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South End SpeakEasy

Paul Daigneault brings cutting-edge theater to Boston's South End with his SpeakEasy Theatre. logo
Paul Daigneault
A little over a decade ago, Paul Daigneault was a young director in New York, yearning to get his work produced and seen. "I really wanted to be a freelance director, but people kept telling me, 'You're still just a baby,'" he says of those frustrating early days. "It was really hard to get noticed, and to get the work out there." So, like many disenfranchised artists, Daigneult decided to start his own theater.

The problem was where to base it. "I loved New York," Daigneault maintains. "But it would be crazy to start a company there. There's so much competition. It's so intimidating. I really wanted to find a place where I could carve my own niche." As a graduate of Boston College, Daigneult was familiar with and comfortable in the smaller Boston arts community. He and a couple of like-minded friends eventually settled on Boston's South End, a leafy, crooked-brick section of the city that manages to maintain an Old World sense of neighborhood while housing an eclectic population.

"Because the economy's so good, there are a lot of restaurants here, and Tremont Street has become a really popular street to hang out on. So you get higher visibility from the foot traffic," Daigneault explains, which can only help a young theater company. In 1992, the SpeakEasy Theatre was born; now, it is the resident theater company of the Boston Center for the Arts.

From the beginning, Daigneault's goal with SpeakEasy was to create a theater that produced plays in contrast to those featured in the big downtown venues, both in size and content. "It took me about three or four years to decide what kind of theater was going to be our kind of theater. I wanted to be sure to promote incredibly high production values--to use an analogy in comparison to New York, a really cutting edge Off-Broadway type of theater," he says. "I wasn't interested in moving into big venues. I never wanted to have a theater with more than 250 seats. And, over the years, I've found that one of the things people react to in SpeakEasy is the intimacy, the interaction between the actors and audience that they don't get downtown."

At first, SpeakEasy succeeded with plays that "were really mainstream gay plays, so the press tried to brand me as the new gay theater. Which was fine at the time," Daigneault comments, "but I'm interested in a lot more than that." He would prefer that SpeakEasy be known by its broader mission: producing area premieres (such as the upcoming season's Fuddy Meers and Snakebit) and musicals (like Saturday Night and Floyd Collins). "I'm really championing the small musical. A lot of the recognition SpeakEasy has gotten in the last couple of years has been because of the musicals I've produced," he adds.

SpeakEasy's final offering of this season is Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, running at Lyric Stage Company June 1-24. "It's an incredibly funny comedy," maintains Daigneault about the play, which examines (in Act I, anyway) the possible ramifications of an Eden in which God created Adam and Steve rather than Adam and Eve. But the producer didn't choose it simply for the laughs, or because it provided a balance for a darker season. "Underneath all the one-liners is a discussion of faith," he says. "Sometimes gay people are stripped of their families because of coming out. So we have to redefine ourselves. We have to create our own families, our own faith."

The second act springs from the premise set up in the first act, but is very different. Act II takes place in the present day, on a Christmas Eve in New York City with the family created by Adam and Steve. According to Daigneault, "The challenge of the play is to make the second act and the first act work together and seem like one play. Even the director [Scott Edmiston, literary and artistic associate at the Huntington Theatre company] was saying that it's like rehearsing two different plays. We're doing a lot with the staging and the design to bring it together.

"As I've grown as an artist, the pieces of theater I choose to produce reflect both my aesthetic and where I am in my life," muses Daigneault, adding that it's also been a matter of "learning what audiences respond to." SpeakEasy's audience, as it happens, is remarkably diverse. While its obvious constituency comes from the neighborhood surrounding it, the company also draws subscribers from greater Boston and its suburbs. "I'm very impressed with how adventurous people are. You don't really expect them to be. But we even have people who come in from western Massachusetts, from Vermont. They make it an event to come to Boston and see one of our plays."

Like many directors-turned-administrators, Daigneault has discovered that his directing is often swallowed up by the greater needs of his company. But as SpeakEasy has grown, Daigneault has discovered that he gets "as much of a charge out of producing plays as I do out of directing them." His past experience in the world of non-profits stands him in good stead here. "I made all my mistakes early, before I started the company," he laughs, and so he has been able to avoid many of the business-related pitfalls faced by idealistic but administratively inexperienced theater entrepreneurs.

Among the chief ingredients in his recipe for success is the idea of slow growth. "One of the good things about SpeakEasy is that we've been growing steadily over time," he says. "We're not at a point yet where we can help people make a living; a NEAT contract would be our demise right now. But we use special appearance and guest artist contracts. And, especially with designers, we use a lot of recent graduates from the colleges and help them get ready to move on. I love that relationship. They're so ready to go the extra mile. They learn, and we learn from them."

In the future, Daigneault ventures, "I want to produce a new work on our mainstage. I'd like to get something from our Late Night series or our Playground series, which is what we call our new plays lab, far enough into development to produce as a feature. I also want SpeakEasy to be regarded more as a small resident theater. We've been walking the line between the fringe and small resident categories, so that seems like the next big step--to make a transition that maintains a balance between cutting-edge and mainstream theater."

Does he still dream of New York? "I'm really happy with the decision I made," Daigneault replies. "When you're young you say, 'Okay, I'm going to start here and then go to New York and become a famous director.' But there's more to life than that. You get just as much recognition creating a community in your own theater company. It becomes a family. Within SpeakEasy, it's incredibly important to me to make people feel valued and supported. I have a core of volunteers who return time after time that is the backbone of everything we produce, and it's the same with directors and designers. We're all sort of connecting to each other in different ways. The more each theater creates its own family, the more we make a strong web of support. Good theater makes more good theater."


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