Among the busy shops and restaurants along Columbus Avenue in the South End is a modest storefront with a simple sign that reads “Make Shift Boston.” On most days, a small group of people come and go, taking advantage of their membership in a collectively run cooperative workspace.
But Friday through April 12, behind the white curtains that mask the interior, Off the Grid Theatre Company is presenting “Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychological mystery play about a teenager’s pathological obsession with horses.
The play, says director Christopher Webb, fits perfectly in the nontraditional theater space. “The playing area is in the center,” he says, “with the audience on either side facing each other. In a play that talks about family, religion, and sex with such honesty, the space adds another layer of intensity.”
As the cast runs through the play, Webb makes adjustments, adapting to the opportunities provided by the balcony running above his stage area. Actors playing horses loom over the action as the cat-and-mouse game between a jaded psychiatrist, played by Steve Barkhimer, and his teen patient, played by Greg Pike, unfolds below.
The actress who plays the teen’s would-be girlfriend, Alexis Scheer, also happens to be a cofounder of Off the Grid. Although she only just graduated from Boston Conservatory last spring, Scheer says “Equus” is her company’s ninth production.
“I started Off the Grid in my sophomore year,” says Scheer, with nearly all of the shows staged at Boston Conservatory. The company, she says, met her need to produce, develop, and present works outside of her academic curriculum. Webb, who teaches at Boston Conservatory and has worked on more than a dozen projects with Scheer, says her initiative inspired others.
“She was the first to launch a student-run producing organization,” he says. Now there are three theater companies and an improv troupe at the school.
“The Conservatory has also recognized the need to offer opportunities for students to develop new kinds of theater and is launching a new major in contemporary theater to encourage the creation of devised theater in nontraditional spaces,” he says.
Scheer says she chose “Equus” because it was a play she saw as a teenager, and “it messed me up,” she says. “When a play stays with you like that, you know you have to go back to it.”
Scheer chose the dates for the production based on her creative team’s availability, but when she learned that the Conservatory spaces were not available she was stuck.
“I did a lot of hunting for spaces, but size and price and availability were all a challenge,” Scheer says. “I happened to be walking down Columbus Ave., and I saw Make Shift’s sign. I thought, ‘That could work.’ ”
Benji Mauer, one of the founders of Make Shift, says “Equus” is the first play produced in the space.
“As a cooperative, we all have a say in whether or not to rent the space,” he says. “But the subject of the play and the theater company’s mission seem to match our own.”
Make Shift Boston’s mission, says Mauer, is to support social justice and creative collaboration. While that primarily means offering workspaces to members, Mauer says Make Shift, which has been at the Columbus Avenue location since 2011, also hosts or rents out its space for events such as poetry readings, film screenings, and other get-togethers that emerge from the interests of the members.
“Our members include people who are involved in Jewish Voices for Peace, others who are advocating for prison reform, a photojournalist, and a Web designer,” he says. “We’re currently interested in adding new members to encourage a mix.”
The notion of co-working spaces has become popular among the entrepreneurial crowd, but Mauer points out that Make Shift’s “emphasis is on the intersection of creativity and social justice.”
“People may come here to have a space to get their work done, but we’ve had some interesting and very successful collaborations come out of it.”
Hibernian Hall residency for Parker
Actor, director, and producer Jacqui Parker has been named playwright-in-residence at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall for 2015-16. Parker will write and direct two plays during her residency. The first, “Roads to Wisdom,” celebrates life stories of elders in Roxbury and will be presented at Hibernian Hall May 14-17, followed by a staged reading of “A Crack in the Blue Wall,” July 9-12, which explores the impact of the shooting of a young black male by a white police officer. The reading will be followed by a fully staged production in November.