Theater & art

Stages

New works are finding an audience in Boston

Marc J. Franklin

Boston’s status as an innovation hub extends beyond high-tech, education, and groundbreaking research to include the creative sector, particularly the production of new work by local playwrights. A newly released survey reveals that more than 287,000 audience members attended more than 200 new play events in Greater Boston over the past two years.

The survey is an initiative of StageSource, the service organization for theater artists in Boston. StageSource launched the New England New Play Alliance to collect the data, measure impact, and help raise awareness about local audiences’ interest in seeing new work.

“Innovation in the theater is new work,” says StageSource executive director Julie Hennrikus. “We’ve been talking a lot about diversity, inclusion, space issues, and audience building, and the solution to all of those issues lies in new work. We’re better as a community when we encourage plays and playwrights that tell stories from different points of view.”

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The survey, says Hennrikus, grew out of a desire to bring all the people interested in developing new plays together. “We want to help build audiences, encourage more new play productions, help spread the word about what’s going on, and ultimately build financial support for new plays,” she says.

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The survey compiled data from 55 companies, ranging from the American Repertory Theater and Huntington Theatre Company to the TC Squared Playwrights’ Lab and Mill 6 Collaborative. The Huntington and ART accounted for more than 200,000 of the audience members, but Patrick Gabridge, a Boston playwright who ran the survey, took heart in the number of play attendees — 78,000 — who saw new works at the other companies and the fact that there was plenty to see.

“We were actually surprised at the number of people going to see new plays, whether it’s a reading, a workshop, or a full production,” he says. “I know about a lot of readings and fringe theater productions because I’m in the community, but even I was impressed with the statistic that 55 companies produced new plays at one level or another over the past two years.”

The challenge, both Gabridge and Hennrikus agree, is the perception that producing new work is risky for theater companies.

“What this report does is quantify the new work that’s being done and the number of people who are going to see it,” says Hennrikus. “Seeing these sizable numbers will, we hope, help the managing directors who are making budgeting decisions include new plays in their season lineup.”

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Gabridge says the strength of Boston as a breeding ground for new plays comes from the infrastructure that’s been developed over the past decade to nurture playwrights. The Huntington’s Playwriting Fellows program, New Repertory Theatre’s Next Voices program, and Company One’s PlayLab are a few of the institutional programs that work with playwrights over an extended time, culminating in a staged reading and, occasionally, a full production.

Having a variety of opportunities to develop plays also leads to cross-pollination, says Gabridge. “My new play, ‘Distant Neighbors,’ was developed at New Repertory Theatre but produced by Fresh Ink,” he says. “John Kuntz’s ‘Necessary Monsters’ was developed at the Huntington but produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company.”

Networking opportunities also happen when playwrights participate in the Boston Theater Marathon, which takes place this year on May 10 in the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. The Marathon, now in its 17th year, pairs 50 10-minute plays and playwrights with 50 theater companies and directors, creating invaluable connections.

“I’ve participated in 11 Marathons,” Gabridge says, “and out of that have worked with about 40 different directors and theater companies.”

But while connections help, the journey a play makes from a playwright’s imagination to the stage has to be cultivated carefully, says Joe Antoun, who teaches playwriting at Emerson College and has also served for the past two decades as the artistic director of Centastage, a company dedicated to producing only new plays by local playwrights.

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“The pressure to mount a full season meant we sometimes produced plays that weren’t ready,” Antoun says.

Centastage now focuses on working with playwrights at the earliest levels of development, getting their scripts in shape to be presented to audiences by any theater company. Centastage’s last production was “The Fakus” in 2012, but that playwright, Joe Byers, is currently having his newest work, “The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” produced by Theatre on Fire at Charlestown Working Theater through April 4.

“It’s tricky,” says Cassie M. Seinuk, whose new play “From the Deep” is being produced by Boston Public Works at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theatre through March 28.

“New plays can be overworked in a cycle of readings and workshops that playwrights can get stuck in,” she says, “but a play is not a play until you’re playing.”

Seinuk says “From the Deep” had readings, won a couple of awards and felt ready, but she says, “in the rehearsal process we made so many changes. The set becomes a third character, the actors add so much, the technical elements force you to adjust.”

Rather than hand her play over to another company, Seinuk is a member of Boston Public Works, a theater company consisting of playwrights that produce their own work. Although she interviewed other directors, Seinuk says she decided to work with Lindsay Eagle, who had directed earlier iterations of the play.

“I was grateful to have worked with Lindsay during the play’s development,” Seinuk says, “because I felt I was in the right hands, with the right people, in the right environment.”

Hennrikus says the New England New Play Alliance highlights how powerful that new play environment is.

“The great thing about creating opportunities for playwrights is the ripple effect,” she says. “When we help raise awareness about what’s going on in theaters, we help make space for new voices, new stories, and new audiences.”

For more information about the New England New Play Alliance or to sign up to receive the weekly newsletter about new play events, go to www.stagesource.org.

Actress Chase sees the light

Boston fans of the hot new Netflix series “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” will notice a familiar face among the “Mole Women” who have been freed from a doomsday cult’s underground bunker. Boston University graduate and one-time SpeakEasy Stage Company actress Sara Chase has a recurring role in the hilarious comedy, which is coproduced by Tina Fey.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.