When Kami Rushell Smith enrolled at the Boston Conservatory four years ago to study musical theater, she had already mapped out her career path - and it led to one place and one place only.
“I came to Boston with the dream that I would learn these skills, and then graduate and go directly to New York and take New York by storm,’’ she says.
But today, two years after receiving her master’s degree in music, the 26-year-old actress is still here. Nor, tellingly, does she seem to regret it. While her New York-based actor friends endure a painful cycle of auditions and rejections, Smith - who grew up in Tupelo, Miss., and got her bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh - has landed one part after another. She has tackled the title role of Lydia R. Diamond’s wrenching slavery drama “Harriet Jacobs,’’ and utilized her Conservatory-honed song-and-dance skills in musical productions as varied as “Nine,’’ “Passing Strange,’’ “Big River,’’ and “The Phantom Tollbooth.’’
Nearly as important as the steady employment, though, is that Smith feels she’s working within “a special community here of artists who are doing really introspective, really beautiful work, even though it doesn’t necessarily have the huge budget of Broadway shows.’’
The upshot is that her old dream has yielded to a new one: She now envisions Boston as her long-term professional home.
The evolution in Smith’s thinking reflects a broader development that would have seemed unlikely as recently as a decade ago, one that has significant implications for the vitality of Boston theater: Increasingly, talented young performers see Boston as a place to forge an acting career, not just to launch one.
“It’s more than a steppingstone,’’ asserts Daniel Berger-Jones, 28, a native of Chapel Hill, N.C., who graduated from Boston University and is one of a cadre of young actors who founded the Orfeo Group, a small and adventurous theater company. “We are developing a nice culture here.’’
“Right now I’m definitely interested in staying in Boston,’’ says Sasha Castroverde, 26, a native of Memphis, who graduated from Emerson College and recently appeared in “The Divine Sister’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company. “If I can make a life here, that’s definitely a goal I’d like to achieve.’’
That “if,’’ though, is huge, and so is Castroverde’s other qualifier: “Right now.’’ Actors go where the work is, and if they can’t land parts in Boston, they are out of here. Whatever their enthusiasm for Boston as a theater town, a cold-blooded realism about their profession leads many to take it one year at a time, constantly reappraising whether the city still meets their needs.
Moreover, the brighter lights and bigger paychecks of New York remain an irresistible magnet for many young actors, particularly those who specialize in musical theater. Chicago and Los Angeles also beckon to performers in their 20s. Even some young actors who put down roots in Boston will pull up those roots in two or three years and move on, and those who remain here will regularly make the journey south for auditions.
It was ever thus. But to judge by interviews with more than a dozen actors, artistic directors, and heads of university performing arts programs, a new dynamic has entered the picture in recent years. Ambitious young actors no longer automatically assume they will have to leave Boston to enjoy an artistically rewarding career.
Graduating and staying put
“Boston has become much more of an option,’’ asserts McCaela Donovan, 29, who has recently demonstrated her versatility in shows as various as SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Drowsy Chaperone,’’ the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Candide,’’ and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “All’s Well That Ends Well’’ on Boston Common. “Just since I went to Boston College, the theater scene has grown immensely.’’
“There’s so much opportunity in Boston,’’ agrees De’Lon Grant, 28, whose recent performances have included major roles in “Big River,’’ at Lyric Stage Company, and “The Phantom Tollbooth,’’ at Wheelock Family Theatre. “There are a lot of young people that are eager to do something here.’’
That was not the case 10 years ago, when Scott Edmiston was the president of the board of directors of StageSource, a service organization for theater professionals and producers. Edmiston recalls an anxious meeting at which producers fretted about the local theater community’s inability to “hold on to young talent.’’
“We had all these colleges and universities, but so few of the [theater] students who graduated wanted to stay in Boston,’’ he says.
That, he and others say, has changed. Edmiston, a highly regarded director, now heads the Office of the Arts at Brandeis University, where half of this year’s graduates of the MFA acting program opted to stay in Boston. Melia Bensussen, another prominent director, who chairs the performing arts department at Emerson College, says that “at least half’’ of Emerson’s BFA graduating class this year has stayed in town.
Jim Petosa, director of BU’s College of Fine Arts School of Theatre, says that in recent years, an increasing number of graduates have “begun to come forward and say, ‘You know, I think I want to stay in Boston.’ ’’ Kristin Baker, the director of the performing arts office at Suffolk University and the current president of the StageSource board, says she, too, sees increasing evidence that young actors “are more willing to stick it out to try for a theater career here in Boston.’’
