Tuesday night I spent a very pleasant couple of hours listening to people who work in theater here in Boston talk about all aspects of the artistic landscape here. The vision was informed, realistic, critical, but the underlying subtext was upbeat, the outlook was positive, the prospects encouraging. I scribbled notes, but can't possibly cover all the many ideas in any coherent fashion. I can say I had a ball, and I wish others who were there --- as Arthur Hennesey has --- will write The Theater Mirror to share their own thoughts and questions and suggestions. The state of theater here is apparently healthy, but there's obviously a Lot of Work yet to be done.
The announcement for the discussion said this:
PANEL DISCUSSION ABOUT BOSTON PROFESSIONAL THEATRE
Featuring 3 Area Artists
Tuesday, December 14th, 8PM Senior Common Room of Dudley House, Lehman
Hall will be a panel discussion about Boston Area Theater by three
directors: Eric Engel, Floyd Richardson and Scott Edmiston.
Eric Engel is on the Faculty at Harvard University and a founder of the Nora Theatre Company. He was voted by Boston Magazine this year's Best Director. Mr. Engel most recently directed "Morning's at Seven" at the Lyric Stage.
Floyd Richardson is the Artistic Director of Koinonia Theatre- the Boston Area's newest professional theater group. Mr. Richardson has been an accomplished actor for over 20 years and most recently appeared in Samuel Beckett's "Krappe's Last Tape".
Scott Edmiston is the Literary and Artistic Associate at the Huntington where he serves as production dramaturg and coordinates Boston casting, humanities programs, and literary management. He received the 1998 Elliot Norton Award as Outstanding Director for the Boston premiere of Brian Friel's "Molly Sweeney". There will also be a wine and cheese reception at this event. Please tell all your friends. It is free and open to the community.
The community came, and before the formal discussion opened the room felt a lot like a party where many people knew one another, but everyone knew why they were there. But then the three panellists introduced themselves as practitioners of the craft, and then answered questions ranging from "How does a newcomer find jobs as a director?" to "Are you encouraged about the future of Boston theater?"
Floyd Richardson, calling on twenty years of experience here, saw a resurgence in enthusiasm for theater here recently, after what he saw as a relative low-tide in the '80s, to which all added positive comments. Eric Engel remarked that, after a long period when the Boston GLOBE covered the Broadway houses and even theater in New York and Hartford better than the local companies, the pendulum had begun to swing back. He noted that Ed Siegel as senior critic covered the "second tier" of local companies now.
The panel noted the surprising success of The Boston Theater Marathon last April 18th, at which dozens of local companies presented a series of ten-minute plays at The Playwrights' Theatre at B.U. that conclusively demonstrated the vigor of the home teams. The Women On Top Festival at the BCA and the Playwrights' Platform Festival at Mass. College of Art were cited as signs of resurgence --- as well as, for instance, the 18,000 subscribers expecting seats at The Huntington Theatre this season.
But "Theater is very expensive" someone remarked, and they acknowledged the necessary lean years when the enthusiasm of "Let's start a company!" came to terms with the hard truth that every show is inevitably a compromise of Idea versus Budget. It's not enough to decide "What plays to do for whom and why" if there isn't an Operational Vision designed to make that Artistic Vision a continuing reality. "Payroll, insurance liability, access, grantsmanship, and planned growth" were cited as necessary to ensure that a new company doesn't start small and stay small.
Still, "a team committed to the same viewpoint" was seen as the core of any company.
In terms of the broader picture, it was noted that corporate mergers have had the effect of narrowing the base of funding sources; when three banks become one, corporate underwriting gets cut. In that regard, it was noted that Boston, in order to think of itself as a major city, recognizes that it has to have a ballet company, a symphony orchestra, and a museum of art, all of which get knee-jerk financial support, but the city has never had "A Boston Theatre". Even worse, "theater is a stepchild art" and everyone assumes that, since there is always Someone doing some sort of theater simply because they want to do it, that public responsibility for nurture and encouragement seems hard for money-men to rationalize.
The one thing that seemed to the panellists to remain relatively unexplored locally is political pressure. City and State government could do a lot in allocating public funds for the arts, and in oiling the wheels and encouraging private parties and corporations to take some pride in supporting local theatrical activities --- but politicians have to hear about that from constituents, and don't hear often enough.
