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Quick Wit: Jack Welch

StageSource's hero and Baker's Plays' main man tells Bobbie Steinbach about the good life of reading scripts and the perfect night of Boston theater. logo

Jack Welch
Jack Welch is the managing director and chief editor of Baker's Plays, the country's third largest publisher of plays. Previously, he was the associate manager at North Shore Music Theatre. He is one of the founders of the Boston Resident Theatre Association, and is also a founding member of American Premiere Stage and StageSource. He has been a panelist for the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, and served as chair of the Professional Theatre Division of the New England Theatre Conference. Welch has written two musicals--Sheboppin', which played at Boston's Wilbur Theatre, and Aaron Slick--and is currently at work on a third, 100% Lucille.

You have recently been named the recipient of StageSource's Theatre Hero Award. What does the award signify?

My assumption is that there are a number of people who try to get things done, who act as glue for the theater community--the quiet people. A mixture of actors, producers, and theater managers made nominations [of individuals devoted to serving the region's theater community]. I nominated a whole bunch of people, myself. I think they pulled my name out of a hat.

You're too modest. In what ways have you been involved in the Boston-area theater scene over the years?

Helping to initiate StageSource [an alliance of theater artists and producers promoting professional non-profit theater in New England] is a highlight. Prior to that, I was chairman of New England Theatre Conference. They held non-equity auditions; I initiated their equity auditions, which generated the need for StageSource and promoted professional growth in the theater community.

Who are your theater heroes?

That's a good question. At this point in time, Kate Snodgrass [artistic director of Boston Playwrights' Theatre]. I think what she's done with the Boston Theatre Marathon is fantastic.

How did you become involved in the world of publishing plays and selling scripts to the public?

It was a high school kind of thing where I got selected as best actor in a state competition. When you're "different" in a small town in New Hampshire, it makes you analyze what people see in you. I decided to get into theater. I went to Emerson College, where I majored in theater and speech. From Emerson, I floated a bit, and worked as a clerk for a few years. After I auditioned for a small non-equity company, Theatre-by-the-Sea, they jobbed me in as an actor. At the same time, North Shore Music Theatre was looking for an assistant, and that happened as well. At North Shore I did everything for eight years; I was immersed in theater. I worked at the concession stand, I was the box office manager, the house manager--it was the greatest learning experience I ever had. When the editorial position came up at Baker's Plays, I was hired. When the managing director retired, corporate headquarters asked if I would take the position. I said I would if I could stay on as editor because I like reading scripts.

You've seen many changes over the years in terms of what content the audience will support at any given time. What can you tell us about the ebb and flow? What excites you in terms of changes and innovation?

First of all, we can acknowledge a better quality of theater in Boston now. It's interesting that the smaller theaters can and do produce the material which is sometimes very controversial. They seem to find the audience for it. Often in Boston, in particular, we forget to be artists; we have to worry about paying the rent. We have to encourage ourselves to think creatively, artistically, soulfully about the work we do. Eight years ago [people] would go to see traditional shows. The movement towards gay theater opened up the possibility of doing more controversial work. Angels in America, for example, gave new theatrical experiences to the audience not only thematically, but also in terms of the way the word was written, the way the performances took the experience to another dimension. Locally, American Repertory Theatre has done some very controversial plays. They've also put very interesting twists [on more traditional pieces]. The community here is willing to go along with this rather than supporting only the tried-and-true from Broadway and the West End.

What would you like to see happening on the region's theater scene in the future?

First of all, I would like to see greater support for the arts on city, state, and national levels. Second, our theater companies need space--with a capital SP--for rehearsals, auditions, offices, and performances. These are improvements that will keep the talent in the city. I see the talent in our local conservatories and colleges, not only actors, but also writers, designers, directors. I see these people doing good work in the schools, and they fly out of the city to go to New York and Los Angeles. We lost Peter Sellers to LA. We need to commit to encourage and nourish visionary talent. We have the potential to be an exciting place to be. For the first time ever I feel the viability of theater in Boston.

What five books do you recommend as must-haves for the actor?

I love Peter Brook's The Empty Space, Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting and The Challenge to the Actor. I think we have to go back to Stanislavski's Creating a Role and Building a Character; they're substantial.

How about for theatergoers, people interested in the theater?

I come back to The Empty Space, because it touches the soul. [Brooks] asks us to perform from the heart, not from the mind. I would also recommend American Theater magazine,, The Sunday Times, and the Boston Globe on Thursday. They should join an organization and support StageSource, NETC, and, ideally, get so excited about the arts that they go to the local arts council and ask, "What are you doing, what can I do to help you, and who should I vote for?" We should all be arts radicals.

You read gazillions of plays. How do you choose which ones to publish?

I've got the best of all possible worlds. We have a part-time reader here at Baker's. He makes recommendations to Ray Pape, our associate editor. He reads them, and then they come to me. I'll take a day off from the office so there are no interruptions, then I start at 6am and read for ten to 12 hours. I might take a break for a jog or lunch. It's wonderful. Then Ray and I discuss what we like, discuss edits, and if we like it, we contract. We try to contract about 20 to 25 plays a year for our catalogue, which goes to 50,000 customers. We also have over 40,000 hits per month on our website,

If you were suddenly given a theater, what plays would you choose for the season?

I'd ask: Who is it for, what audience do we serve, and how do we build an audience so the theater can have a long life? Say it's in downtown Boston, with a seating capacity of no more than 300. We grow the theater from the neighborhood up. We find out about the demographics within a half-mile, and listen to those demographics. [The theater] would need to be a part of the community. I'll pretend Spiro Veloudos [artistic director of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston] didn't already have Sideman, and do that. I'd look for a small musical--Appletree might be interesting; I'd take a look at it in terms of today. I'd do something commercial. I'd look for a family audience play, maybe Larry Blamire's Robin Hood or a new play this year, Zorro. I might even try to commission a play. I like Tennessee Williams a lot. I would see if we could get the cast and director to pull it off--you either do Williams brilliantly, or fail miserably. It also might be interesting to look at new Irish plays, although they're being done to death right now.

Where would you go to eat before an evening of theater?

A pasta place in the South or North End for a bowl of pasta, a big salad, a glass of wine, and a cup of java.

Where would you go after the theater?

Sometimes I can't let the experience go away, so I have to go have a drink and talk and talk. We have to verbalize and physicalize to share. When I've been to the theater alone and the experience is wonderful, I even read the ads in the program and I laugh at myself because I can't give up the experience yet.

You work hard, how do you play?

I'm very close to my family in New Hampshire, my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews. We laugh, giggle, make food, connect. That's the joy in my life. I just celebrated a birthday, a big one. I surprise people--nobody surprises me. But my best friend, Rick Bell, organized a surprise. He asked my friends and relatives to write about me, and he [wrote] a play all about "Jack and his 60th birthday". It's like dessert, it's so sweet. It was incredible poetry.

Where would you go for a dream vacation, and what three people would you take?

I'd go to the isles of Greece. I'd take my friend Rick Bell, my friend in London, John Bedding, and then I've got to find someone to stimulate my mind and my being. Wouldn't it be wonderful to travel with Peter Brook?

When you change from Jack Welch into "Theatre Hero", what will your costume look like?

I have a consultation with Dame Edna.

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