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2011 Bostonian of the Year Runners-Up

Rob Orchard plays starring roles at ArtsEmerson

By the inaugural season’s end, it was clear the executive director had engineered a hit.

Photograph by Ion Sokhos

The plan, as Rob Orchard will readily admit, had been to retire. He was 63 years old, and his three-decade run at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater was coming to a close. Diane Paulus, the new artistic director, wanted to install her own team. The prospect of leaving a theater he’d helped build from the ground up came with some sadness, but Harvard’s early retirement offer made Orchard’s decision easier. Besides, he’d finally be able to write the book about his years managing the theater, spend time on the 40-foot sailboat he co-owns, and travel to New Zealand with his wife, Pam, a schoolteacher who also was retiring.

Then, in June 2009, Ted Cutler called. The prominent Emerson College arts donor had big news. The school was nearing completion of its $92 million Paramount Center, a huge project involving renovating the 590-seat Paramount Theatre, plus creating a 150-seat Black Box Theatre and a state-of-the-art film screening room. Now, Cutler said, Emerson needed a leader to design and run a program that would fill all those seats, plus nearly 1,200 more at Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre. Was Orchard interested?

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Yes, in fact, he was. Retirement could wait. “He sounded so excited,” says Pam, recalling the surprise call from her husband explaining the job. “I thought, ‘This is the most amazing opportunity for him.’ ”

Working at a feverish pace, Orchard created an inaugural season from scratch – it would come to include 17 theater productions, 92 films, and four concerts – and unveiled “ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage” in September 2010. By season’s end in the summer of 2011, it was clear Orchard had engineered a hit: ArtsEmerson sold more than 50,000 tickets and raised about $2.3 million in revenue. And with the equally ambitious 2011-2012 season now in full swing, Orchard has cemented Emerson as an artistic force, even in a market already stuffed with the Opera House, the Huntington Theatre Company, the ART, and others.

As executive director, Orchard carved out a niche for ArtsEmerson by hosting far-flung theater companies, such as Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, as well as offering a series of films and family-oriented shows. What’s more, his programming has been able to draw on big names – John Malkovich, F. Murray Abraham, Anne Bogart – and draw attention to lesser-known companies, including New York’s The Civilians, which recently staged the critically acclaimed You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce. It’s no wonder Orchard is keeping long hours. “In our house, we don’t talk about working 24/7,” Pam says with a laugh. “We talk about working 36/10.”

But for Orchard the job has been rejuvenating. As the sun set one recent evening, he hustled from his office on the 11th floor of Emerson’s Tufte Center to a theater class in which he spoke of launching Arts-Emerson. “I could feel a tingling that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” he says. “I woke up smiling in the morning. The possibilities: I could do this, I could do that.”

Truth is, it felt a lot like the early days at Harvard, where Orchard arrived in 1979 from Yale University with his mentor, theater legend Robert Brustein. Over the next two decades the pair built the ART into a world-class institution and won a slew of awards, including a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize. Brustein served as the artistic voice; Orchard was the administrative guy and producer.

Orchard remained at the ART after Brustein stepped down in 2002, but times were not always easy. There were battles with Harvard over the company’s inconsistent ticket sales and debates over its artistic leadership. The 2008 hiring of Paulus effectively marked an expiration date on Orchard’s role. “Basically, Diane wanted to run the show,” says fund manager Ted Wendell, a former cochairman of ART’s advisory board who now donates to ArtsEmerson. “She wanted full control.”

Orchard won’t grumble about his final days at the ART, though, nor has he cut all ties with his old job. He’s brought some of the directors and companies he helped program there to ArtsEmerson, including Martha Clarke and Elevator Repair Service. He also tells his former Harvard students that he’ll pay them $100 to scout a production he can’t catch, and an additional $1,000 if that work ends up in a future season. “I can’t do it all myself,” he says. “I need eyes and ears that I trust, who know what I’m looking for.”

Midway through the theater class, after discussing some of the potential future programs, such as a show by a deaf and blind acting ensemble from Israel, Orchard apologizes for needing to duck out early and sets off down the hallway. It’s opening night of Moby Dick at the Paramount’s Black Box, and Orchard needs to get there to shake hands at the door and deliver a few words of welcome to the audience.

Waiting for a freight elevator, he unwraps a package of cheese crackers and shrugs. “Dinner,” he says.

Outside, he walks briskly toward Washington Street as he talks up the evening’s show. “It’s very spare,” Orchard says. “It’s all about the words, and it’s just the actor.”

With his night still hours from coming to a close, was Orchard’s busy second act leaving him tired?

“I’m used to this,” he says, rushing into the theater with a smile. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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