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ArtsEmerson Brings the World to Boston

Executive director Rob Orchard describes the current and future plans for this two-year-old arts-programming initiative.

A scene from Circa
(© Atmosphere Photography)
The days when major plays and musicals had their pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston are pretty much gone, but the city still boasts some of the best regional companies in the country, as well as scores of smaller companies playing in various diminutive venues around the city. Still, Rob Orchard, the executive director of ArtsEmerson, a two-year-old arts-programming initiative that operates under the auspices of Emerson College, has added another dimension to the cultural landscape.

ArtsEmerson has already presented to Boston audiences such eclectic fare as Angel Reapers, an unusual dance-theater piece by award-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and choreographer Martha Clarke; puppeteer Basil Twist's Petrushka; and Mabou Mines' Dollhouse; while its upcoming productions include Circa, a circus-based-show; Ameriville, a gospel/blues/hip hop commentary on the American landscape from Hurricane Katrina to the Occupy movement; and Robert Lepage's The Andersen Project, loosely based on the fables of Hans Christian Andersen.

Upon completion of Emerson's $92-million Paramount Center, Orchard found himself with four performance spaces of various sizes -- the 1,200-seat Cutler Majestic Theatre, the 590-seat Paramount, a 150-seat black box, and a 170-seat screening room -- and Orchard soon hatched a plan.

"I've been producing in Boston for over 30 years," says Orchard, who most recently worked at the nearby American Repertory Theatre. "So I had a sense of the local theatrical landscape and what was missing. We wanted to bring new work to those theaters, work that would likely not otherwise be seen in this city if not for those spaces. Boston has historically been passed over by a lot of companies from around the world. And it wasn't because there wasn't an audience for them, but rather that the right venues weren't available."

Also missing from the Boston scene, says Orchard, was a way to develop new works, particularly through establishing multiyear relationships with artists and institutions, including The Foundry and The Civilians, as ArtsEmerson has done. "We're not just flying someone in for a weekend," he says. "We're committing to organizations to develop work in phases over time."

Over the past two seasons, Orchard and his staff have learned a great deal about what ArtsEmerson audience members want to see, as well as how they want to see it. "A certain number of people were frustrated at our having 17 projects in a season," he says. "People didn't have time to see everything, and it also gets expensive."

So, for the next season, Orchard will be creating a season with fewer set offerings -- 8 instead of 17 -- supplemented with more spontaneous events that will occur outside the context of the regular season. The new model gives ArtsEmerson members the perception that they can see everything, while also giving Orchard the flexibility to add shows to the season as opportunities arise.

"We want to be amplifying the opportunities for the Boston audience, not replacing them," he says, adding that nearly 70 percent of ArtsEmerson audience members report they don't have active relationships with any other cultural organization in the city. "It appears that we're drawing a previously untapped audience. That's good for everybody."