WELLESLEY — Commonwealth Shakespeare Company founding artistic director Steven Maler scrunches up his face in a parody of confusion. “People were like, ‘Babson and arts? Babson and CSC? What’s the connection? That doesn’t make any sense at all!’ ”
But Maler says Commonwealth’s new role as the resident theater company at Babson College makes perfect sense, even though — or perhaps because — Babson is a business school.
Commonwealth Shakespeare’s claim to fame is drawing 100,000 people to the Boston Common for performances of a Shakespeare play every summer, and that will continue unchanged, Maler says. This is not a merger, and the theater company will remain independent. But its offices, its handful of staff, and some of its programming are moving to Babson.
The college’s focus on entrepreneurship means students with many different goals, Maler says. “The point is that these kids are not just going out to work at Ernst & Young or Fidelity, which is great if they want to do that. But there are also many people here who want to change the world, and that’s an interesting kind of synergy with an arts organization.”
Sitting together in the otherwise empty Carling-Sorenson Theater on campus one recent morning, Maler and Babson president Kerry Healey say it’s a smart arrangement for both sides.
“The creative process is something that we focus on here as a means to becoming an entrepreneur,” says Healey, the state’s lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007. “You have to be open to that creative process, open to experimentation and failure, and learning from that failure. And so having a more robust arts program here just makes sense in terms of our overall mission.”
That could be an interesting sell on a campus where undergraduates in dark business suits are a common sight on a weekday morning. But the partnership will bring a flash of Hollywood glamour to Babson this fall.
“Burn Notice” star and Amesbury native Jeffrey Donovan, who played Hamlet under Maler’s direction on the Common in 2005, will star in a script-in-hand reading of “King Richard the Third” at the Sorenson on Nov. 20. Donovan wants to play Richard on the Common someday, Maler said, and the reading is in part a trial run.
The cast also includes Boston theater notables Will Lyman, Johnny Lee Davenport, Adrianne Krstansky, and Robert Pemberton. The
7 p.m. event is free to the public, though a $50 donation gets you VIP seating and a ticket to a post-show cast reception. (To register, go to www.commshakes.org.)
Next summer’s Common production will not be announced for another month or so. But Maler wants to make clear that this centerpiece of the company’s existence will go on as usual. Last summer, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” had 19 performances scheduled (although two fell victim to weather), and this year will be similar.
Babson, however, will also get its share of the summer action.
“We’re actually going to rehearse the summer production here, tech it here outside, and preview it here outside [for] around six performances,” Maler says. “That’s prior to picking that whole production up and moving it to the Boston Common.”
Healey had been on Commonwealth Shakespeare’s board for the last five years, leaving in September. She says the relationship goes back to 2002, when she was running for lieutenant governor. She had agreed to perform in one of the company’s “Shakespeare and the Law” events, a reading of “King Henry the Fifth” featuring Massachusetts notables from the law and politics.
Maler “deftly cast me across from my primary opponent,” Healey says, laughing. “And in the course of the script, I needed to say I loved him and then marry him. So I’m sure other people found this deeply amusing.”
On campus for about a month now, Maler has added the title of director of Babson’s Sorenson Center for the Arts. Commonwealth Shakespeare’s associate artistic director, Adam Sanders, who runs the company’s education programs in venues including local Boys & Girls Clubs, will serve as associate director of the center, adding Babson students to his portfolio.
Babson will have a budget to pay them for their Sorenson duties and finance other costs, Healey says, “and we’re also talking to potential donors who are interested in the arts and interested in bringing more arts programming to Babson.”
Lawyers are still drawing up the terms of the agreement between the theater company and Babson, including its length, “but we felt comfortable proceeding on a handshake,” Healey says. “We know and trust each other.”
Much of Babson’s contribution at the moment is in-kind, such as the office space, which Maler said will save Commonwealth Shakespeare about $2,000 a month over its current home on Lewis Wharf. That’s not an insignificant amount for a company with an annual budget of $850,000, according to Maler.
But the two organizations will remain separate, including their boards and their fund-raising efforts. “We didn’t want Commonwealth Shakespeare Company to become in any way reliant on Babson College. That’s not a very healthy relationship,” Maler says.
What will be healthy, he and Healey say, is the company’s input into campus life. Babson offers a handful of theater classes taught through the arts and humanities department and a robust “co-curricular” theater scene led by the student-run Babson Players. Part of Maler’s mission is to support and strengthen that.
“We have a freshman here from Thailand [who] is very passionate about the issue of human trafficking, and one of the things she wants to do is express her commitment to change by creating a theater piece,” Healey says.
And theater has its uses in business education, as they found when Commonwealth brought Boston actor and director Larry Coen to campus recently for a master class on improvisation.
“We didn’t know who was going to come, and we had 16 people show up, which I was told was a huge success,” Maler says. Several were MBA students who had been sent by a faculty member, he says. “I asked them, ‘Does this apply to what you’re doing?’ And they said, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we need. We have to learn how to think on our feet, how to pitch a client. Those are high-risk moments for us. We’re inventing in the moment.’ ”