Michael J. Bobbitt, who has built a track record of expanding audiences and developing new work as the leader of an award-winning children’s theater near Washington, D.C., has been appointed the new artistic director at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre, it was announced Thursday.
Bobbitt, 46, whose tenure will begin Aug. 1, will be the fifth artistic director in the New Rep’s 35-year history and the first African-American to hold the position. He will succeed Jim Petosa, who has infused the theater’s programming with a sense of topical and political urgency in the past seven years. Petosa announced last fall that he would step down at the end of this season.
The appointment of Bobbitt to head the high-profile New Rep is occurring amid what a New York Times story this week described as “a major leadership transition’’ that is creating more diversity in nonprofit theaters nationwide. In an interview, Bobbitt told the Globe that he sees a primary task for theater leaders as “really looking at who your community is and making sure your community is reflected onstage.’’ He expressed confidence he could do that at New Rep, which has an annual budget of $1.7 million and attracts 30,000 spectators per year to the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
“Theaters need to get to a place of equity, diversity, and inclusivity in a way that is more about social justice than about optics,’’ added Bobbitt. “It’s a big part of who I am. In many ways, it is why I do what I do. I’ve become obsessed with making sure that people that look like me and people from diverse backgrounds know it is their theater.’’
Even before he officially takes charge at New Rep, Bobbitt has taken a step toward sending that message. He said he collaborated with Petosa and New Rep managing director Harriet Sheets in choosing plays for the 2019-20 season, and it was his suggestion to include “Fences,’’ a drama by the late August Wilson. The story of an African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh headed by a trash collector anguished by the fact that his dream of playing Major League baseball was thwarted by racial barriers, “Fences’’ will be presented in April 2020.
There have been a couple of steps toward diversity in the leadership ranks of Boston-area theaters in recent years. In 2015, David C. Howse, who is African-American, became executive director of ArtsEmerson. Two years ago, Christopher V. Edwards, who is the son of a black father and a white mother and identifies as a person of color, was named artistic director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
The New York Times story about increasing diversity nationwide among artistic directors cited a survey finding that of the 85 leadership jobs filled in the last four years, 41 percent were by women, with people of color accounting for 26 percent. However, one of the survey’s authors told the Times that “The bigger the theater, the less likely the board is to hire a woman, and especially a woman of color.’’ Last year, Linda Chin, who is Asian-American, was laid off as producing artistic director at Wheelock Family Theatre as Boston University moved to consolidate control over Wheelock College.
Bobbitt has served since 2007 as artistic director of Adventure Theatre-MTC, based in Glen Echo, Md. During his tenure, Adventure Theatre presented around 30 world premieres, and audiences grew from 15,000 to 45,000 per year (a number that came close to 100,000 if Adventure Theatre’s touring productions were counted). He said he anticipates no difficulty transitioning from running a children’s theater to overseeing one that caters primarily to adults.
“The production of youth theater is exactly the same as adult theater,’’ said Bobbitt. “It’s just that the audiences are tinier and the productions are shorter.’’ A.W. (Chip) Phinney III, board chair at New Rep, said he has no concerns about Bobbitt making the transition, noting that New Rep will require some of the same skills Bobbitt has already proven to possess at Adventure Theatre. “Growing audiences, picking the right plays, leading the staff, partnering in the community — I think those are all transferable skills,’’ said Phinney. Bobbitt brings a host of other skills to Watertown as well, having been a director, choreographer, playwright, dancer, singer, and actor during his career in addition to running a theater.
Phinney declined to specify the length of Bobbitt’s contract but said, “We hope that he will be with us for a long time.’’ Asked whether he hopes Bobbitt can attract a younger and more diverse audience to New Rep, Phinney replied: “We absolutely cherish the loyal audience that we have; they are tremendously important to us. But every theater wants to expand its reach and expand the range of its audience, its diversity. Certainly Michael has demonstrated that he can do it.’’
Bobbitt says he prefers the word “opportunity’’ to the word “challenge,’’ but when he describes the broader challenge he will face at New Rep, he does so in terms that would probably have all the other artistic directors in the Boston area nodding their heads in agreement. “Art and commerce, marrying,’’ he said. “Finding that sweet spot.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin