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Factory Theatre closing leaves small troupes on edge

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Fresh Ink Theatre Company has to find a new stage to fit the giant metallic wing of an alien spacecraft.

The wing, yet to be built, stars in the first act of Brookline playwright Patrick Gabridge’s “Distant Neighbors.” The show was set to open Fresh Ink’s season at the Factory Theatre Nov. 14-22. But Fresh Ink and other companies recently learned that the 49-seat Factory is set to close on Oct. 31. The landlord will not renew the theater’s lease at 791 Tremont St. in the Piano Craft Guild apartment building.

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The closing leaves Fresh Ink and half a dozen other small companies suddenly without a venue for productions already scheduled through June 2015. It also leaves a major hole in the city’s fringe theater scene.

“We’re scouting as many places as we can,” said Jessie Baxter, literary director for Fresh Ink. The company must soon begin auditioning actors, Baxter said, but first they need dates in a new venue: “Obviously the actors are going to want to know if they’re available to do the show before they audition.”

The Factory Theatre has been a labor of love for executive director Greg Jutkiewicz, a longtime Boston theater lighting designer who took over the space in 2007, having worked there on and off for years when it was run by other groups. The closing, he said, is “heartbreaking.”

“More so than my own personal feelings is the feeling I have for the small-theater community and what a loss this space is for them. It really has become a staple for small theater companies,” he said.

The 1840s Chickering piano factory was renovated into artist housing in the 1970s by Cambridge architect Simeon Bruner, now longtime owner of the building that houses the Factory Theatre. Bruner, whose projects include the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the new Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University, did not answer requests for comment for this story.

“More so than my own personal feelings is the feeling I have for the small-theater community and what a loss this space is for them,” said Greg Jutkiewicz, executive director of Factory Theatre

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Affected by the closing are Factory resident companies Fresh Ink, Happy Medium Theatre and Science Fiction Theatre Company, as well as four other companies that had booked shows at the venue for the coming season. A couple more had penciled in dates. The closing also changes plans for the Sleeping Weazel company, which had planned to become a Factory resident company beginning with the 2015-16 season and had even lined up donors willing to fund a $10,000 project to install air-conditioning and other amenities at the Factory, according to Sleeping Weazel artistic director Charlotte Meehan.

On Monday night, about 50 people turned out for a meeting at the Boston Center for the Arts, which convened fringe companies and venue representatives in hopes of finding homes for the displaced productions. “There were a lot of [venues] there last night that are willing to work with people, pricing-wise,” said BCA director of communications Dawn Simmons. “We did a lot of good match-making.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh “is concerned about the displacement of a vibrant but vulnerable theater community,” city of Boston policy director Joyce Linehan said in an e-mail, and the city is looking at ways to help, including making available spaces in the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner.

But no deals have been announced as of mid-week, and some venues are already booked. The closing of the Factory is also driving a wider discussion about the shortage of affordable spaces, including at a meeting set for Saturday at Hibernian Hall by the Small Theater Alliance of Boston.

Fringe companies have small audiences but fill important roles in the city’s theater ecosystem beyond the shows themselves, said Julie Hennrikus, executive director of Stage Source, a theater community service organization.

“For people just coming out of school, they are an entryway into the theater community and a way to start building their craft,” Hennrikus said. “And they’re a way for mid-career artists to change paths, a safe place to try new things.”

07/22/2014 BOSTON, MA Executive Director Greg Jutkiewicz (cq) poses for a portrait at The Piano Factory Theatre (cq) in Boston. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

“More so than my own personal feelings is the feeling I have for the small-theater community and what a loss this space is for them,” said Greg Jutkiewicz, executive director of Factory Theatre.

Fringe companies also offer affordable tickets, she noted, usually $15-$20 even at full price, which helps attract young people and diverse audiences.

The Factory has been rented 40-50 weeks a year, and Jutkiewicz said he has never lost money. But it has provided only a small profit, and he has kept his day job, he said: “I always tell people it’s a hobby as much as a job.”

He told the affected companies two weeks ago that he’d been notified by building management that they would not renew his lease on the black box theater and a small, adjacent rehearsal studio. Management told him that they were going to enclose and secure the tenant parking lot where the Factory Theatre entrance is located, he said, and that the theater space would be repurposed as an amenity for tenants, perhaps a fitness center.

He is trying to negotiate a short extension, until Nov. 3 or so, so that Happy Medium can get in a full weekend’s performances of “Language of Angels” by Naomi Iizuka, which had been scheduled to run Oct. 24-Nov. 8. But supporters hoping to reverse the closing or at least put it off until mid-2015 won’t succeed, he said: “There’s no chance, from what I’ve been told.”

As they search for alternatives, the biggest problem for the fringe companies is affordability. At around $900 a week, the Factory was the most affordable black-box theater in town, with its nearest competitors several hundred dollars more and spaces at major venues costing thousands more, theater sources said.

That may not sound like much to people who pay $100 a ticket and more to see touring musicals at the Wang Theatre. But fringe companies are labors of love, run on shoestring budgets by people with day jobs. Artistic director Vincent Ularich said the Science Fiction troupe’s stipend for a director or actor might be $150 for the length of a project, including rehearsals.

There are so few affordable spaces in Boston, “the loss of this one is a huge blow to the theater scene,” Ularich said.

Jutkiewicz said that if he can find another space, he hopes to keep the Factory’s spirit going, either as a solo operation or in a partnership. “I’ll take some time to celebrate what we have achieved as a community,” he said, “and explore all of those options.”

Hindu gods, manic tales

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of a fringe company-made-good than Company One Theatre, which garners acclaim for its diverse, ambitious programming.

Company One’s 2014-15 season, announced this week, begins with the New England premiere of the “Displaced Hindu Gods” trilogy by Aditi Brennan Kapil, playing in repertory at the Plaza Theatre and Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Oct. 22-Nov. 24. For the trilogy, M. Bevin O’Gara will direct “Brahman/I: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” and “The Chronicles of Kalki,” while Summer L. Williams will direct “Shiv.”

A manic music box spins nightmarish tales in “Shockheaded Peter,” created for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with original music and lyrics by The Tiger Lillies, originally conceived and produced by Michael Morris for Cultural Industry, London. Company One’s New England premiere, a collaboration with Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre March 6-April 4, 2015, will be directed by Steven Bogart, with music performed by Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys.

The New England premiere of A. Rey Pamatmat’s “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them,” a collaboration with the Huntington Theatre Company, will play Deane Hall in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts June 4-June 27, under the direction of Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount.

A summer show will be announced later. Tickets and memberships are now on sale at www.companyone.org, with special discounts this weekend.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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