(Boston Theater District in the 1950’s)
by Larry Stark
The sign’s faded, but the Boylston Street stop on the Green Line proclaims itself in the center of “The Theatre District” of Boston.
In a sense that’s still true, since within a few blocks’ walking distance are The Colonial Theatre and The Boston Opera House, The Wang Center and The Shubert Theatre, The Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre and Emerson’s Theatre Center, and the new Metropolitan Theatre and the Modern Theatre, and the Charles Playhouse – home of the two longest-running shows in Boston’s history.
For decades, this was a true center for a kind of “golden age” of theatre in Boston – the days when all sorts of shows “tried-out” for two weeks before the most intelligent audience for plays in the country, before chancing an opening down in New York City. There were three “big Broadway barns” here – the Colonial and Ye Wilbur Theatre and the Shubert – and, for a time, anyone who had a show working its way toward a run in The Apple had to reserve a two-week stint at one of those houses a full year in advance; that many shows were hoping for Boston’s help.
In a sense, that “golden age” started when Cyrus Durgin died.
Durgin was senior theatre-critic for The Boston GLOBE – a soft-ball sycophant of Broadway, I’m told. In 1961, the GLOBE’s Second-string theatre-critic offended Broadway producer David Merrick with a negative review and Merrick banned him from seeing any of his shows. The young hotshot bought a ticket to his next production – not in Boston but in Philadelphia – and wrote a glowing review of “Subways Are for Sleeping” when it did come to Boston. That clever scrivener, Kevin Kelly, took over the GLOBE theatre coverage when Durgin died.
Kelly recognized the power of reviews of as-yet unfinished shows trying-out in Boston, and used it to make – or break – them, even before they opened in Manhattan. He, and the paper he worked for, became a force to be reckoned with.
Of course, they had rivals. When newspapers “merge” – when one buys out another – the buyer usually rechristens the merged paper with the name of the one they bought, thus adding those subscribers to the newer, fatter publication. When the Boston RECORD became the RECORD-AMERICAN, The AMERICAN’s theatre critic came with the name. He was Eliot Norton, still revered by anyone who met him as a gentleman who truly loved theatre. Rather than make-or-break reviews, Norton’s even-handed columns were enhanced by lunches with show’s makers, in which they discussed – as among friends – how (or if) their show could be improved.
Third man in this triumvirate was Samuel Hirsch at the HERALD-TRAVELLER, who loved theatre but never developed an exciting style of reviewing it. When, after a series of debilitating strikes, the RECORD bought the HERALD, Hirsch lost his job, and went to the Miami HERALD. The bedsheet-sized HERALD was reborn as the gutsy little lowbrow Republican tabloid rival of the Brahmin Democratic GLOBE – and Boston had only two very different theatre-critics.
Of course, theatre itself was changing then, too.
Down in The Apple, the New York TIMES made history when brooks Atkinson’s review of a NON-Broadway play saw print. Until he went to see a play at The Circle in The Square Theatre, the newspaper thought there was no such thing as an “Off-Broadway” show worth anyone’s serious attention; after that – following the lead perhaps of THE VILLAGE VOICE – a creative explosion headed in all directions at once began being taken seriously.
That shift took years to evince itself here in Boston.
I think there was always “other” theatre here; there was a long and healthy Community Theatre movement that still thrives; colleges everywhere had active Dramatic Societies, and theatre Departments produced shows that both gave students great plays to work on and gave students classic examples of the live-theatre experience.
In addition, the Federal Government on one hand, and young theatre-crazy actor/directors on the other, added to the mix.
First, a bunch of kids from Boston University turned the second-floor above a coffee-house on Charles Street into a teacup theatre and worked there for a year. Then they picked up an Artistic Director who had assistant-directed at the Circle-in-The-Square (Michael Murray) and a lawyer/producer (Frank Shugrue), who moved the company into an abandoned synagogue literally in an alley behind the Shubert Theatre. They took their name with them, though; the place is still THE CHARLES PLAYHOUSE.
Another theatrical upstart named David Wheeler, agog with the new styles of theatre that were bursting all over Europe and America, started The Theatre Company of Boston. They were, every few years, holed up in some new soon-to-be-condemned building from which the BRA inevitably moved them. But, while they hung on, Wheeler made miracles.
