Stepping gingerly across a perch high in the Colonial Theatre, union stagehands dismantled their equipment last week, removing counterweights and beams from the playhouse for what they feared would be the last time.
The magnificent theater, long considered one of North America’s finest and host to numerous premieres, staged its last scheduled show Oct. 11, after its owner, Emerson College, decided to shutter it for roughly a year as the school conducts renovations and evaluates other possible uses for the space.
“We’re going to put them in a storage locker and hope that somehow something good happens,” said Jon Cooper, who’s worked as a stagehand at the Colonial for years. But Cooper wasn’t optimistic as colleagues lowered an I-beam to the empty stage. “This is terrible,” he said of the fate of the 115-year-old theater. “This feels permanent.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many, particularly after documents surfaced this month that revealed Emerson is considering a plan to transform the fabled playhouse into a flexible dining hall/performance space. Emerson administrators have emphasized that no final decision has been reached and that the plan is but one of several being reviewed.
Nevertheless, the revelations have shaken Boston’s theatergoing community, coming as they did amid weeks of tectonic shifts in the city’s performing-arts landscape. Citigroup Inc. announced it was ending its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which presents shows in the Wang and Shubert theaters (and, until recently, in the Colonial). Boston University decided to sell the BU Theatre, terminating its 33-year relationship with the esteemed Huntington Theatre Company. Then came news that Boston Lyric Opera planned not to renew its lease at the Citi Shubert Theatre, where it has staged performances for nearly two decades.
The transformations — concussive and breathtakingly swift — have left artists, directors, producers, and the public grasping to understand the dimensions of this radically altered terrain. Is it simply coincidence? Or are the changes somehow related, caused by a suite of pressures that include new audience proclivities, colleges’ academic needs, and a red-hot real estate market in which property owners aim to maximize the value of their holdings?
“It’s both,” said Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera. “We’re no longer in the world where we want enormous cultural edifices and temples of art. We want social space that is welcoming, that is adaptable and changeable, and that is a very different type of facility than was thought of 50 years ago.”
By many measures, Boston’s theater scene is thriving. The city has been on a theatrical building boom, adding nearly 4,600 seats since 2003. The American Repertory Theater is enjoying robust success under Diane Paulus’s leadership, producing a string of shows that have leaped to Broadway and delivered a fistful of Tonys. The Huntington Theatre won a regional Tony in 2013, and its Calderwood Pavilion facility hosts a flourishing theater scene in the South End. More broadly, the city has seen a surge in small- and medium-sized theater companies cultivating their own audiences. Emerson College, meanwhile, has emerged as a robust player in Boston’s theater district with its renovations of the Cutler Majestic and the Paramount Center — spaces programmed by the school’s producing and presenting arm, ArtsEmerson.
This profusion, however, comes at a time when audiences have many more entertainment options than they once did. The economics of the big Broadway touring show — a market dominated locally by Broadway in Boston — have also changed: Touring shows, which decades ago might have enjoyed months-long runs, now often swing through town for a two-week stand.
“If we took last year and the year before, the Wang, the Colonial, and the Shubert were occupied 25 percent of the year for public performances,” said Citi Performing Arts Center president and CEO Josiah Spaulding Jr. “Boston currently has too many theaters, too many seats, and not enough productions to keep all of the theaters occupied all the time.”
Similar thinking may have informed Emerson’s deliberations regarding the Colonial. “The last two years the Colonial was dark for every day save for 100,” Emerson College president Lee Pelton said while discussing the developing plan for the Colonial, which would include a black-box theater that could be converted for larger main-stage performances. That plan, he said, “is attentive to the needs of contemporary theater culture in the city.”
What is clear is that Emerson wants more space. The school has expanded its physical footprint dramatically in recent years. And after a thwarted interest in purchasing the state Transportation Building, the college is focusing its development on a tightly concentrated stretch of Boylston Street, centered around the Colonial Building.
“What drives this in a great measure is place-making and establishing a stronger physical identity for the campus,” Pelton said of plans for the Colonial Building, which he envisions as the urban campus’s “front door,” replete with a café and visitors center.
Emerson has already embarked on the construction of a 380-bed, multistory student housing project on Boylston Place, steps away from the Colonial. It has also filed plans with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to renovate and expand another Colonial neighbor: the Little Building, home to dorms and the school’s largest dining hall. If Emerson creates a dining hall in the Colonial, Pelton said, it “provides us with one of several options to expand and replace the dining in the Little Building.”
Expanding undergraduate housing is a priority for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, one that intensified after a Globe investigation into substandard off-campus living conditions for Boston students.
