—where ideas and aesthetics intersected in the most compelling way. We left that meeting and crafted a vision for how our work might enhance the activity already happening at Emerson College through ArtsEmerson and the Office of the Arts.

What follows is some of what we submitted to Rob after our meeting:

The Vision

We believe our work can activate The Office of the Arts, ArtsEmerson, and by extension Emerson College, as a full-spectrum laboratory for studying, developing, and disseminating effective practices, programs, and processes supporting generative artists in the American Theater. Based on the premise that knowledge-sharing is at the heart of any “commons,” the resulting organization will function as a sort of “teaching hospital” for the next step in the evolution of nonprofit theater in this country—integrating both the presenting and producing of distinctive new work and the pedagogical environment for training and developing the artists of tomorrow. We hope to chart a path to relevance, effectiveness, and purpose for the form by studying what’s on stage, how it’s developed, how it is produced and presented, who it engages, and how it impacts and informs both its local community and the field itself.

The Operation: A Center for the Theater Commons (The Commons)

ArtsEmerson will continue its program of presenting “the world on stage” in the facilities under its operating purview. The current level of activity could conceivably be augmented over time by the evolving investigations and programs of the new Center for Theater Commons. The focus of ArtsEmerson will remain on generative artists in process; the programming remaining open to, and in support of, diverse aesthetics from around the globe.

The Commons, through its existing tools and programs, will integrate its own process, presentation, and production activities into the mix. This will include supporting the continued investigation into the import and impact of resident playwrights on institutions, training cohorts of Creative Producers through the activities of ArtsEmerson, and hosting field-wide convenings—activating the Commons’ innovative documentation and dissemination platform through the work as it is expressed both in the studios and in performance. We imagine a lab setting that supports the development of devised work, playwright-driven work, and even producer-driven work—in short, a lab that can foster and study the full range of work being created in the theater today.

The College will have access to all the activities of the Commons as a training environment for students interested in developing the skills and expertise to produce the generative process over a wide range of aesthetics. There will also be access for students to the creative teams of the works in development as well as access to the community of artists at work around ArtsEmerson and the Commons.

The Culture

The overall organizational culture will be built on the core values of artistic excellence, transparency, collaborative practice, radical engagement, and effective stewardship of cultural resources for the advancement of both our local community and the new play sector nationally. From this vantage point, the “who” of the new Commons matters and Associate Directors Jamie Gahlon and Vijay Mathew have to be a part of this transition to Emerson as they’ve been central to building the culture and the vision. The Commons will thrive on the values and principles of “next generation” theater practice:

  • The entire staff (including administrators, students, and fellows) will be engaged in the development and promotion of the artistic purpose of the organization (every member of the team is a dramaturg of the organizational narrative).
  • Complete elimination of the silos of artistic and management responsibilities. The key leadership of the organization will have cross-disciplinary responsibilities for planning, managing, funding, marketing, producing, presenting, and artistic curation.
  • Full deployment of today’s tools and technologies for creation, promotion, and engagement with the work as well as the creation of the work.
  • A commitment to contributing fully to the development of a cultural commons—artistic practice as shared/shareable resource—both locally and nationally.

The result: a learning organization that vertically integrates the research, development, production, and presentation components of the nation’s new play sector and a thriving environment for developing the next generation of artistic leadership and aesthetics.

The National Infrastructure

In addition to studying the practice of residencies for playwrights and new play producers, the Commons is tracking and analyzing significant interventions around the entire new work sector. Along with Rob Orchard, we are participating in The Directors Circle of Under the Radar and with the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Theater Project, two attempts to develop more effective networks of support for ensemble-based work and touring theater companies. We are supporting and studying efforts to develop a center for civic engagement (in partnership with Michael Rohd) with new work, and one to study the impact of The New York Times reviewers on the future life of new work and the artists generating it. We are developing the concept of the micro-fund to seed additional artist-led investigations into issues affecting the sector. Through #NEWPLAY TV we are promoting greater reach for national networks such as the Network of Ensemble Theaters and The National Performance Network, and localized efforts like New Black Fest, FuryFest, Fusebox, and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, livestreaming their work to the world. All of this activity and research will take place within the context of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, providing opportunities for engagement with local artists and students in the daily work of the Commons.


