The brand-new theater company was committed to a spare aesthetic, staging shows in intimate spaces and forgoing splashy design elements. But for its first musical, there was one special effect it had to pull off: finding music stands for the band. This detail didn’t become apparent until rehearsals started.
The brief crisis was solved handily — a phone call revealed that the company could borrow some stands stored away right there at the Calderwood Pavilion — but it was just one of many learn-as-you-go moments experienced by the founders of the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston last year, in the company’s first full season.
It’s also emblematic of Bridge Rep’s knack for seizing beneficial partnerships, for details both large and small; artistic associate and first-time production manager Rebecca Bradshaw shook loose the music stands by contacting her former colleagues at the Calderwood, where she’d worked for more than two years as management assistant and house manager. (Her current day job is at Huntington Theatre Company, where she’s artistic director Peter DuBois’s assistant.)
More obvious is the company’s interest in coproductions. By spreading the financial investment around for select shows — one show last season, and one upcoming — Bridge Rep stands to earn a smaller portion at the box office but can stage bigger productions and call on talent it might not yet be able to afford on its own. It’s an investment in growing an audience, producing artistic director Olivia D’Ambrosio explains.
“It’s important to me that we offer a wide variety of theatrical events for our audience,” she says, “and we’re not big enough to be able to afford larger shows on our own yet. More people come to the table with more resources, and also those coproducers have their own networks of audiences.”
Four outside producers are credited on the poster for “The Forgetting Curve,” a world premiere play that opens Bridge Rep’s sophomore season Thursday. Last year’s inaugural season kicked off with a partnership with Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company on “The Libertine,” a play the New York City-based company had staged three years earlier.
For the Boston version, original director Eric Tucker — who is also artistic director of Bedlam, one of New York’s rapidly rising troupes — was on board to direct a combination of actors associated with Playhouse Creatures and others, including D’Ambrosio, in the orbit of Bridge Rep.
Costumes were carefully realized, but the set was pretty bare-bones.
“The technical elements don’t have to be grand,” Bradshaw says, “if you have a captivating performance with someone who’s literally two feet away from you.”
The first season, which also included “not Jenny,” a new play by artistic associate MK Halberstadt about a charged encounter between two estranged twins; “Hello Again,” an erotic musical; and “Gidion’s Knot,” a two-hander touching on bullying and school violence, received mostly positive reviews.
When a small theater company talks about its fondness for “intimate” shows, that can be code for “low-budget.” But for “The Libertine,” Tucker chose to enhance the cozy feeling by seating the audience right onstage — something he didn’t do in the earlier staging. He says he quickly picked up on Bridge Rep’s emphasis on the theatrical meat-and-potatoes of strong acting and clear storytelling.
“Olivia went into this with a very specific goal in mind and a very specific image of what she wanted her company to be,” Tucker says. “She cares about the kind of storytelling that includes the audience and that thinks about the audience.”
D’Ambrosio, soon to turn 31, started assembling Bridge Rep in 2012. As an actress just getting started professionally after earning her MFA through Brown University at the prestigious Trinity Repertory Company, she wasn’t landing too many jobs but was eager to create. In a production of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “All’s Well That Ends Well,” she met some of the people, mainly actors, who would become founding members of Bridge Rep.
The company’s “office space” is D’Ambrosio’s apartment in Jamaica Plain. Bridge Rep’s core of artistic associates goes unpaid when they’re doubling as administrators and fund-raisers, but they’re paid along with everyone else for working on specific productions. Most of the company’s funds are directed toward hiring experienced actors who are members of Equity, the actors’ union.
“I’m very proud that in our first season,” D’Ambrosio says of the non-acting personnel, “even though we didn’t pay everyone the full industry standard, we did pay everyone who worked with us on a show. That’s not to be overlooked.”
That doesn’t go for absolutely everyone who worked on the shows — the fruits of another partnership meant that graphic design students at Boston University, where D’Ambrosio is enrolled in an arts-management graduate program, created the shows’ posters in a bit of collaborative coursework.
With a total operating budget last season of about $75,000, each dollar has to be spent carefully. Bridge Rep chipped in a quarter of the production cost for “The Libertine” and is investing about 20 percent of the budget for “The Forgetting Curve,” D’Ambrosio says. (It receives similar proportions of these shows’ earnings.)
One of the partnering producers for “The Forgetting Curve” is Kimberly Loren Eaton, the show’s director. She brought the show, by playwright Vanda, to Bridge Rep’s attention. It’s a nonlinear play inspired by the true story of a man whose experimental brain surgery left him unable to form new memories, and she says it fits right in line with the company’s style.
“It’s not a shy work. It addresses things. It’s not fluffy,” Eaton says. “It asks the question of what we do to leave a legacy. That’s a very universal theme in the play that spoke to me at a deep level.”
Variety continues to be a key part of Bridge Rep’s artistic mission. In addition to “The Forgetting Curve,” which will include a “movement-ballet prologue” and live projections, the upcoming season includes “Fufu & Oreos,” a raw one-woman show performed by its playwright, Obehi Janice; “Sixty Miles to Silver Lake” by Dan LeFranc, a two-hander about a father/son relationship; and Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” advertised as “100% certified toga free.”
Last season, Bridge Rep filled over 70 percent of its available seats. As the company continues its efforts to attract audience members and donors, the learning process for its leaders continues.
“I didn’t realize going in,” D’Ambrosio says, “that shaping the organization and the people who became part of it and the people it touches is as much a creative act as any play I’ve ever performed in.”