“This is a win-win for Emerson and the City of Boston,” Pelton said in a 2014 press release announcing the two construction projects, which he said would “increase its Boston undergraduate housing capacity by more than 33 percent.”
Still, Emerson’s expansion has come at a steep cost. The school’s endowment now hovers at $147.5 million, according to an Emerson spokeswoman. Last April, however, Moody’s Investors Service, while maintaining the college’s Baa1 bond rating, revised Emerson’s financial outlook to “negative,” reasoning that the school, with “$306 million in pro-forma rated debt,” was highly leveraged, “with plans for additional debt-financed major capital projects coupled with forecasts of minimal financial resource growth and weaker operating margins while projects are undertaken.”
In 2014, Moody’s had already noted that Emerson’s “operating revenue is highly concentrated, with 90% of revenue derived from student charges.” Among the firm’s other concerns: “Fund-raising is modest, with less than $4 million of average annual gift revenue in FY 2011-2013.”
In an e-mail Friday, an Emerson spokeswoman said the Baa1 rating “is not uncommon for colleges and universities that are undertaking large capital-intensive projects” and signals to investors “that Emerson continues to be financially strong and the College has the ability to retire this debt.”
For Boston University, real estate was also a driving factor in its split with the Huntington, which, though independent, has used the BU Theatre rent-free since 1982.
“We could have muddled along for several more years in the facility, but we wanted to maximize our value so we can re-invest in other facilities,” said Gary Nicksa, BU’s senior vice president of operations. “This was a good time to get our value out of the Huntington property.”
Nicksa added that the BU Theatre parcel, which includes two adjoining buildings, has decades of deferred maintenance. He said it would take in excess of $50 million to bring the facility up to the standards desired by the university and the Huntington. Meanwhile, he added, BU wants to consolidate its theater department along Commonwealth Avenue.
“The university requirement is to support our teaching mission,” said Nicksa, who noted that it has donated more than $45 million to the Huntington in subsidies and in-kind donations over the years.
Huntington managing director Michael Maso said the company made a “fair” offer for the property, but the university opted to place it on the market.
Nicksa declined to place a valuation on the property, saying it could be developed for a variety of uses.
“The key to value is use,” said Nicksa, who noted that any buyer must guarantee the Huntington’s use of the facility through June 2017. “Different developers based on different uses will offer very different prices. It could be as much as a 50 percent difference between the high price and the low price based on the different uses.”
He added that BU planned to use proceeds from the sale to construct two buildings on the 800 block of Commonwealth Ave.: a theater production facility and, not unlike Emerson’s proposed plan for the Colonial, a black-box theater — a small and versatile performance space.
“The 890-seat BU Theatre, right now, we use four to six weeks a year for opera, and maybe one other major production,” said Nicksa of student productions. “The vast majority of what the university needs is a smaller, high quality black-box theater.”
Maso, who said he is already talking to potential partners, said the Huntington hopes to unite with a developer to make a mixed-use bid for the property. The end product, as he sees it, would be a refurbishment of the theater that maintains the 90-year-old playhouse’s “architectural integrity and make it into a modern space.”
Maso imagined the two adjoining buildings would be torn down and replaced by a large building “that provides the developer a meaningful commercial return and allows us to expand our services.”
“We know how to do this because we’ve done it. We built the Calderwood Pavilion, which is one of the great success stories in terms of cultural buildings in the city.”
Maso added that the Huntington, with a $14 million annual operating budget and $24 million endowment, spends as much as $1.25 million annually on Calderwood operations. “It is alive all the time, and we believe we can do that again.”
Still, the question remains: What value would the Huntington bring to a commercial partner?
“It is in the interest in the city of Boston to have the Huntington continue to serve more than 200,000 people a year,” Maso said. “I believe that the city will help incent any developer so they get value back for helping us stay in this space.”
Last spring, Walsh and his arts czar, Julie Burros, announced with great fanfare the launch of Boston Creates, a planning project to define the city’s cultural priorities.
Until now, however, Walsh and Burros have kept quiet on the upheaval rocking several of the city’s cultural anchors, referring reporters to the city’s chief of economic development, John Barros.
In a recent e-mail, Barros said Walsh’s administration recognizes the value the Huntington brings to the city and is “committed to keeping the Huntington in Boston.” Earlier he stated, “[W]e are fully supportive and confident that [Emerson] will arrive at a solution that meets the community’s expectations.”
Via e-mail Thursday, Burros, who was away at a conference, said simply: “We hope this is an opportunity to foster relationships and find innovative solutions that meet the ever-changing needs of the cultural community.”