At some point – perhaps in the Kennedy years – a National Endowment for The Arts (and one for the Humanities) started giving challenge-grants and seed money to Regional Theatres across the country. The grants helped struggling companies exist and grow and actually Pay Actors, so this regional network soon spawned a pool of equity talents who might float from city to city, but they both honed their craft and provided the cities with live stage productions at relatively low cost. TCB and The Charles were, for some years, subsidized by these grants and blessed Boston with excellent local productions. But, when the Federal money dried up, so did most of the regionals.
But the urge to perform and to direct springs eternal – especially in a city with so many theatre-schools attracting and training hopeful professionals. And ever since Peter Brook said “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage; A man walks across the empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” people have been taking him literally and pawning their shoestrings to fill spaces with theatre. They pop up and disappear like may-flies – or lightning-bugs would be more apt. A space, an actor, and audience – however briefly: lightning!
In about 1970 I found ten of them here in Boston with track-records. I remember a few names – The People’s Theatre, The Rose Coffeehouse, Atma Theatre – and we worked up a Festival: two companies a day for five days at the Experimental Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center.
For some years, Rosann M. Weeks’ HUB THEATRE CENTER did a new show every five weeks in the basement of the Old West Church on Beacon Hill. At one point one of their actors irritably told an interviewer “Of Course no one’s paid! We pay our artistic director; the rest of us all have day-jobs!”
Two companies come to mind that embodied the impulse to make plays; one came from the bottom up, the other from the top down.
That little teacup stage, second-floor on Charles Street? A few years after the B.U. kids left, some people from Emerson used it for two years, calling themselves The Image Theatre. (Paul Benedict got started acting with them.) Then another pair of people – Ron Ritchell and Polly Hogan – started doing plays, and for almost a decade most of the interesting actors in Boston played there. I don’t know how they paid the bills (the audience, wrapped on both sides of the playing-space, numbered maybe 40 on a good night), but they had a vision, and about 1985 they inaugurated a 90-odd-seat three-quarter-thrust brand new professional theatre, also on the second floor – but this time of the YWCA-building across the street from the Hancock Tower, off Copley Square. And they too brought their name along with: THE LYRIC STAGE OF BOSTON, INC.
The other started with visions of grandeur. About 1957 – probably in imitation of The Lincoln Center complex in New York – people broke ground for a major project upstream of Cambridge on the banks of the Charles River in Herter Park. There was to be a major hotel, a large probably multi-stage theatre, and an art museum. A large, oblong gallery-space was built, and inhabited for some years by the Institute of Contemporary Art; I still remember some of the pieces I saw there in my first few summers in the area.
They carved an island, and on it poured a huge dish of asphalt and, suspended over it by four large pillars hung a canvas donut-shape that was inflated to keep out bright sun or rain. There was a tall stage-house and a stage at one end, and mobile canvas chairs. I saw Siobhan McKenna and Jason Robards Jr. do the Scottish play there, saw Gielgud and company leave the stage when a downpour drumming on the donut made them inaudible; I saw Jose Limon and Carmen DeLavallade. It was a delightful dream – but the architect absconded with the money to a Bahama Isle without extradition leaving his partners to fight fraud charges.
The donut disappeared, but the dish remained – and was reborn. With support from the Mass Council on Arts, someone put up seats, cleaned up the stage, and began doing free performances of Shakespeare outdoors every summer, calling themselves THE PUBLICK THEATRE. After a time, enthusiasms burnt out, and a new young upstart with an Emerson degree became Artistic Director – someone named Spiro Veloudos.
Now comes the oddest twist of fate: the two founders of The Lyric Stage turned out to be less adept as administrators than artists; they quarreled with their board of directors, and were essentially thrown out of the theatre which they themselves had built. The board did not want them back, searched for a substitute – and offered the job to that same Spiro Veloudos.
After years of trying to manage the Lyric all winter and the Publick all summer, Veloudos finally asked one of the best actors in Boston, Diego Arciniegas, to take over the Publick. It was a time, however, when the people running Herter Park were refusing any help, and the Mass Council decided to cut their funding. After a season or two trying to charge for summer shows, and then a season in residence at the Boston Center for The Arts, ye Publick Theatre slowly dwindled into obscurity.
