An Introduction: Boston Theatre in the '10s and What it Means for the '20s
In a 2017 article for wheretraveler.com, entitled "Boston's Theatre Scene: What Makes it Hot and Why You need to Be There", 5 Boston playwrights discussed the state of theatre (specifically new works) in our city.
"Within the past 15 years, innovative fellowship programs at established theaters have aligned with plucky, upstart troupes and a supportive academic culture to nurture a community of playwrights that aims to write the new, great stage works of the 21st century.
'My hope is that we are able to continue to grow our audiences as well as our talent pool and head into a theater renaissance,' says playwright Melinda Lopez, herself a leading light of the scene. Her voice rising in enthusiasm, she cites the heralded Chicago theater world of the 1980s as a precedent.
'That's Boston in the 2020s-people saying 'That was a heyday of new plays in Boston, that's when it was all happening.' I feel like that could be where we're going.'"
As we embark on our voyage through the 2020s, it will be exciting to see if Lopez's lofty ambitions become a reality. After all, Boston theatre has just come through a huge decade of change in which our city's pertinence to the theatre world has grown. Let's look at how our relevance as a city has changed in regards to theatre as an art form in the past decade:
10 years ago, Diane Paulus took over The American Repertory Theatre and, love her or hate her, you must give her one thing: everyone in town has an opinion on her. She brought with her a decade long run of The Donkey Show (same principle applies, love or hate, we've all got something to say), a slew of shows streamlined to take on New York (from Broadway revivals, to Jagged Little Pill and premieres of new works like Endlings), a generous partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (who sent Cambridge the later-Tony-Award-Winning All the Way, The Fingersmith, and a beautifully staged Othello), and a veritable buffet of the biggest names in arts and entertainment (James Earl Jones, Audra McDonald, Sara Bareilles, Bob Crowley, MJ Rodriguez, Teller, Amanda Palmer, Claudia Rankine, the list goes on). The ART has epitomized how an institution can commit to developing new works and spark new interests in an old art form. But Paulus and the ART have not cornered the market on Boston theatre's exports for the past ten years. Women's Project Theater recently extended their run of Alexis Scheer's Our Dear Dead Drug Lord in New York for a second time after it was listed by The New York Times as a top critic's pick. The play, written by a Boston playwright, premiered at Off the Grid Theatre Company before being listed on the Kilroys List and getting scooped up for an off-Broadway production. The Huntington Theatre, winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Regional Theatre, transferred two productions to New York in 2012 (Stick Fly and Sons of the Prophet) and stood out as (arguably) the largest supporter of Boston playwrights this decade, developing and premiering works by Melinda Lopez, Eleanor Burgess (who's The Niceties has gone on to Chicago, Milwaukee, London, Austin, Philadelphia, and Naples since its Boston premiere), and Kirsten Greenidge, among others. They are continuing their work already, kicking off the new year with a premiere by Somerville's Lila Rose Kaplan. While New York is the economic world capital of theatre, it does seem exhausting to herald it as any sort of artistic benchmark. However, in an industry where success and capital are too fiercely interwoven, the stream of work establishing itself in Boston and then transferring to New York certainly marks us as a hub to watch out for. Outside of our exports to NYC, Melia Bensussen, a long-time Boston staple, has shipped off to Hartford Stage as their new artistic director, and Boston has already reaped the benefits of the connection when she generously sent us the premiere production of Quixote Nuevo.
While our exports have expanded, our imports have certainly improved equally. This decade saw a musical chairs game of colleges purchasing buildings and partnering with arts institutions (or dropping them) which has paved the way for some exciting progress, even at the devastating cost of a downtown gentrified beyond recognition and a forced reverence toward inherently money-hungry boards of directors. Emerson College's purchase of the Colonial Theatre has welcomed Ambassador Theatre Group to host pre-Broadway tryouts of shows like Moulin Rouge and David Byrne's American Utopia, attracted major names like Dolly Parton, and promises to continue Boston's legacy as a tryout town (we're kicking off 2020 with a visit from Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker). Emerson's influence over our audience experience does not stop there. The founding of ArtsEmerson a decade ago has allowed world-class theatre, dance, and opera troupes from nearly every continent to perform within walking distance of the Red Line. I've already covered some of my pros/cons thoughts about ArtsEmerson's work in a review. Additionally, their HowlRound site has allowed theatre artists to connect with each other across geographic divides. On a smaller scale, Arlekin Players, who are also celebrating their tenth season in operation, have been receiving attention of late as they continue to host prominent Russian artists and present under-produced Russian and German plays in Needham. Also noteworthy are the Nora Theatre's collaborations with Bedlam Theatre Co, and Boston Lyric Opera's fusion of Margaret Atwood with director Anne Bogart to premiere The Handmaid's Tale.
One group that has not even taken a full decade to start to completely shift Boston theatre's topography is the Front Porch Arts Collective. This still-new force of black artists has enabled coproductions with established Boston theatres which center black narratives as well as launched a campaign to diversify Boston's critics. The group has received international attention because of their recent recreations of Jeremy O Harris' blackout at institutions ranging from Speakeasy Stage to Greater Boston Stage Company. It feels encouraging and important to note that many new theatre groups formed in Boston in this decade, like Cambridge Chamber Opera, Praxis Stage Company, or Bridge Repertory Theatre, seem to have a grasp on and an interest in how they can engage authentically with their community. While many groups have been founded, other institutions have collapsed, and we have seen an onslaught of change in artistic leadership. Michael J Bobbitt and Christopher V Edwards are already bringing fresh ideas to New Repertory Theatre and Actors' Shakespeare Project respectively. Bobbitt has heralded in a new program which entitles Watertown residents to a free ticket to any show this season and Edwards brought with him an excellently affordable student pass for young Shakespeare aficionados.