But there are no hard data to verify the trend, and at least one prominent theater figure, Paul Daigneault, founder and producing artistic director of the SpeakEasy Stage Company, is skeptical.
“If it’s an actor in a professional training program, they are going to go to LA or New York first, and see if that lifestyle is for them,’’ says Daigneault. “The other thing that happens is they graduate from college, they get their professional experience here, sometimes they even get their [Actors’] Equity card here, and then they move away.’’
Daigneault adds, however, that he is heartened by the fact that he has a deeper talent pool of younger actors to draw on than he used to have when casting shows. He says he often sees actors returning to Boston after giving it a try elsewhere.
That’s what happened with Nael Nacer. When Nacer, 30, graduated in 2007 from Suffolk University, where he had studied theater and public relations, he moved immediately to New York in search of acting opportunities. He found it hard not only to land parts, but even to get his foot in the door for auditions. Just when his morale was hitting rock bottom, he got a call from Company One, asking him to audition for a role in Annie Baker’s “The Aliens.’’
Nacer’s performance attracted a lot of attention, and led, he says, to “four more back-to-back plays’’ here. In June, he moved back to the Boston area.
More chances to work
Observers who see in young actors a greater inclination to stick around point to two primary factors.
First, the theater community in Boston is now robust enough that there are simply more job opportunities for young actors, with often-challenging roles in productions by companies that range from small or fringe (Company One, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Underground Railway Theater, Zeitgeist Stage Company, Charlestown Working Theater, Whistler in the Dark, the Gold Dust Orphans) to midsize (SpeakEasy Stage Company, New Repertory Theatre, Lyric Stage, Stoneham Theatre), with occasional shots at a part in a production by a big institutional player like the Huntington Theatre Company.
“What is happening in Boston now reminds me of New York in the late 1980s, when I came of age professionally there,’’ says Bensussen. “There’s so much access to theaters in a range of sizes.’’
(Economically, however, a stage actor’s life in Boston is a precarious one, as it is nearly everywhere else. Most local actors must work day jobs to support themselves.)
A second key factor in keeping young actors here, observers say, is the tightening of the connections in recent years between university performing arts programs and the Boston theater community.
As the universities have added veteran actors and directors to their part-time faculty, the result has been a bustling pipeline from campus to stage. The practitioner-professors act not just as teachers and mentors, but also as role models who give aspiring actors an up-close glimpse at what a life in Boston theater might be like. At BU, the Boston Center for American Performance, founded two years ago, produces plays that team student actors onstage with professionals.
“When they’ve been through [theater] programs in the city, they’ve already had a chance to network,’’ says Paula Plum, a veteran actor who is cited by others as a valuable mentor to younger performers. “If you land in a new city, you have to start over.’’
Sometimes, too, the fact that theater professionals are scattered across local campuses enables them to act not just as mentors but as talent spotters and even future employers.
For example, Castroverde took a course on the principles of comedy at Emerson from Spiro Veloudos, the producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company and a longtime champion of the need to retain young talent in Boston. She was studying acting and dramaturgy at the time, and Veloudos cast her as Tracy Lord in a campus production of “The Philadelphia Story.’’ After the production closed, Castroverde told Veloudos she was not going to pursue a career as an actor.
“I told him, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t have it,’ ’’ she recalls. “He said, ‘You can do this. I believe in you.’ ’’ Last year, Veloudos backed up his words with action, casting Castroverde in Lyric Stage’s two-part “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.’’ She proceeded to nearly steal the show with a hilarious performance as Fanny Squeers, while also shouldering another, wholly different role. As she builds her career, she says, Veloudos’s words of support are “always in the back of my head.’’
For his part, Veloudos says there is a pragmatic reason for making efforts to keep performers like Castroverde in town. “You have to build a theater that is going to be exciting to a younger audience,’’ he notes, “and part of that is putting younger people onstage.’’
Some young actors see a chance, too, to contribute to the aesthetic shape and scope of Boston theater by starting their own fringe companies, which in turn provide more acting opportunities for theater graduates.
Smith and Grant, who attended the Boston Conservatory together and have remained close, recently debuted a cabaret series - the first performance drew nearly 100 spectators, many of them young actors - and are working to launch a theater company called the Circle Project, with a focus on new or rarely produced works.
Smith makes clear that, one way or another, she wants to be part of the Boston theater community for a long time to come. “I feel like we’re on the right trajectory,’’ she says. “I’m excited to see where this goes in the future, and how it continues to grow.’’