Let’s back up a bit here. Theatre here in Boston is always alive on several levels at once, and attention to one for a while has to ignore the rest. A while back I identified a sort of “golden” age – when dozens of new shows every season clamored for the attention of the most intelligent theatrical audience on this planet.
Well, that didn’t last.
The fact was that the biggest theatrical things in Boston – what got the most critical attention, the most advertising, and the most paying customers – were three big theatres in downtown Boston with balconies (some with two!). And the producers in control acted like bigwig carpet-baggers down in New York siphoning off the cream here and spending it down there. Well, they got greedy.
First real hint was when “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” had an open-ended long run at Ye Wilbur Theatre (I think it set a record still unbroken), and “Hair!” had a long local run. Producers realized that plays so new no one heard about them were hit-or-miss propositions; and what they wanted were sellout or near-sellout shows. So instead of try-outs or road-companies, they began putting companies of long-run Broadway shows into the big barns for long runs. “Chicago” and “Phantom” and “Les Miz” visited the city repeatedly for reliably profitable stays, while trying a show out on the road became more and more prohibitively expensive. Not only that, the booking-agents kept selling themselves to bigger conglomerates – who knew more about bottom-lines than about the stage. Producers would figure how much they could make if every seat sold at every performance, and then be surprised when they “lost” money because some tickets didn’t sell. One of the major players in Boston theatre (at least for a time) had show-business experience only with World Wide Wrestling, and thought of “the product” accordingly.
And the fact that producers tried to screw theatrical unions whenever possible didn’t help at all.
In general, Broadway in Boston (They finally settled on a name that fit the facts!) went from showing the hottest new things in town before they hit big, to selling the old predictable certainties to the only audience that could pay high prices – but was getting older every year.
And they were surprised when it wouldn’t work.
For a time, one person at the Colonial Theatre knew how to make big-house theatre work here in Boston. His name was Jon B. Platt. When a nothing comedy called “Taller Than A Dwarf” with name-stars from film and t-v was announced, the New York front-office turned it down. Platt guaranteed the run out of his own pocket – and the entire run was sold out four hours after tickets went on sale. His last local venture, I think, was as sole producer of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Ye Wilbur Theatre, when it was new, because no one else would. A money man rather than a theatre man, he thought Hollywood would be a better pool to play in – but people in the business are sorry he ever left.
It’s taken as axiomatic these days that young people Will Not Go to theatre, no matter what we do. That wasn’t true in the past.
When I got to Cambridge (1957), in comparison you’d think America’s youth was Theatre-Mad. At Harvard, almost all the houses of residence had at least one theatre-club that put on one and sometimes several shows every semester. And the Harvard Dramatic Club produced half a dozen more. In fact, the Loeb Drama Center was built to give the HDC a professionally-equipped stage on which to do their shows – plus a season every summer with paid actors doing stock, and the little black box Loeb Experimental Theatre out behind the main auditorium was filled nearly every week-end.
Across the river, Boston University started The HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY. Initially, they did a four or five show season every year, with essentially a paid professional repertory company, i.e. regional-theatre Equity actors who were hired to act varied roles in more than one show. They stuck pretty much to classics, warhorses, and Shakespeare – and the directors were faculty teachers, students occasionally filling small roles or working backstage. Shows were staged and advertised to the general Boston public.
Then in about 1980, a new wrinkle appeared. The company called (I think) The Yale Repertory Theatre, headed by Robert Brustein, had for several years been trying to make a name for itself doing surprisingly innovative work down in New Haven. They occasionally did essentially workshop- or tryout-productions of shows intended for runs on Broadway – and then they complained when New York reviewers began coming up-state to review what they insisted was not yet ready for prime-time nor for professional evaluation. (Tell that to Kevin Kelly!) Suddenly, Harvard invited the whole crew to come north, and offered them Loeb Drama Center as a permanent home. They re-christened themselves THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE (but prefer to be known as “the A.R.T.”).
Another player in educational theatre is the BOSTON CONSERVATORY, which teaches music, dance, acting – and all three in terms of musical theatre. The students intend to have professional careers, and many could and do seek professional gigs while still enrolled. Their productions last no longer than a week-end, but they are advertised to and attended by the general public.
