In a high-profile expression of confidence that the Boston theater industry can spring back to life this fall after more than a year of darkened playhouses, the Huntington Theatre Company will announce Thursday a slate of seven indoor productions for a 2021/2022 season that will begin in late August.
Among them is the much-anticipated world premiere of “Common Ground Revisited,” Kirsten Greenidge’s adaptation of J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-winning book about the 1970s Boston busing crisis.
Greenidge will have two dramas staged by the Huntington— a rarity for a playwright in a single season at a major theater—the other being the world premiere of her “Our Daughters, Like Pillars.” Just a week from opening in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic forced theaters to close, it’s now scheduled for April 2022, followed by “Common Ground Revisited” in May 2022.
Because the ongoing pandemic is likely to mean a level of unpredictability will surround every theater company’s schedule, it’s notable that the Huntington is planning to start in-person performances as early as August.
Broadway In Boston recently announced it will resume performances in November at Citizens Bank Opera House with “Hadestown.” The Boch Center has announced five shows, including “Million Dollar Quartet,’' all of them in October. The Emerson Colonial Theater, operated by Ambassador Theatre Group, will host a rescheduled production of “Stomp” in October. Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater and Boston’s ArtsEmerson have not yet announced their plans for the 2021/2022 season.
In a telephone interview, Huntington managing director Michael Maso said the wider distribution of coronavirus vaccines convinced him it will be safe to stage indoor performances by August. “We are planning on the side of hope,” said Maso. “We’re not going to be producing a knock-off version of a Huntington season. We’re producing a full Huntington season.”
He said the Huntington has “provided ourselves with enough cushion” that it can move forward with the season if audiences are restricted to 75 percent of seating capacity. Maso acknowledged, however, that being limited to 50 percent of capacity — the current state-ordered maximum audience for indoor performance venues —“would be a challenge.”
Because the Huntington Theatre, the company’s main venue, is undergoing a $55 million renovation and won’t reopen till fall 2022, all but one of the shows in the 2021-2022 season will be presented at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End, where upgrades have been made to the air filtration and air-flow systems. (The exception is a touring production of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which the Huntington will present at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in February).
Maso noted that the company’s first three shows (”Hurricane Diane,” “Witch,” and “Teenage Dick” ) are 90-minute comedies that require no intermissions. That short-form approach is likely to be embraced by many theater companies as they try to entice wary audiences back indoors.
The Huntington has been without an artistic director since Peter DuBois stepped down in October after numerous complaints about the theater’s leadership from current and former staffers. In hiring a successor, diversity will be “a major factor,” according to Maso. “There must be a really robust, diverse set of candidates in order to respond to the moment we’re having, both in the country and in the American theater,” he said.
In a later email, Maso said that “the reason we did not launch into an immediate search for a new artistic director is because we wanted to get further along in our work to become a more effectively anti-racist organization” and to develop “values and policies which will be essential not only in attracting the most diverse possible field of candidates, but in supporting that new artistic director for success, no matter who they may be.”
The search will begin in a few months, he said in the interview, with the goal of “helping the organization find the person who is really going to take it into the future.”
In the near term, one measure of the pandemic’s impact will be a new initiative to begin regularly filming Huntington shows to create what Maso called “digital alternatives’' to live performances. Those online versions will be made available to ticket-holders who aren’t comfortable returning to the theater or are unable for other reasons.
As cultural organizations struggle to rebound from a year that has battered their finances, it is imperative, in Maso’s view, that top elected leaders attend performances. “I want to see the mayor and the governor at the theater, to demonstrate the level of safety and comfort and clarity in what we’re doing,” he said. “That kind of endorsement is critical.”
Noting that state- or city-mandated limitations on seating capacity could cut into ticket revenue, Maso called for the passage of legislation under consideration on Beacon Hill that would appropriate $200 million — drawn from the state’s allotment of federal COVID relief funds — to aid in the recovery of the state’s cultural sector.
Amid the pandemic, 11 Huntington staffers were laid off. They will not be rehired, according to a spokesperson. But plans are under way to bring back the 46 staffers who were furloughed, as operations resume.
All but one of the seven plays in the upcoming Huntington season are written by women, and five of those seven will be directed by women. The announced schedule is as follows:
“Hurricane Diane,’' by Madeleine George, directed by Jenny Koons, Aug. 27-Sept. 26, 2021, at the Calderwood Pavilion. “Witch,’' by Jen Silverman, directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, Oct. 15-Nov. 14 at the Calderwood Pavilion. “Teenage Dick,’' by Mike Lew, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Dec. 3, 2021-Jan. 2, 2022, at the Calderwood Pavilion.
“The Bluest Eye,’' by Lydia R. Diamond, from the novel by Toni Morrison, directed by Awoye Timpo, Jan. 28-Feb. 27, 2022, at the Calderwood Pavilion. “What the Constitution Means to Me,’' by Heidi Schreck, directed by Oliver Butler, Feb. 22-March 20, 2022, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,’' by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by Kimberly Senior, April 8-May 8, 2022, at the Calderwood Pavilion. “Common Ground Revisited,’' adapted by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by Melia Bensussen, May 27-June 26, 2022, at the Calderwood Pavilion.
All of the scheduled productions were originally supposed to be part of the 2019-2020 season (shortened by the pandemic) or the canceled 2020-2021 season. “It’s harder to put the pieces back together than it is to build a season from scratch,’' said Maso. “It became an enormously complicated jigsaw puzzle to find the calendar space where artists were available, so we could honor our commitments.”