The list of companies that have won the Tony Award for regional theater is a roll call of the nation’s most prominent and best established nonprofit theaters: first up, in 1976, Washington’s Arena Stage; second, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; third, Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. In 1986, the Tony went to the American Repertory Theater; in 2002, to Williamstown Theatre Festival.
On Sunday night, the Huntington Theatre Company will step into the spotlight to collect the 2013 Tony Award for regional theater.
Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois and managing director Michael Maso sat down recently at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, a space built and operated by the Huntington and opened in 2004, to talk about what it takes to maintain a strong regional theater.
Q. Congratulations. Why do you think you won this year?
Maso: It’s a recognition of, I think, in large part, our commitment to local writers and to new work and to carry that forward along with the responsibility of being a large mainstream institution in a large city, and the balancing act between those two things. I think we’re being recognized for the energy that’s here now, and a lot of that comes from — this is, what, five years into Peter’s tenure — and I think that’s been recognized.
DuBois: We’ve been focusing a lot recently on the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program and developing a home for local writers but also really expanding our programming in new writing and really taking the time to bring our audience — our local audience, our national audience — on board with the writing, the writers, and just the commitment to living writers, and to putting the play and putting the spoken word at the center of the enterprise.
Q. What’s your definition of a good regional theater? What are your guiding principles?
DuBois: We have a deep commitment to the city that we’re part of, a deep commitment to the audiences and the artists of Boston. But then we feel we’re part of a global community and part of a very vibrant national theater scene.
Maso: And I think it’s about leadership here in Boston, where we have a very unique position. The Huntington was the only organization in Boston that was going to build this building. There was no one else who was going to step up to make this happen. And this serves dozens of companies a year, and [many] people coming to see theater in Boston because we did this. We operate this at a loss. And that’s part of the larger expansion of our service to the theater community. We think that leadership position extends to the national community. We’re very proud of sending plays, and creating work that actually has a national profile.
Q. Michael, you’ve been around a long time, and I assume you got an even more in-depth look at the issues surrounding not-for-profit professional theaters during your eight years as president of the League of Resident Theatres. What were, and are, some of those issues?
Maso: The core issue we’re all groping with constantly is making sure that the financial models work. Our job is to support artists, and we can only support artists if we have the resources to do it. We need to create a structure that weathers changes. The biggest changes that any of our regional theaters are dealing with in the last 15 years, which is similar to the issues of symphonies and ballet companies, is the changing in the buying patterns of our audiences and the change in subscription patterns. Everyone has seen a reduction in subscription revenue. There was a reduction from 1995 to 2005, maybe a 10-year drop. But then really for many of us it’s been very stable, and our numbers are on the way back up. Fifteen years ago it was $4 million in revenue; now it’s probably $3 million in revenue, but it’s still a significant part of our operating budget. And people really are still willing to commit their trust to an institution for a season. We’re really, at the moment, not an unhealthy industry. I think we’re in the best shape we’ve been in in a decade.
Q. What’s the number of subscribers now?
Maso: We have about 10,000 people. We used to run at 16,000 on a regular basis. That was our norm. But nevertheless we have many more people coming on a single-ticket basis. So that’s really grown. Our audience is as big as it’s ever been. It’s just there are more people who want to make those individual decisions. Maybe they are waiting for the reviews.
Q. The Huntington website notes that the company has transferred 16 productions to New York since it was founded in 1982, including “Stick Fly,’’ “Sons of the Prophet.’’ Some people, including [ART founding artistic director] Robert Brustein, one of the godfathers of the regional theater movement, have argued that regional theaters should keep New York transfers out of the equation to the extent possible — that it can potentially compromise a theater’s mission. Tell me where you think nonprofit theater and commercial theater meet.
Maso: There’s no reason to be compromised just because you have partners who are in the commercial theater. If you maintain your standards, if you’re doing work you care about and not making decisions because somebody else is asking you to, then you’re not compromising your mission. I love Bob Brustein, who I’ve known a very long time, but of course, you know, the ART was very excited when “Big River’’ transferred [to Broadway]; the ART was very excited when “ ’night, Mother’’ won the Pulitzer and transferred to Broadway. I think what’s astonishing is I’ve never really heard, aside from “You have the risk of threatening your mission,” I’ve never heard any articulated reason for that fear. We all, you know, we do what’s in our hearts. If we do stuff that makes a difference to us and we get a partner in doing it, I think this is really all about nothing.
DuBois: I agree.
Maso: And I’ll just say, we have been pitched — and not just in the last five years; in the last 20 years — we’ve been pitched so many projects by commercial producers who start with “Listen, I have half a million dollars. I have $700,000. I got $1 million. And it comes with this piece.’’ And we’ve rejected 98 percent of them. And we feel really good about what we’ve rejected, too, I have to say. [Laughs.]
DuBois: I love [“Sons of the Prophet” playwright] Stephen Karam. I love [“Rapture, Blister, Burn” playwright] Gina Gionfriddo. I’m going to continue working with these writers. But we never really look into our programming and say, “How do we create work that’s going to appeal to an audience in New York or an audience in another city?”
Maso: Let’s take our friend Diane Paulus [artistic director of the ART], who’s doing great work and has had some commercial success. She’s had shows transfer from the ART. I just want to know who that’s bad for. Our job is, we’re trying to be part of the ecology where artists can actually make a living. The fact that the cast in “Pippin’’ is able to actually make Broadway wages for the next six months, that’s a damn good thing. I don’t think that’s anything that our region needs to be apologizing for. There are people who live in the world of theory. You know, “In theory, we think this is a problem.’’ We live in the world of reality. And one of our realities is to try to make life better for the artists we work with. The more we can provide opportunities to artists, the better. Period.