The level of performance in general at schools like BU and BO-CO is astonishing these days. If you saw the SpeakEasy production of “In The Heights” – directed and choreographed by people who teach at Boston Conservatory and using students and graduates of the school for most of the large cast – you have some idea of what schools contribute to the Boston theatre picture and to the next generation of theatre-makers everywhere.
And those are only a few of the places turning out graduates. Boston College and Salem State turn up a lot on resumes these days.
Theatre schools to one side, maybe it’d be a good idea to outline the hierarchy of theatre here in Boston. It goes more or less like this:
The biggest, highest publicized, and most expensive places are those big Broadway barns downtown in The Theatre District: The Wang Center and Shubert Theatre (calling themselves the non-profit CITI CENTER, and filled largely by BROADWAY IN BOSTON). Then there are The COLONIAL THEATRE and The BOSTON OPERA HOUSE, also filled by Broadway in Boston but I think with a different corporate structure. (Ye Wilbur Theatre no longer has a balcony, and it has become a grind-house parade of one-night stand-up comics. [Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings….] These need huge audiences on two or three levels to break even, so they are heavily advertised and tend to appeal to audiences wanting an Experience, not necessarily of theatre.
Competing in different ways for those audiences and theatrical dollars are two not as big but major fixtures on the scene with long track-records: the A.R.T. and the HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY.
The A.R.T. never seemed to me a “Boston theatre” in the same sense that the Kennedy Compound never seemed to me a “Massachusetts home” – i.e., it was always national or international in scope and aspiration. In the old days they trucked in bigwig directors from Europe, often did shows I found incomprehensible, and were always extolled by the Boston GLOBE as the very best thing in town. They never seemed to care whether the audience was there or not; they were too busy Making Art. Their new regime includes a new Artistic Director whose reputation was made on Broadway and who has sent several plays already to The Apple and brought back a ton of Tony’s this year. Maybe they are what the try-out houses were twenty years ago? Watch this space…..
I don’t know when Michael Maso started in at The Huntington, but he has watched over its continual growth in achievement and importance, and seems to have a well-oiled machine that enjoys re-inventing itself. When the company gave up the rep-company/faculty-director phase, it sought to be a professional-level Boston company – with an occasional fling at relocation to Broadway. For a while their Artistic Director was Nicky Martin, who sometimes tested casts or plays at Williamstown in the summer. I think Martin never understood the dimensions of the Huntington’s main stage and never quite gave me theatre I wished to be proud of. Peter Dubois, on the other hand, seems almost invisible yet produces better and better theatre every year.
Some years back Maso and the Huntington signed on to an innovation project at The Boston Center for The Arts (much more on that later) that resulted in The Calderwood structure – a proscenium house with a small balcony (The Wimberly), a flexible big-box space (The Roberts), and two upstairs rehearsal-hall/dance-studio spaces. Maso has said the Huntington needed a smaller space to develop new plays – and has done that with smashing success.
A step down from these two major Boston companies there are two never-quite-big-enough companies that no one can ignore: The Lyric Stage, which I’ve described, and in Watertown’s Arsenal Arts Center THE NEW REPERTORY THEATRE.
I had never heard of The New Rep until 1995 when I was beginning The Mirror. Rick Lombardo had been working in some place in the American flatlands – Indiana? Indianapolis? – Where everyone re-subscribed every year, everyone loved every new production, and he was bored. He’d done time in New York (started a company, I think), but wanted to test himself against a good East-coast audience – and the Artistic Director and founder of The Newton Repertory Company just happened to be leaving (to study gamelan in Bali, I heard). A match made in heaven, right?
Rick worked in a little three-quarter-thrust stage-space in a church three blocks from the Newton Highlands Green-Line stop – and almost immediately “became a contender”! He demonstrated taste, imagination, expertise, and excitement, and quickly built the company into a must-see for anyone who liked theatre in the greater Boston area. He paid actors, but went to New York for them only when he had to; he outgrew the church space – which he played like a violin virtuoso – and became part of the renovation of The Watertown Arsenal, where he build the high-risered proscenium Mosesian Stage, with a 40-seat flexible black-box tucked under it – and then, after only a few years, he was unexpectedly on to a bigger space in California.
