Isn't it odd that the most exciting theatrical event of this year turned out to be, not a play, but The StageSource "Boston Theatre Town Meeting" that exploded in the Huntington Theatre Monday night. So many people attended that they ran out of printed programs long before all of them got seated. The panel discussion aimed at "Uniting Our Community: Our Vision, Our Voice" and the enthusiastic moil of intense conversations that spilled out into the lobby, into the street, and into the Our House Tavern half a block away went on for hours after. I don't think I've seen such a concentration of joyous enthusiastic theatrical energy in one place since the IRNE Awards Bash last March. What a glorious experience!
Just as everyone who spoke, whether on the panel or from the floor, did so from a personal point of view, I think everyone who was there came away with their own unique view of what happened --- and I am no exception. I bought the GLOBE and the HERALD today, because I saw at least two critics in the audience. Neither paper covered the meeting, though, so what you will have to settle for is my own idiosyncratic view of what was said.
I heard two major themes given voice, and the first was a need for outreach. Several people put forth ideas on how to make more people aware of theater --- from "take a friend to a play, even if you have to buy their tickets" to contacting churches for group-rate parties, to taking plays into schools or hospitals, to preparing discount "passports" good for seats at a whole list of active theatres, to sharing data-bases and mass mailings --- in order to make certain audiences actually overlap and feed an interest not in one theatre, but in theater anywhere, everywhere, as an abstract experience worth seeking out.
But the second was just as passionate a yearning for "IN-Reach" --- for bringing the entire Boston theater community together and sharing ideas, experiences, expertise, and energies. People called for special Monday-night performances that working actors could attend for discounts, for simple mentoring of neophytes, for regular "classes" where actors could teach one another what they might know better, for a "Theater Academy Awards" wherein those people who work as actors or directors or techies could vote on nominees from their own ranks, rather than relying on often short-sighted critics to make those determinations.
The one suggestion I heard, from several different sources throughout the evening, was that this kind of Boston Theatre Town Meeting should be repeated much more frequently than the yearly event StageSource has planned.
The first comment from the floor was from the local Equity representative, who remarked that this year's Equity meeting had double the attendance of last year's, without any pressing business to garner attention. He sensed, as I do, a healthy pride growing in the hearts of theater practitioners here in Boston --- a feeling that, perhaps the wider world, even the local newspapers, have no idea how much excellent work is being done on the stages of this city.
But they know it.
And there was in the air of that hall, and of that bar, a determination to make that wider world aware of the treasures untasted at their very fingertips. I looked around, seeing so many faces familiar from past productions and backstage conversations, and seeing all those faces also looking around and seeing the very same thing: a sea of people who really love theater and want the world to love it too.
So there were suggestions for action on every hand --- some voiced publicly, some shared over a Bass Ale with friends, but all focused in the same direction. I've even been moved myself to think up a plan or two myself:
The worst problem, for actors and producers alike, is playing to half-empty houses, and the worst danger is that the movie-VCR-Rock-Internet generation will never develop a taste for live theater. And several suggestions were put forward on ways to give that vast army of students living here in Boston their first taste of the stage. Okay, this would take coordination, but here's my idea:
Actors' Equity has relaxed their rules somewhat lately for what are called Equity Showcase Productions, so that underemployed thespians can tackle either neglected plays or overlooked classics, stretch themselves artistically, and show producers what else they can do besides their type-cast roles. I saw three of these last year, and they were excellent. I think that impetus should be encouraged.
In fact, it might be possible to envision a whole series of such productions going up regularly --- even weekly --- throughout the year.
If such a program could be established, it would be best for every local college with a theater program to fill the house with theater-students, for a good low-discount group rate.
Of course, the cherry on top would be for those students to stay after performance to talk, either in group discussion or in informal chat-sessions one-on-one, so that they get a chance to learn from real live local actors what the actor's life is really all about.
And I have the ideal place where just such a program would benefit the entire theater community:
Ye Wilbur Theatre.
This is the least-used venue in the city, it's a charming house small enough so any Equity actor could work without a mike, and putting it right there in The Theater District would give a whole raft of young people every year the odd experience of going into a Broadway house to see Straight Plays without ear-blasting music or falling chandeliers.
And as a corollary to that, I think every college in Boston should be pressured into instituting a gut-course for freshmen called "Theater Appreciation 101" that would meet twice a week for a semester, Thursday nights at a different local theatre every week, and Friday afternoons to discuss the experience. I'm sure a StageSource volunteer could see to it lots of local theatres would have their weak-night audiences increased. Again, low group-rates, maybe a final paper to satisfy academe, but graded pass-fail so that anyone with perfect attendance passes, anyone missing even one show fails. (I always was a Tough Grader!)
There. I've let a pair of flowers bloom.
Does anyone else have some suggestions?