As recently as five years ago, theater in Boston was partitioned into four distinct arenas, with little or no communication among them. The commercial stages, clustered in two downtown blocks, featured almost exclusively Broadway touring shows. The two regional theaters flourished in their separate ways--A.R.T. as a resident company, and the Huntington as a producing organization of visiting directors and casts drawn largely from New York. A clutch of smaller groups on Equity small professional theater contracts--notably the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the New Repertory Theatre, the Nora Theatre Company, and the Jewish Theatre of New England--somehow managed to keep audiences in seats and creditors at bay. (The Lyric's founders, Ron Ritchell and Polly Hogan, actually raised enough money to move from a hole-in-the-wall to spiffy new quarters in Copley Square.) And a host of non-Equity companies maintained a show-to-show existence on the traditional formula of volunteerism and starvation.
It was also about five years ago that Paula Plum and Richard Snee, the area's most celebrated acting couple, ended their "great New York experiment." For two years the pair had commuted to the Big Apple, impelled by the common assumption that actors can't make a living in Boston. "It was basically going down to New York to audition and coming back here to work," Snee says. "We just decided there was enough work for us here." As it happened, their turnabout was emblematic of a sea change in local conditions.
According to Rob Orchard, A.R.T.'s managing director, "You can actually use the term 'Boston theater' today, whereas it might have been difficult to identify what that meant five years ago. Now there's a depth of talent and a sustained level of achievement on the part of a number of groups. There's more excitement, more interest, more intensity, and people are sticking around." The Huntington's managing director, Michael Maso, agrees: "In the last five years, there's been a new wave of stability among small and middle-size theaters, as well as higher visibility."
The respect newly earned by these groups has resulted in unprecedented cross-fertilization with the two regionals. Scott Edmiston, literary associate at the Huntington, has directed Nora Theatre productions. Orchard heads the search committee for a new artistic director at Lowell's Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and the A.R.T. is currently hosting an acclaimed production of Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas, originally produced at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) by the Súgán Theatre Company.
Both Maso and Orchard attribute the increased visibility largely to more attentive coverage by the Boston Globe, whose chief critic, Ed Siegel, took over five years ago and immediately reversed a longstanding aloofness the Globe had shown toward the smaller companies. "I think the small-to-midsize theater scene has taken a quantum leap," Siegel says. "At first I was pretty discouraged by most of what I was seeing onstage. Today, productions like the Lyric's Assassins or the Súgán's St. Nicholas are as exciting as anything at the A.R.T. or Huntington." (Full disclosure: I was also a Globe critic during the past five years.)
Unfortunately, the extension of a hit like St. Nicholas is the rare exception that highlights the number-one complaint of all Boston producers: the severe shortage of suitable venues. "We've had two shows that we would have kept running if we'd been able to find space to transfer them to," says Lyric Stage artistic director Spiro Veloudos. Nora Theatre and the New Rep have been similarly frustrated recently. "The shortage applies not only to performance space," explains StageSource (an alliance of theater artists and producers) executive director Eric D'Allessandro, "but to office and rehearsal space too. The companies can't solve this by themselves. The city will have to get involved. Spending on the arts here is far below that of other cities. Boston's commitment to the arts will have to change significantly."
That's about the same time the BCA hopes to bring its ambitious plans to fruition. Director Susan Hartnett reports the completion of an agreement with a developer to build two new spaces adjacent to the BCA complex: a 199-seat black box and a 350-seat proscenium theater. Hartnett also hopes to upgrade the cavernous cyclorama building to make it hospitable to both visual and performing arts. These new venues would augment the three current BCA theaters, which have lately been in constant demand by a variety of mostly non-Equity troupes whose offerings have produced lobby mob scenes unimaginable a few years back. This has made names like The Theater Offensive, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Coyote Theatre, Centastage, and Súgán household words among bargain-hunting theatergoers.
The BCA's projected new proscenium theater figures prominently in the Huntington's expansion plans. "Our intentions are still vague," Maso says, "but we would like to use the new stage a lot, though not exclusively." The added space would allow incoming artistic director Nicholas Martin to pursue the goal of developing new plays. Boston actors will also be encouraged by Maso's assurance that Martin is "very interested in making sure we use as much local talent as we can."
The Huntington has designs on the theater district as well. In December it will co-present Becky Mode's one-man play Fully Committed at the Wilbur Theatre in partnership with SFX Theatrical Group/Broadway in Boston, the commercial outfit that programs the Colonial as well as the Wilbur.
In contrast to the Huntington's aim to spread its operations around town, the A.R.T., in an equally expansive mood, plans to increase its international footprint. Orchard describes a "second company that will be on tour throughout the year in this country and abroad. Part of that will come from the projects we generate in our training program here and in Moscow. We're also putting a production of The King Stag on the road for 18 months. This is the beginning of an effort to establish a circuit of potential sponsors hospitable to the work we do."
The two regional theaters enjoy audience and subscriber bases that are large enough to constitute, in effect, self-contained supportive communities. Many of the smaller companies are seeing their audiences grow as well, but more and more they're also looking to one another for mutual support. This attitude traces back to the early '90s, when the small professional theaters banded together to form the Producers Association of New England Area Theaters (NEAT) for the purpose of collective bargaining with Actors' Equity. As Veloudos explains, NEAT has since become "a forum for discussing the problems of producing in Boston. Because of that, people's seasons are a little more diverse, and the quality, particularly in the last two years, has grown significantly across the board."
StageSource has also set its sights on nurturing the community, sponsoring a "town meeting" last year (attended by several hundred people) that was followed by the formation of task forces of producers and actors who gather to share ideas and commiserate. But the event that many people credit with supercharging community feeling is the Boston Theater Marathon, a 10-hour non-stop extravaganza spearheaded by Kate Snodgrass, producing director of Boston Playwrights' Theatre, which hosts the program. Forty 10-minute plays by 40 local authors are each produced by a different company, from the classy regionals to troupes with minuscule budgets.
Everyone who contemplates the future of theater in Boston agrees that a growing sense of community will be vital. But the potency of the notion can easily be diluted by the all-too-human tendency to water it down to a mutual admiration society. To counter that possibility, Nora Theatre artistic director Mary C. Huntington expresses the hope that producers can find a way to learn from one another by "talking about the artistry, the process we've gone through, in a way that's not only supportive but also constructively critical." A community that can achieve that level of maturity, one imagines, can't help but thrive.
Skip Ascheim has been a drama critic for the Boston Phoenix and, most recently, the Boston Globe. He is a member of the Boston Theatre Critics Association, which confers the annual Elliot Norton awards. In 1990 he co-founded the Boston Theatre Project and directed Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in Cambridge's historic Brattle Theatre.