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Opinion

Opinion | Jon Garelick

Crowded stage

With its rapid downtown housing development, Boston is grooming a new theater audience. Do local repertory companies have the space and resources to serve it?

Jason Raish for The Boston Globe

In the chapel of a Back Bay church, three actors have taken the stage. It’s a small “thrust” stage with seats on three sides. The only props are an antique steamer trunk, a couple of box-like cubes, and, downstage, three coat racks loaded with costumes. Over the course of 90 minutes, the three actors (two men and a woman) will play a combined 40 roles.

The set and cast number are all specified by playwright Israel Horovitz in his script, “Lebensraum” — a phantasmagoric play about the Holocaust, Holocaust deniers, and good-old-fashioned anti-Semitism — first produced in 1997 at his Gloucester Stage Company. But this production — by the Hub Theatre Company of Boston — is brand new, the company’s very first in an ambitious season that will include staged readings of selections from Shakespeare at Trident Booksellers & Café on Newbury Street, William Gibson’s “Goodly Creatures,” and the Boston premiere of Nora and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” directed by Boston stage veteran Paula Plum.

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Those last two productions will, like “Lebensraum,” also take place at the First Church on Marlborough Street. Hub Theatre Company is just one of several troupes that have sprung up in Boston over the past decade. This is the kind of creative, homegrown theater that has been flourishing in the shadow of the big touring productions of “Billy Elliot” and “Wicked.” And like most of the smaller troupes, Hub must scrape for rehearsal and performance space. The two big daddies of the local nonprofit theater scene — American Repertory Theater and Huntington Theatre Company — have regular homes. And in recent years, the smaller Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater have taken up residence in the 225-seat Central Square Theater. But even an established, growing outfit like Actors’ Shakespeare Project is a nomad.

The use of space can be inventive — Actors’ Shakespeare Project has performed everywhere from the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge to the Villa Victoria Center in the South End. But you have to wonder if the Boston theater scene is far outpacing the area’s infrastructure. And there’s another challenge not only for the actors and theater companies, but for the city: Boston is growing. The last Census reported a 30,000-person increase in population, much of it in Boston’s center. It seems that with so much condo construction in town, there’s a ripe new theater audience in the making. Is the city ready for it? What’s more, does it have the resources to fulfill its potential as a major theater city?

Jaime Carrillo, an actor who moved to Boston from New York in 2011, certainly thinks the potential is here. Carrillo, who graduated from Brandeis in 1998, was one of the players in that Hub Theatre Company production at the First Church, and he’s a regular with Actors’ Shakespeare Project. He’s also the driving force behind Bostonia Bohemia, a scrappy collective that’s dedicated to mounting shows in alternative spaces and forging cross-platform alliances with other artists and arts groups. Last fall, Carrillo and Boston Bohemia staged their first “Fly-on-the-Wall Festival” — site-specific one-acts. So Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich’s “kitchen” play, “The Body Clean,” was staged in, yes, the kitchen of Carrillo’s Brookline apartment, and Natalie Naman’s “bedroom” play, “Jess & DJ,” was staged in the spare bedroom. The sell-out audiences of 40 lingered in the “lobby” — Carrillo’s living room.

Even an established troupe is a nomad.

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“People hung out in the living room talking for a long time after the show,” Carrillo tells me. “Which to me is a strong indication of the night’s success.”

For this year’s festival, Carrillo was fortunate enough to partner with the Brookline Arts Center. But he says the search for “legitimate” rehearsal and performance space in Boston can be brutal. Spaces like the Huntington’s Calderwood Pavilion (with its two theaters and two rehearsal rooms) are snapped up quickly by contending groups (not to mention by the Huntington itself) and are too expensive for a lot of start-ups. The 49-seat Factory Theatre in the South End is more affordable but equally in demand.

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“We’re basically kids playing in the street,” says Carrillo. “We play really well. But we’re still playing in the street. We need a new playground.”

Though he comes at the situation from a different angle, Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, agrees with much of what Carrillo says.

“There’s enormous demand for those spaces,” Maso says of the Calderwood, which opened in 2004. “There are companies in fact who are desperate for more spaces.” He points to the two performances spaces in the Calderwood — the 370-seat Virginia Wimberly Theatre and the 200-250-seat Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre. “I know that if there were another 200-seat theater, it would get used. I’m confident that there is enough really smart product by really smart young companies and producers, and there are new producers every day.”

Maso also wryly adds, “When we built the Calderwood Pavilion, the skeptics were asking the opposite question: how can you possibly fill those seat? My answer was: It doesn’t matter how many seats there are, it matters what you put on stage. If there’s enough work that’s compelling to put on stage, then people will come.”

Venerable Boston philanthropist Ted Cutler has taken his own path to opening up Boston’s theater scene. A former chairman of the board at his alma mater, Emerson College, he was instrumental in the renovation of the Paramount Center and the theater that bears his name, the Cutler Majestic, and in the creation of the umbrella organization that they’re a part of, ArtsEmerson. That initiative essentially created or renovated 4,200 theater seats in Boston, from the Paramount Center to the 1,700-seat Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre.

