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A year of upheaval and uncertainty in Boston theater

Emerson College’s Colonial Theatre is closed for renovations, but its future use remains in question.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

As 2015 unfolded, it became increasingly hard for onstage dramas to compete with the fireworks that were happening offstage. Now, after a year that left uncertainty swirling around some of the city's most important institutions, 2016 shapes up as a potentially defining moment for Boston theater.

Topping the marquee is the fate of the Colonial Theatre, a historic venue whose future as a commercial theater remains up in the air. Owned by Emerson College, the Colonial was closed in October for millions of dollars worth of renovations that are expected to take a year. But the big news, reported by the Globe, is that Emerson might transform the storied venue into a flexible dining hall/performance space.


Though college administrators have stressed that is only one of several proposals under consideration, the fact that Emerson was even considering such a step sent shock waves through the local theater community. Meanwhile, the curtain started to come down on one of the longest-running relationships in town — 33 years, to be precise — when Boston University and Huntington Theatre Company announced they were ending their partnership and the university put the BU Theatre, the Huntington's main stage, up for sale.

The Huntington had attempted to buy the theater and two adjoining buildings, but the university rejected the offer after protracted negotiations.

In the short term, there is this silver lining: BU has promised that whoever purchases the theater must "guarantee the Huntington's use of the facility'' through the end of June 2017. But an unaccustomed period of uncertainty is underway for the Huntington, winner of the 2013 Tony Award for regional theater. Pressure is likely to intensify on Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his arts chief, Julie Burros, to help broker solutions for both the Huntington and the Colonial that would recognize the special places they occupy in Boston's cultural firmament.


Another jolt, less seismic but still significant, came when Citibank Inc., a longtime sponsor of Citi Performing Arts Center, which operates the Citi Wang Theatre and the Citi Shubert Theatre, announced it would end that sponsorship in November 2016 as part of its move out of the state's retail banking market.

Noting that the bank's financial support was less than 10 percent of the arts center's $30 million budget, Citi president and CEO Josiah A. Spaulding Jr. expressed confidence that a new sponsor will step forward. That search is ongoing, according to a spokeswoman for Citi Performing Arts Center.

The arts center was also involved in another change in late November, as Fiddlehead Theatre Company announced it would leave Dorchester's Strand Theatre and forge a partnership with Citi Performing Arts Center. The manager of the city-owned Strand said she envisioned no difficulty filling the dates left vacant, but the loss of Fiddlehead after just over two years as the Strand's resident company delivered a blow to the city's efforts to enlarge the venue's profile.

In Lenox, Shakespeare & Company had to scramble when executive director Rick Dildine — whose arrival the previous fall had precipitated the sudden departure of artistic director Tony Simotes — suddenly resigned after only six months on the job. The troupe hastily installed a management team of three respected S&C veterans — managing director Stephen D. Ball and co-artistic directors Ariel Bock and Jonathan Croy — all of whom are still operating on an interim basis at year's end.


Less dramatic but still consequential leadership developments occurred closer to home. Diane Quinn, formerly in a high-ranking position at Cirque du Soleil, was named executive director at American Repertory Theater, joining artistic director Diane Paulus in leading the Cambridge-based ART. At Gloucester Stage, an intriguing partnership took shape when actor-director Robert Walsh was named the company's permanent artistic director after an interim stint, and Jeff Zinn, known for cutting-edge work during his days at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, was brought aboard as managing director.

At ArtsEmerson, a branch of Emerson College's Office of the Arts that has presented numerous national and international productions, new leadership solidified as founder Robert J. Orchard stepped into the background (though he continues to serve as a creative consultant). David C. Howse, formerly the head of the Boston Children's Chorus, was named executive director, joining co-artistic directors David Dower and Polly Carl. The trio made clear that a primary goal of their creative partnership is to make the institution's programming and its audience reflect the diversity of the city ArtsEmerson calls home.

One way or another, identities are in flux at a striking number of theaters. Whatever else the next year brings, it is likely to produce revealing answers to at least some of the questions that surfaced so suddenly in 2015.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.