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."