But Rick had changed theatre in Boston. He moved the audience around. Though it’s true that all theatre is Local, the locality for his theatre expanded to include more than Newton, more than Watertown. As Peter Brook implied, good work can be done anywhere, and good work deserves to be sought out and recognized. Critics had to go much farther Off-Tremont to see what’s there after Rick made it necessary.
Right here and right now, the idea that Boston Theatre is made up of definite, inflexible layers, is breaking down. Not in size, but in reputation, there are two companies in the BCA challenging The Lyric and The New Rep for attention: SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY and COMPANY ONE – with THE ZEITGEIST STAGE COMPANY coming up fast on the outside rail.
I don’t think you can rank companies by size, by location, or by subscriber-base in Boston anymore. Audiences float as much as actors float, word-of-mouth and reviews highlight theatres of a different size every week, and in a space as complex as the BCA people are exposed to the wares of other companies every time they walk through the lobby.
When started, SpeakEasy Stage Company and triangle Theatre were two companies advocating theatre about Gay subjects, but Triangle disappeared, and SpeakEasy changed. For some time, Artistic Director Paul Daigneault and Company Manager Paul Melone (who sometimes directs) have concentrated on producing Boston Premiers of big musicals in the Roberts space of the BCA – and before that, in the smaller Plaza space. Ever since their production of “Bat-Boy – The Musical” which they had to extend, and I think later brought back for reprise, they have been burning up the stage with excitement and detail, using mostly Boston talent, on shows that may have made a mark in the Apple, but burst on the Boston scene as new, and wonderful. This year, their production of “In The Heights” – which rivaled The Lyric’s excellent production of “On The Town” – was called “better than the Broadway production!” by nearly every critic who reviewed it. In their 2009-10 season three of their five shows were “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”, “[title of show]”, and “The Adding Machine: A Musical” (which no one liked, except me) and followed them the next year by the Boston premier of “Red” which had no music whatever. Their reputation is as good as The Lyric or The New Rep, and in the musical category they are giving the big downtown barns reason to worry.
One small note: though he will deny it, Jim Torres the SpeakEasy Marketing Director is the very best in the business, and whatever he does has brought the company to the very top in a crowded field. He’s never had to sell sow’s ears, but many a silk purse made by other companies has languished unnoticed because they didn’t have a Jim Torres around. Talent comes in many categories…
This fall the five founding members of COMPANY ONE will celebrate fifteen years of their working together in the BCA – and though they’ve paid their actors, only recently did getting a grant mean their board could insist their artistic staff accept salaries. Working largely in the Plaza space at the BCA, Company One has honed the edge of relevant theatre, finding new and unusual plays, taking risks, yet always producing full-out, precisely detailed productions. In a sense, they are to drama what SpeakEasy is to musicals – always important. Since many of the staff worked as teachers, they have paid serious attention to young and minority kids in audience outreach, play selection, and honesty in presentation.
David Miller’s ZEITGEIST STAGE COMPANY practically owns the Black Box – the smallest of the performance spaces available in the BCA complex; he’s their designer and artistic director and, though he has gathered about him what almost amounts to a repertory company of regulars it is always His theatre. He balances the quirky comedies of Alan Ayckbourn with go-for-the-jugular political plays, the entire “Kentucky Cycle” of plays (30 actors; no back-stage!), Albee’s rarely done “Seascape” and (the first play I saw Miller do) “Three Tall Women” – and he does it all on the thinnest shoestring in Boston theatre.
Perhaps now the history of THE BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS would be appropriate:
In around 1970-72, armed with some studies done about what arts institutions really needed, a scheme was proposed to take a bunch of dilapidated buildings in the South End of Boston on the brink of gentrification – including a flea-pit movie-house – and turn them into an Arts Center. The visible head of the project was a tall gentleman named Royal Cloyd who would not take no for an answer and – even though I knew it would never work! – he got it done. There was the MILLS ART GALLERY, and a building next to it with low-rent studio-spaces; there was a space for the BOSTON MUSIC CENTER to teach anyone to play any instrument. In one building the PLAZA and BLACK BOX theatre-spaces were created, and in the structure between that and the art gallery was a low-ceilinged brick room (with iron pillars holding up the ceiling) that could be a brick-box flexible theatre seating maybe fifteen – maybe twenty if they all knew each other real Well. (Part of the property was a “Cyclorama Building”: a huge circular space built to house a diorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, but which then was ending its later life as the wholesale-flower center for the Boston area.) The landlords would just Rent Space at affordable prices, try to do something about heat, and maybe take out the trash. I knew it would never work!
