A theater grows in Chelsea
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This fall, the Chelsea Theatre Works will open the doors to a new youth theater space, a black box theater, a rehearsal room, a costume shop, and set shop. All but the youth theater will be available for rental by Boston-area theater companies. Additional rehearsal space and a meeting room will follow soon after.
At a time when small theater companies are scrambling to find spaces to rehearse, let alone perform, the expansion is unprecedented, even more so when you consider the estimated cost of the project — nearly $1 million — is being borne by a company whose annual operating budget hovers around $150,000.
But perseverance, and a commitment to producing provocative contemporary theater, have been driving Danielle Fauteux Jacques for the past two decades. She launched the theater company TheaterZone in 1995, and four years later purchased a three-story, 100-year-old former post office and Odd Fellows Hall in the center of Chelsea, naming it Chelsea Theatre Works. In 2007, after investing in basic upgrades and installing an elevator, she renamed her company Apollinaire Theatre after the early 20th century poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was at the forefront of the surrealist arts movement.
All the while, she was producing seasons of quirky plays by writers rarely seen at other theater companies, including Young Jean Lee, Mark Ravenhill, and Rachel Axler, as well as interesting interpretations of such familiar writers as Tom Stoppard, Bertolt Brecht, and Anton Chekhov (particularly a site-specific production of "Uncle Vanya"). This season includes a work by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada ("Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise," Feb. 19-March 14) and Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi ("Threesome," April 8-May 7). In addition, Apollinaire has hosted a youth theater program and presented free, bilingual productions every summer in Chelsea's outdoor parks.
"What's unusual about Apollinaire Theatre," says Ann Houston, executive director of The Neighborhood Developers, "is that they not only have a great artistic vision, but they are also very thoughtful about reaching the full, diverse community that is Chelsea."
Houston, whose organization focuses primarily on affordable housing developments, saw the places where Fauteux Jacques's vision dovetailed with the city of Chelsea's priorities.
"We all know how critical a strong cultural base is for our community," says Houston.
For Fauteux Jacques, the time was right to expand into existing space. The company rehearsed and stored costumes on the second floor of the building, while the 70-seat performance space is on the third floor. Three street-level spaces were rented to retail businesses, but after a furniture store moved out, its space remained empty.
"We had wanted to expand into the first floor space for a while, but it was a lot for a small company like us to take on," says Fauteux Jacques. "Ann took us under her wing, and encouraged us to think big."
When the Factory Theatre — an affordable, 40-seat performance space in the South End — closed in 2014, Fauteux Jacques started thinking about ways Chelsea Theatre Works could serve both Chelsea and Boston's small theater companies. She hired Trip Venturella to serve as Apollinaire's development coordinator and hosted open houses in November 2014 and November 2015.
"We had great meetings where people talked about their wish lists," says Venturella. "We developed the plan with all those suggestions in mind."
Venturella says those meetings also made it clear the small-theater community had a lot of passion but not a lot of time.
"We have to share," he says. "So we started thinking of the spaces less as rentals, although that will be a part of it, and more as cooperative work spaces. That spirit of collaboration already animates this community, but I think sharing resources and spaces will make us even more resilient."
To make the co-op a reality, Venturella and Fauteux Jacques applied to Mass Development for a grant, and earlier this month were awarded $250,000. In addition, Chelsea native and entrepreneur Benson Riseman made a donation of $200,000 toward the build-out of the youth theater and to support the programming there.
"We really liked the notion of a soup-to-nuts production facility for small theaters," says Fauteux Jacques. "We've divided the project into two phases, but by the end of the two-year timeline, the shop for building sets will be easily accessible to the rehearsal rooms and the black box, and the costume shop will have sewing machines as well as a stock of costumes that can be used for productions."
Venturella says he and Fauteux Jacques still haven't figured out exactly how the co-op/residency program will work, but "we imagine three or four companies that are doing bold, interesting work" will form its core. "They will have first choice of production dates, and then we'll offer the spaces for straight rentals for the rest of the year. We'll work out the details over the next few months."
Fauteux Jacques and Venturella admit they still have a lot of fund-raising to do, but they are excited that the spaces are within reach.
"Construction has already started," Venturella says. "We're both confident we'll be ready by the end of the summer, if not sooner."