Audience is a critical constituent of the investigation already underway. Our approach to audience development is one of radical engagement, growing out of our combined experience of working in both large and small institutions and negotiating the relationship between consumers of theater and the artists who make it. Working with ArtsEmerson’s external affairs and marketing staff, we would hope to tackle the challenges of audience development for ArtsEmerson as a programmatic initiative of the Commons—testing and developing effective practices in radical engagement. We would adapt the concept of the Public Square, an idea that comes from Martha Lavey and Steppenwolf—to develop a highly participatory approach to shaping the conversation with audience, one that asks the audience to help the theater shape meaning around the plays in the season. We would extend our commitment to transparency to the creative process itself, opening avenues of engagement for the audience in the making of the work. We would convert the inventory of empty seats into a laboratory for testing and developing new approaches to audience acquisition around new work and new aesthetics. We would build on Carl’s extensive research into the millennial generation (ages twenty to thirty), and Dower’s extensive experience mentoring this generation through the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship program at Arena Stage, leveraging the engaged student population of Emerson and building a stream of artistic programming integrating social media. Audiences become co-creators in the artistic process through crowdsourcing technology, creating videos and music and conversation, and extending the life and reach of productions on stage. The Commons embraces Melanie Joseph’s language, extending an “invitation” to audiences to participate in our art making not marketing a product to them. We return to the precepts of the patron loyalty of audience development in the early days of the subscriber, refreshed and updated with a deep understanding of and commitment to current patterns of engagement. It embraces an intimate relationship between artists and audiences where both parties are responsible for building the creative life of the future life of the theater.

Digital Media and Live Art

The research arm of the Commons that we refer to as documentation and dissemination is rooted in the historical tradition of the cultural commons, building tools for the field that are shareable and freely accessed. Our purpose is not to do research for its own sake rather we focus on practices, impact, and outcomes of what’s happening in the field right now. At the center of this programming arm is the journal HowlRound, the New Play Map, #NEWPLAY TV, and independent research projects proposed by artists that are a part of the HowlRound micro fund. These tools are advancing new digital technologies in service of the field. All of the projects are licensed through the Creative Commons, and promote community, insight into best practices, and support for new practices at no cost to users. We employ new technologies and new modes of information production to shape new stories about what we know about our new play infrastructure.

Portrait of David Dower.
David Dower.
Photo by Mike Ritter.

The result: a learning organization that vertically integrates the research, development, production, and presentation components of the nation’s new play sector and a thriving environment for developing the next generation of artistic leadership and aesthetics.

Portrait of P. Carl.
P. Carl. Photo by Garrett Herzig.

Accounting for Pleasure

The Commons recognizes that most of us got into the business of making theater because we’re creative and passionate about integrating this creativity into our work life. We make theater because we love it and because it’s fun. With the widespread institutionalization of our field in the last fifty years, we wonder if we’ve deemphasized the creative aspects in favor of a for profit business model? We wonder if we’ve supplanted values for the sake of bigger buildings, box offices, and organizations? We believe the imagination required to build the road on the way to production is as important as the production itself. An example: each week we hook up with a national community via Twitter for the Weekly Howl. This is an hour Twitter session where we talk about issues and ideas related to #newplay—a descriptor designed to aggregate the discussion about the new play infrastructure happening through social media. The hour before the Howl we open up our own DJ session and invite our followers to suggest music—we use another participatory technology called Turntable. A recent Howl was about finding time to daydream and the hour prior was filled with music that contained dreaming as a theme. Is this productive time? Does it make a new play better? Perhaps not. But it builds a sense of shared values and shared purpose that we believe can have enormous impact in how we shape the next fifty years of institutional theater.


Though many months have passed, and numerous conversations have occurred around how to make this new endeavor at Emerson College happen, the ideas that we sent to Rob after that first meeting still hold. We don’t know exactly what the programming will look like moving forward but the core values and principles have remained constant in our conceptual collaboration these past ten years and we are delighted to continue our partnership in the new community of Emerson College and the city of Boston.



Thoughts from the curator

A series on HowlRound's partner, Emerson College.

Emerson College


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