That was 40 years ago…..
One thing that made it work was the growing “fringe-theatre” movement here in town; people with more talent than money needed “empty spaces” in which to perform – and Boston’s fire-laws and the simple pressure of real-estate made them hard to find. This wasn’t, perhaps, a great answer, but at least AN Answer. Companies came – and artists and musicians as well, I suppose. It took time for audiences to find, or accept, the place; but once they found admission was cheap, no one was getting mugged, and people whose shows they had liked were working there, it got to be a habit.
Then the Huntington proposed the Calderwood project – building a parking-garage, a high-rise elegant apartment-building, and a two- or three-space theatre complex on the site of that flea-bag movie-house – and all of That bang up next to that BCA people were beginning to talk about.
And when the subscribers actually came down from the Huntington’s main stage building opposite the Boston Symphony, they found out there was More Than One Theatre Company in Boston! Who’d ‘a thunk it?
Of course, the BCA’s not the only multi-tenant theatre space in Boston. It’s not even the oldest!
Three blocks from Massachusetts Station on the Orange Line is the building that once housed the Chickering Piano Factory. Long after the piano people had left, the city of Boston did some renovating and turned it into a complex of studio and rental spaces that artists could afford. One two-story tall brick box (The entrance to it is around the back, through the parking-lot from Northampton Street) was rented originally to a travelling troupe called THE BEAU JEST MOVING THEATRE as a rehearsal space, but the company began renting it out to other companies for performances, when Beau Jest toured their shows. A feminist theatre project called THRESHOLD THEATRE took it over next, for performance-space, but rented to others, and more and more performed less and less. Rose Carlson’s DEVANAUGHN THEATRE was the next owner, again performing and renting … until Carlson decided she really wanted to make movies.
Through those last couple of owners, several companies had used lighting designer Greg Jutkiewicz, and as she left Carlson passed the space on to him. He’ll still do lights there if people ask, but he’s landlord now.
Through all those years and all those owners, a huge number of fringe theatres have called The Factory home – some using it often enough to make that big brick cube Sing! Brian Tuttle’s 11:11 THEATRE COMPANY did his plays there; MILL6 COLLABORATIVE still does their “T Plays” there; EXQUISITE CORPS, FLAT EARTH, HAPPY MEDIUM, HOLAND PRODUCTIONS, MOLASSES TANK PRODUCTIONS, PSYCH THEATRE COMPANY, ROUGH & TUMBLE, UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE … these and more all worked there or got their start there – and WHISTLER IN THE DARK used it to perfection. A while ago I was told the two-weekend slots were booked solid for a year and a half in advance. Its walls have been soaked for many years in Boston theatre history.
And across the river, at opposite ends of Central Square, are two spaces significant in the history of local theatre:
At “the Harvard end” of Central Square, opposite Cambridge City Hall, on the second floor of the YMCA (820 Mass. Ave.) is what no one really calls The Victorian Theatre. It’s a high-stage with a thrust before a flat, be-rugged floor on which stiff-back metal chairs can be set in rows, or at tables, or however. A circular balcony rings the space with three permanent rows, and it can seat 185. It’s available for rental. One company that used to use it (they’re on extended hiatus) was the Metro Stage Company – two Boston para-legals who staged excellent musicals there; and when not doing that they’d usually turned up at the Turtle Lane Playhouse doing tech-work. (Theatre people are like that… )
Another group (they’ll do “Hedda Gabler” there this fall) is The Longwood Players which got its start across the river. Its purpose originally was to give Boston doctors – who met each other only professionally – something Human to do that wasn’t medicine but would let them socialize. When they staged a production of “Singin’ in The Rain” complete with on-stage raindrops and energetic choreography, they admitted they’d formed a Community Theatre group, moved to the Cambridge Y, and have done one musical and one straight play every year. I wonder if any of them are doctors anymore…
At the MIT end of Central Square (450 Mass. Ave.) is another co-operative venture: The Nora Theatre Company – who had lost a residence in the Harvard Freshman Union building and wandered for years, mostly at BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE – and THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY THEATRE – who toured shows, and did personation-plays in schools as well as producing straight plays – these two companies combined to build a brand-new theatre building: THE CENTRAL SQUARE THEATRE. They had the help of MIT, and they have worked with CATALYST COLLABORATIVE @ MIT to bring to their stage plays relative to the sciences or about scientists – a well as their usual fare. The theatre is actually a huge flexible box, with banks of seats that can make a single rise, or in the round, or whatever. These two long-“homeless” companies have always done powerful, significant work, and tried to make people think.