This summer, Cutler is taking another step, with his Outside The Box Festival, an eight-day mostly free event running July 13 to 20 that will include performances on seven stages spread across the Boston Common, City Hall Plaza, and Copley Square, incorporating this summer’s edition of Shakespeare on the Common as well as productions in the downtown theater district.

“People are performing in South Station just to perform,” says Cutler. “They’re performing in a synagogue in Lexington or a church in Medford, and they’re not being seen by people. I want to give them a chance to play for an audience.”

The Outside The Box Festival is part of a larger mission for Cutler. “Boston is known for its schools, hospitals, and life sciences, but not the arts,” says Cutler. “I want to change that.” In addition to incorporating this summer’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company offering of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” he’ll have contributions from the ART, the Huntington, and SpeakEasy Stage as well as an array of international talent. Outside The Box’s approximately 300 events will also include musical performances and culinary demonstrations. Eventually, he’d like to see Outside The Box become an international attraction on the scale of Scotland’s summer-long Edinburgh Festivals.

Looking at audience potential, Cutler says, “There are 4.5 million people within an hour’s drive of Boston. People come to First Night, the coldest night of the year. And if you’ve seen one Tall Ship, you’ve seen them all, but they grab a million people!” He adds, “The trouble with people who come to Boston now is that they take the Duck Tour, they have dinner, and then they leave the next day because there’s nothing to do. We’ve got to keep them here.” Meals, hotels, and gas money, he points out, all come with taxes that mean revenue for the state.

That’s certainly a start, and no one has done more than Cutler to expand theater’s reach in Boston (“It’s just nuts that the downtown theaters close for the summer,” he says). Outside The Box will create buzz and interest in Boston’s performing arts. For his part, Carrillo is seeking to expand the already existing infrastructure, possibly through cooperative spaces. He sees a vacant space like the long dormant Cleveland Circle Cinema and envisions a temporary community arts space. “Why not use even a portion of it for theater and the arts?” In Carrillo’s envisioning, artists could be partners with landlords of such spaces — taking care of their upkeep, showing the spaces to potential renters, and at the same time making them at least temporary attractions that draw positive attention to the participating arts groups, the buildings themselves, and the community of which they’re part. “Every time I see a vacant storefront,” Carrillo says, “I think, ‘Man, what could we have going on there?’ ”

Carrillo’s ultimate dream is for a community theater space — one that would be available to any and all residents for multiple purposes for a basic fee to cover costs of operation. A pipe dream? Maybe. But Maso points out that Pittsburgh’s Cultural Trust, a private nonprofit foundation, runs several of the city’s theaters. “I think it would be great if there were a municipal structure of some kind that could be used by more theater companies,” Maso says.

The counterargument might be: Well, everyone wants something for nothing, and who’s going to pay? For Carrillo, in the short term, it’s a matter of entering into new kinds of partnerships, “changing the relationship between renter and rentee.” But there’s a larger issue of doing what Ted Cutler calls “changing the culture” of the city. “Those 30,000 people you’re talking about — are they theater people or baseball people? But if we can get that excitement going, we can change the whole city.”

In the chicken-egg argument about theaters and audiences, Cutler is less concerned about the immediate need for theater space and more concerned with building audiences. The theaters, he says, will soon follow. Part of the potential for Outside The Box, as he sees it, is educating a new audience: children who have never seen live theater. Several children’s groups will perform at Outside The Box, including dancers from the Boston Ballet school, and Cutler anticipates another possibility — that kids will see other kids performing and say, “Mummy, I want to do what those kids are doing.” Cutler adds, “That’s the beginning of a culture change.” Even if kids don’t become career artists themselves, they may get bitten by the arts bug. Much like Cutler himself, who was introduced to music as part of the drum and bugle corps at Sarah Greenwood School in Dorchester and put himself through Emerson by playing bass in a country band.

In the meantime, the Boston area continues to attract and grow theater artists. Those include the playwrights in Emerson’s MFA program as well as those in the Huntington’s playwriting fellowship program. Among the latter is Ryan Landry, who for years has produced drag-theater parody pastiches at clubs like Machine and this year debuted “Ryan Landry’s ‘M’ ” at the Calderwood.

Michael Maso looks at it another way. “There’s a story to be told about the subsidy that is provided primarily by theater artists to theater in Boston. They’re basically subsidizing their own work because they have to find another way to make a living. I can walk out of my office and the first five young people I meet are all doing theater at night in addition to their jobs at the Huntington. They’re all doing their own shows somewhere else. It’s part of what’s exciting. We’re lucky because we get smart, passionate people who want to work for us because it connects them to the work they care about. But they’re providing this enormous infrastructure of work in Boston.”

And he points out what might be obvious to an actor/producer like Jaime Carrillo or a self-proclaimed “theater nut” like Ted Cutler. “People are moving into cities,” says Maso, “and they’re moving into cities for what only cities can provide: people coming together, shared experiences, live entertainment. That is a city amenity. It was born in cities, it lives in cities. You can’t be a great city without great performing arts.”

Maybe it’s not a matter of “changing the culture,” then, but of getting the city to catch up with a cultural shift that’s already taken place. Says Jaime Carrillo, “As everyone seems to believe, business follows art.”

Jon Garelick is a Boston-area journalist and former arts editor of the Boston Phoenix. He can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com and @jgarelick.

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