Just in time to celebrate Michael Maso’s 30 years as managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, Boston had a fireworks display. Not the good kind.
A spectacular blaze at an electrical substation on the evening of March 13 plunged the Back Bay and surrounding areas into darkness, just minutes before a preview performance of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was to start at the Boston University Theatre on Huntington Avenue.
“The cast was at ‘places,’ the audience was in the house,” Maso said a few days later. “And as they were ready to start the play, the lights went out.” The performance was canceled, and the audience of 400 was ushered out under emergency lighting. Actors changed back into their street clothes by flashlight.
Maso himself was at the company’s other venue, the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, for a reading of a new play by Melinda Lopez. Power came back quickly there, so the Calderwood became the Huntington’s command center. The company lost two performances of “Ma Rainey,” including the scheduled press opening, and its offices across from the BU Theatre were without power — no computers or e-mail access, no phones — until March 16.
“I reached out to the mayor’s office, and they reached out to NStar, and we got a generator hooked up for ‘Ma Rainey’” on March 15, said Maso, warming to his tale in a wide-ranging interview in his cluttered and surprisingly modest Huntington Avenue office. The official opening, though, was held until the next day. “We didn’t want the cast to have no show for six days and then do the show for the press. That wouldn’t have been smart.”
For Maso, such troubleshooting is all part of running one of the nation’s major regional theaters. Founded in 1982 by Boston University, the Huntington became an independent nonprofit four years later while maintaining an ongoing partnership with BU. By the end of this season in June, the company will have produced 187 shows, including 32 world premieres. A dozen Huntington shows have gone on to Broadway, and three to off-Broadway productions in New York. And some 30,000 children a year now participate in the Huntington’s education programs.
Maso’s nominal brief is administration and finance, which he says encompasses everything except what’s onstage, including overseeing a $13.2 million operating budget. Like many nonprofit theaters, the Huntington is led not by a single impresario but by a duo: a managing director and an artistic director who work in tandem, each reporting to the company’s board of trustees.
“Michael’s being there allows the artists to have the freedom to create,” said Peter DuBois, the Huntington’s artistic director since 2008. Maso, the only managing director the theater has ever had, has also been paired with Peter Altman, the artistic director from 1982 to 2000, and Nicholas Martin, who had the job from 2000 to 2008.
Monday night, the Huntington will honor Maso with the Wimberly Award at its sold-out Spotlight Spectacular gala, hosted by Joanna Gleason in the Park Plaza Hotel ballroom.
When cutbacks came
As challenges go, the blackout was nothing for the Huntington. Far more difficult were the great recession in 2008 and its aftermath, when many funding sources cut back and arts groups across the country were hit hard.
“It was literally just months into my first year that the economy fell apart, and [Maso] was a good person to be in the trenches with,” said DuBois. “He did a really great job putting the austerity measures that the theater had to take into place.”
The Huntington cut 15 percent from its $13 million budget for fiscal year 2010, eliminated 10 positions, and rolled back pay for everyone who remained, with the top staff taking proportionally larger hits, Maso said.
“We’ve sustained our core programs,” he said. “We’ve sustained our educational programs and our school programs, which are critical to us. We sustained our commitments to new writers and new works, which means developing new writers and producing world premieres.”
Raises finally returned this year, and some of the jobs have come back. The budget this season was expanded by a special board initiative aimed at marking the theater’s 30th anniversary with a robust lineup, including three world premieres plus the company’s $1.25 million production of Mary Zimmerman’s “Candide.” Maso said he expects next season’s budget to drop back to $12.5 million or a little more than that.
In April 2011, the Huntington received a $10 million gift from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation, the largest gift in its history, doubling its endowment and providing more stability for the company. Maso said the gift “is really sort of the beginning for us of a conversation about a capital campaign, which we need to undertake.
“We’re in a planning phase at the moment about what the future of the Huntington is and what it will need,” he continued. “It’s about having a financial structure which supports the institution, whether or not the market cycle supports you.”
As part of the planning process, the company will assess its systems and facilities needs, he said, but there’s no intention to replace the BU Theatre, which opened in 1925.
One other thing isn’t changing, he says. At 60, he expects to stick around for a while.
Maso’s office is hung wall-to-wall with posters and play memorabilia, except for family photos above his desktop computer. A picture of him with August Wilson stands among those. The Huntington may be best known for its relationship with the playwright, having provided an early stage for many of his works during his lifetime. It completed Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle this year with “Ma Rainey.”
“It was a pretty important one for me,” Maso said. “To be a personal witness to history, both the plays, which were a privilege to be part of — the Huntington played a very important role in developing those plays, which August recognized publicly over and over — and getting to know him so well over almost 20 years. This was an extraordinary person as well as an extraordinary writer.”
Maso has also been a central player in the growth of Boston as a theater city. Robert J. Orchard, the executive director of ArtsEmerson, executive director for the arts at Emerson College, and a key figure in the local theater scene since the founding of the American Repertory Theater in 1980, noted that the regional theater movement arrived earlier in other cities than it did here.
He and Maso “both go back to a point when … there weren’t any larger institutional theaters such as existed in Washington, D.C., Seattle, or Chicago,” Orchard said. “Boston was curiously lacking in that cultural institution.”
Orchard spent three decades at the ART in Cambridge, first as founding managing director and later as executive director. He talked often over lunch with Maso about shared issues, he said.
“As a result of the existence of these two large organizations, soon thereafter there began to emerge a number of smaller groups,” said Orchard. “We were tilling the theatrical soil in a way that helped to establish a lot of these smaller companies. … Michael was instrumental in helping to seed these organizations with his own generosity and advice, and most dramatically with his leadership in the establishment of the Calderwood Pavilion.”
After a $24 million capital campaign for the building and endowment, the Calderwood opened at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2004, and the Huntington has a long-term lease on the space from the BCA. Inside, the 370-seat Wimberly Theatre has provided a sparkling contemporary alternative to the 890-seat BU Theatre. Huntington productions that have been staged there include Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” which last fall went to Broadway.
The Calderwood, which the Huntington operates, also holds the 200-seat Roberts Studio Theatre and a pair of 80-seat rehearsal and performance spaces. Some 125 groups have put on 440 productions there, selling more than 400,000 tickets.
Shawn LaCount, artistic director of the BCA resident troupe Company One, said by e-mail that Maso “has been an important part of Boston’s theatre community, both part of the old guard and a champion of new energy.” But he acknowledged that all has not been easy. “Where co-existence with the new Calderwood Pavillion at the Boston Center for the Arts has not always been the smoothest of rides,” he wrote, “Michael has been entirely open to conversations on how to make things better.”
On a recent morning in his office, Maso powered through a morning “check-in” with his assistant, Allison McDonough, a former A student in his theater management class at BU.
Working from notes, she told him which Huntington staffers wanted to attend the Theatre Communications Group national conference that’s coming to town in June, conferred on benefactors’ tickets for an upcoming opening, and discussed the wisdom of scheduling an executive committee meeting for the day after the theater’s gala.
Maso admitted he was distracted by one schedule item he’d not been able to manage away. At last year’s Huntington gala auction, his wife, Lisa Coady, bought them a vacation at a private residence in Aruba. And that vacation was locked in for this past week. That meant Maso was going to be on the beach during one of the Huntington’s busier weeks of the year, leading up to the gala.
“It sounds like a very silly thing to complain about, going to Aruba, and I have to stop doing this,” he said. “But I’m a little freaked out about it.”