Okay, it’s getting late and I’ve barely scratched the surface so far, but I think I’ll close with the problem of New Plays in Boston, which is a disgrace.
Any company announcing a new play – or even an unfamiliar play! – has to resign themselves to a week or even two of skimpy houses, until word-of-mouth convinces enough people it’d be worth their time and money to see something they’ve never seen before, but just might be impressed by if they’d just give it a chance.
And how do you think that makes the people feel who are writing those new plays?
But write them they do. And there are several groups or companies who give public readings of these plays, or workshop readings, or who try to develop plays into viable, produce-able scripts – with legs.
Some have succeeded, but the doorways to success are often heavy and locked. The Huntington Theatre Company worked a Lydia Diamond play up into a Wimberly Theatre production that went on to a respectable run on Broadway, and they have others in the pipeline. CENTASTAGE and ARGOS PRODUCTIONS have come up with plays I’ve thought deserved another chance somewhere. BOSTON ACTORS’ THEATRE has done a couple new plays, and another will be done this fall. Then there are groups like PLAYWRIGHTS’ PLATFORM that meets me think monthly, and MAKESHIFT THEATRE who are reading a new play twice a month in an upstairs room at the Trident Cafe on Newbury Street.
But two people come to mind when I wonder – there will ever be a “recognizably Boston Style” of playwriting that everyone around the country will recognize?
First there’s Brian Tuttle whose day-job has been teaching in Boston Secondary Schools. He came to Boston after a writing-seminar in Iowa with about twenty-four plays he had written and gotten either produced or read. And at the rate he turned them out, he must have at least twenty-four new ones. But he’s not getting them produced. Y’see, he formed his own company to do his own plays – THE ELEVEN:ELEVEN THEATRE COMPANY – and 11:11 did produce an astonishing number of Tuttle’s plays. And they were good.
The trouble was, his company all wanted to act, but no one took responsibility for Producing. No one took on scheduling rehearsals, or finding rehearsal space, or finding designers who could work for peanuts and still do good work. More and more, the playwright found himself filling-in on all those production-chores that were a producer’s not a playwright’s responsibility.
Brian Tuttle is a teacher, now, who I hope still writes on the side.
But I haven’t even heard of any readings of Brian Tuttle’s plays in more than a year or two now.
Okay, someone at least is trying: Kate Snodgrass.
And THE BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE of course. That’s a lean, mean machine working at 949 Commonwealth Avenue, where there are two-count’em-two stages, one wide and shallow, the other tall and thin. The company was founded by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, who started a B.U. Graduate Program in playwriting, and anyone who’s been through the program can get a new play produced on one of those stages at low coast. Also, companies that want to produce a new play can ask for a slot on either of those stages. It’s not free, but it’s a start.
Kate also started and oversees the BOSTON THEATER MARATHON every year: fifty new ten-minute plays produced by fifty different Boston-Area companies, five an hour non-stop until a 10 p m party.
And last year they added warm-up laps, which are staged-readings of full-length plays on the day before the Marathon Proper.
I can think of only one thing to add:
If people would give their e-mail addresses to someone at Boson Playwrights’ Theatre (or StageSource, or anyone who could collect the data), and people producing or reading new plays would do likewise, the people who say they Like New Plays could be told of Any new play or World or Local Premier – so the people could chase down what’s new. There could be mailings of information every Sunday morning announcing the week’s new plays. That might help, don’t you think?
Okay, that at least is a preliminary stab at a history of Boston Theatre. It’s been an interesting day, thinking and remembering.
But I know there’s more…