One thing encouraging the panel is a seeming upsurge lately in local writers. A National award as a major artist that was given to Melinda Lopez at The Kennedy Center this year is one sign of that activity. Playwrights' Theatre, Playwrights' Platform, Shadow-Boxing, the only-new-plays policy of CentaStage, and readings of new works at the Cambridge Adult Education Center were all felt to feed the fires of community enthusiasm for theater.
The problem may have become that there are more people and new companies eager to do shows than there are theatrical spaces to house them all! There are few performing spaces being built, and existing houses such as those at the BCA always seem to be busy. Worse, there seem few houses in which a company trying to bridge from a start-up group to a permanent professional company can find few 300-and-less-seat spaces in which to grow. (I have the image of a soft, vulnerable but growing hermit-crab scuttling from shell to ever larger shell while prey to all sorts of deadly perils, internal as much as external.)
Two practical aspects of the local picture emerged. The Theater Marathon could turn into a Boston Theater "Fringe Festival" if general enthusiasm is maintained, and next year will certainly get more publicity both before and during the event. Also, StageSource is looking into the possibility of a series of awards that would be voted by all the local actors, all the local designers, et cetera, much as the Academy Awards in film are voted by the actual practitioners instead of aloof outsiders. And of course the StageSource "Town Meetings" that started last year and are enthusiastically supported by everyone working in the field will be expanded, and focused on specific needs that are felt by the community.
Those are a few of the things I happen to remember about this delightful evening. If you were there, please send your own comments and amplifications. One person already has:
Subject: Theatre Panel
Date: Thu, 16 Dec 1999 14:47:30 -0500
From: "Hennessey, Arthur" Arthur.Hennessey@Cognos.com
It was great to see you at the panel the other night.
I really found it valuable, and the perspectives interesting. I didn't get a chance, but I wanted to ask them at what point you go from the "let's put on a show," mentality to "here is our season."
Also, an issue that was skirted, (not intentionally,) was that of using New York talent other than Boston talent. Scott said that the Huntington doesn't advertise auditions, but I am pretty sure a clarification would be that they don't seek out actors here in Boston. I think they still will put the word out in New York. It is exciting to see somebody like Paula Plum be accepted into the ranks of the big houses, but it shouldn't be that exciting for a great, talented actress like her to be taken on regularly by a professional theatre company, in her own town. It should be a little more standard.
The midrange theatres are the real key. We need a few theatres that can pay actors and directors, maybe not enough to live on, but enough to sustain them. A "bridge," as Scott called it, between the small companies and the equity companies.
I also want to agree with you somewhat on something you mentioned.
Everybody is always talking about getting people in to see theatre, opening it up to new people. I have always held that trying to get people to go to theatre who are never going to come is like beating your head against a brick wall. You may get them to come once, twice, but not again and again. It is like somebody who doesn't like sports, they may come to baseball game now and then, for a company outing or something, but they aren't going to keep returning.
A lot of people who work in my office went to see Rent when it came to Boston. It was, "the thing to see." They tell me that they went because they heard about it and they were surprised how much they actually liked theatre once they got there. Upon further questioning though, they haven't stepped near a theatre since, or even read the theatre listings in the Globe. There is a lot of handholding in building that type of an audience and they probably will desert you eventually.
I get a little angry, however, when I talk to other theatre artists who have not seen a play in Boston in years, or don't even know what is going on in the theatre scene. How can we expect the support of others if we don't support ourselves?
Another thing we need. A fostering and nurturing of costumers, lighting designers, and set designers. At too many start-up theatre companies these key areas are left-overs that are either avoided or picked up as extra duties. I guess we can add management to that too.
Thanks for kicking of a continuing discussion, Art!
I do think that the people who go to theater ought to be encouraged to come back, not just to A theatre, but to Theater. They are the best bet for audience-building and for enthusiastic word-of-mouth advertising that we've got. So, here's my suggestion:
As many local theatres as can ought to declare Thursday night as "Blue-light Special Night": Anyone who shows up with a ticket-stub from Any Other Theatre can buy either one ticket for half-price, or a two-for-one pair on any Thursday when seats are available.
If enough companies could do that, automatically, every Thursday, all the time, I think the word of mouth would spread. Of course it's a privilege, and no company should give away seats that might be filled at full-price. But on the night of performance, when houses might be meager, adding a handful of theater enthusiasts to the audience would benefit everyone. And people just might find theater habit-forming if they felt they were being given something that their local moviehouse would never think of offering.