American Theatre magazine has given Boston plenty of spotlight this decade. In 2015, they began publishing monthly 'Role Calls', profiling prominent American artists. Boston has had its fair share of representation within the listings, including director, Summer Williams; dramaturg, Phaedra Scott; actor, Bobbie Steinbach; and designer, Tyler Kinney. In their September 2019 issue, which explored the top US cities outside of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles for union theatre work, American Theatre listed Boston at number 1.
"Have you ever wanted to mold NYC into a place that's quieter and cleaner but still maintains an invigorating theatre community and downtown charm? Beantown might be just what you're looking for. AEA lists 1,125 members in this historic city for an average of around 9.6 work weeks per member."
While 9.6 work weeks seems disparagingly low, Boston still beat the other cities listed in the article by a wide margin.
So, in a way, Melinda Lopez's 2017 forecast still seems entirely possible, perhaps even more promisingly so than two years ago. Her prediction has already come true, in that, Boston has continued to lay a foundation for a decade of artistic excellence to which the world will pay close attention.
As the article mentioning her hopes made the rounds on Facebook, I remember hearing varied responses to its generally optimistic views. A friend pointed out that, while the article is accurate in its claims that Boston has a newly-invigorated interest in developing new works, many of the institutions listed rely extensively on unpaid or under-paid labor to function. How can we expect a renaissance if we are limiting who can engage in our work? Another response was from a professor of mine at the time (who may have been biased because she was in Chicago in the 80s). She diagnosed that Boston is too "heady" to ever be what Chicago was (have I written this article to prove her right?). Another response bemoaned the precedence of and strict adherence to playwrights in contemporary American theatre. As theatres in Eastern Europe pioneer into avant garde realizations of direction and design, why are our theatres getting caught up in realism and the portrayals of the quotidian?
How do those beginning their artistic journeys in this city (who may not be as well-established as the 5 playwrights covered in the 2017 article) feel about the attention our city is gaining? How do trans and gender-expansive artists feel their work is perceived in our city? Artists who are disabled?
In an art form which receives such limited funding from the state, reliance on ticket sales dictates many of the conversations at major institutions and fringe groups alike. Unfortunately, this leaves us with a dominant culture of centrism (political and aesthetic) that tries to walk too many tightropes without leaning too far in any direction. Often, this manifests itself in ways that leave Boston theatres as puppies, lagging behind New York and Chicago and slurping up scraps from what they've devoured over the past two years. How many watered-down "Boston area premieres" of other city's leftovers can we be forced to stomach, especially as the broadcasting and archival of influential works has become more common and they can be accessed through libraries and streaming services? I'm in no way suggesting that watching a filmed performance on Netflix is the same as seeing it live, but does the same reduction happen when works are transposed to a new city?
As was demonstrated by Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, new works by young writers receive little attention from critics during their Boston premieres. An open letter to the Independent Reviewers of New England addressed this ignorance at length, citing Alexis Scheer's play as an example of a prominent work that was ultimately ignored by the IRNE committee. Now that New York has told us the play is worthwhile, is another theatre going to snatch it up and bequeath it upon us? This would feel all too much like the indirectness of when an ART show goes to Broadway and then comes back through Boston as a national tour with twice the ticket price and half the charm. Surely the next Boston theatre to produce one of Scheer's works will benefit from ample coverage. What must we do so that we can disengage from the colonized thought that everything must filter through New York City to be deemed worthwhile? While nearly every theatre totes a dedication to new works, how much do they prioritize those who create them? Do they give them as many resources as they give to their more surefire commercial successes? Are artists' voices being respected and ethically elevated or exploited in response to cultural trends?
Over the past few weeks, I've gotten to hear from some Boston-based and formerly-Boston-based theatre artists about what they foresee for Boston theatre in the 2020s; how we fit into the larger fabric of American theatre, and what needs to change for us to continue to grow and to be the beacon of innovation that Lopez anticipates. This group represents a large, but certainly not all-inclusive, cross-section of our community. I have worked with some of these artists before, some of them are close friends, some responded to a request on Twitter, while others have reached out to me based on reviews in the past. As always, I am eager to keep the conversation going and have an open link to my email and Twitter available on my profile. Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing these artists' opinions on Boston in the coming decade, hopefully shedding light on their fears while affirming their hopes. At the bottom of each article, I will leave helpful links to further readings and resources for those interested in helping Boston theatre become more equitable, safe, and accessible. I hope you will join the conversation!
An earlier version of this article mistakenly claimed that the Huntington sent two productions to Broadway in 2012. While Stick Fly went to Broadway, Sons of the Prophet transferred to Roundabout Theatre, an off-Broadway house.
While Emerson College is the landlord of the Colonial Theatre, the restoration and programming of the Colonial was done by Ambassador Theatre Group, who entered into a long-term lease agreement with the college to operate it. ATG is responsible for the productions hosted there.