CAMBRIDGE — The building formerly occupied by the American Repertory Theater’s performance space Oberon has a new tenant.
Harvard University, which owns the property at 2 Arrow St., announced it has signed a long-term lease with Arrow Street Arts, Inc., a new nonprofit that plans to open a 300-seat black box theater and a smaller, street-front studio by the end of the year.
The brick building at the edge of Harvard Square will become the new home of Moonbox Productions, a lauded local theater company that has staged productions in nine different venues since its first show — “Godspell” — at the Brattle Theatre in 2011.
In addition, Arrow Street Arts and the Cambridge Community Foundation have devised a grant program to help subsidize use of the new venture by fledgling local producers and artists who, increasingly, are being priced out of smaller practice and performance spaces by the city’s rising rents.
“There’s an acute awareness of the shortage of space,” said Arrow Street Arts founder David Altshuler, a Cambridge resident and arts patron who has been a trustee of the Huntington Theatre and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “So when Harvard said Oberon was leaving, it became obvious that this was a great chance to be able to do something really wonderful.”
But it won’t happen overnight. Pandemic-related supply-chain problems are slowing renovations, and while Moonbox is expected to account for about a quarter of the venue’s use, the rest of the programming — likely to include local producers, community groups, and corporate events — is TBD.
“We’re going to be heterogeneous,” said Altshuler, whose wife, Sharman Altshuler, is Moonbox’s producing artistic director and founder. “We come to this project with a sense of curiosity, and part of the thrill is we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like five years from now.
“But we’re excited to figure it out,” he said, adding that the 1,100-square-foot, street-front studio will open first and the 4,500-square-foot black box theater in the fall.
Oberon, which closed in December 2021, operated as ART’s secondary stage for a dozen years, hosting a variety of shows — from fringe theater and drag performances to a memorable reimagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and its marquee production, “The Donkey Show.” But with ART’s decision to develop a new state-of-the-art facility in Allston, the building at 2 Arrow St. became available.
In a statement, Sean Caron, Harvard’s vice president for campus services, said the university wanted a tenant who would carry on Oberon’s “legacy of contributing to the local Cambridge arts scene with inclusion and vibrancy.”
Sharman Altshuler said she’s looking forward to finally having a fixed home for her company’s shows, which have garnered some stellar reviews and six Elliot Norton Awards over the past decade. (Its 2019 production of “Parade” won three Norton Awards — outstanding musical production, outstanding musical performance by an actor, and outstanding musical direction.)
Lately, Moonbox has been mounting its shows at the Boston Center for the Arts, but in 2019 and 2021 the company staged “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the former site of the mom-and-pop candy shop Hidden Sweets in Harvard Square.
“The big difference for us is that by being the resident company here, we’ll have a lot more control over our schedule,” Sharman Altshuler said. “So we can plan not just the season ahead, but a couple of seasons ahead. At the BCA, we’re one of many companies, so we have to work our way around.”
Sharman Altshuler, who worked as a veterinarian for several years before indulging her interest in theater, added that Moonbox’s tradition of partnering with nonprofits will continue at the new place. Since the first performance of “Godspell,” when members of the anti-gang-violence program StreetSafe Boston spoke from the stage before the show, Moonbox has made showcasing the work of nonprofits part of its mission.
Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, said the closing of Green Street Studios and the EMF building, where dozens of musicians once rehearsed, has hurt the city’s arts scene. But, she said, the investment being made by Arrow Street Arts — about $2.5 million has been raised for renovations — and her foundation’s commitment to help subsidize artists who might not otherwise be able to get their foot in the door, is positive.
“It’s a really exciting start of something,” Pradhan said.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.