The theater scene’s next act
Much has been written about the turmoil in Boston’s theater world of late. And it’s true, there is a lot going on.
Emerson College is looking at the future of the Colonial Theatre. Boston University is looking to sell the building that houses the Huntington Theatre Company. Boston Lyric Opera is looking for a new home after they could not come to terms with the Citi Shubert.
It’s clear that we have a complex set of challenges in our ecosystem of performing arts venues, challenges that were long in the making. The fundamental problem is not that we are losing seats, as most of the press coverage and handwringing would have people believe. Rather, we have too many of one kind of seat and not enough of another.
For example, despite the heroic accommodation of the Opera House and the Shubert, we have not had a truly suitable performance house for either Boston Lyric Opera or Boston Ballet in decades. And one year ago, the closing of the Piano Factory displaced several of our vital small theater companies.
The Walsh administration has heard the calls for us to step in and try to solve this problem. An interdepartmental team has been working on a strategy for quite some time. In fact, the conversations started even before the current shifts became known.
Let there be no doubt: We will call the leaders of all these organizations together and ask them to collaborate on a solution. But we can’t demand that people collaborate in ways that will inevitably find us in exactly this same spot a few years from now. Shoving round pegs into square holes won’t work.
We know that the Colonial is not a suitable house for the Huntington. We know that if the Huntington has to make use of its Calderwood Pavilion facility at the Boston Center for the Arts during its transition, many other companies will be displaced. We believe the opera company and the ballet both need a modern, flexible house that meets the needs of their highest production values and also allows flexibility for other uses. We have asked these groups to collaborate on exploring the possibilities, and hope they will do so. In addition, the city-owned Strand Theatre needs a new operator and a reimagining. In the recent conversations, there is no distinction drawn between commercial and nonprofit seats, which are very different. And all this just scratches the surface.
In the coming days, we will commission a study, to be completed in a short period of time, that surveys the current landscape and quantifies the needs of the performing arts. Without diminishing the pain that some in the arts community are experiencing at the moment, what we see is an opportunity to think about the needs of that sector, and start working toward some great solutions.
Mayor Walsh’s fundamental commitment is to make Boston a municipal arts leader. As he has said many times, that means having great performing arts spaces that can be sustained over the long haul. We are already in the middle of a cultural planning process, Boston Creates, that will provide us with a roadmap for getting there.
We are prepared to work with everyone to meet this challenge. We ask those who produce and love the performing arts in Boston to join us.
Julie Burros is chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston.