Changes are rippling across the Boston area’s small and midsize theater scene in the form of new leadership, a new venue, and more active conversations around diversity, equity, and theater’s role in the cultural conversation.
“No art form should become stuck,” says Harold Steward, who, with Evelyn Francis, shares producing co-executive director responsibilities at The Theater Offensive. “We are a social justice organization committed to creating and presenting theater that moves people to action. We need to be agile as we think about what that aesthetic looks like.”
In Watertown, Michael J. Bobbitt, New Repertory Theatre’s new artistic director, says he’s continuing the company’s mission of presenting plays that “speak powerfully to the vital ideas of our time,” but he wants to make sure those productions both entertain and provoke conversations.
“I want to think more broadly about how we educate and get audiences excited about coming to the theater,” Bobbitt says. “Are we a civic center for theater? How can we encourage opportunities for audiences to ‘talk about’ rather than just ‘talk back’?”
In Concord, Umbrella Stage Company producing artistic director Brian Boruta says the former community theater’s step up to professional-theater status with a new 344-seat proscenium-style main stage and a flexible 80- to 100-seat black box will not change the theater’s commitment to plays and musicals that are a little bit outside the box.
“Our audience demographic has leaned more toward young professionals and young parents who want a night out, so we don’t usually mount productions of the classics,” says Boruta. “With the opening of the new spaces in September, we want to balance a bit of spectacle with more intimate shows, and for the first time, reach out to families.”
While many local theater artists are impatient for change, all four of the leaders interviewed said listening will be as important as acting this year.
Steward says The Theater Offensive has been in the midst of changes for the past two years, as founding artistic director Abe Rybeck prepared to step down after 30 years.
“We have to be intentional about who we want to be,” says Steward. “For 25 years we’ve been serving the LGBTQ community. It’s critical at this moment that we serve as a cultural contributor and organizer attached to community work.”
The Theater Offensive will continue to work closely with communities on its award-winning True Colors program and will produce “Water in the Basement,” a play about racism and political violence (Oct. 17-20). Although the company has moved away from its high-profile Out on the Edge Festival, Francis says that work has just become more embedded in communities rather than traditional theater spaces. That shift has highlighted new needs.
“Many of the individuals who participate in our True Colors work are eager to invite younger people to participate,” says Francis. “Our programs currently support youth ages 14-22, while other programs go up to age 29, but new programs might reach children ages 10-12. I’m so impressed that the teens are eager to train each other and support each other with creative expression.”
At New Rep, Bobbitt says he is starting with an inside-out approach to being more inclusive, starting with the theater company’s job descriptions.
“I love the universality of theater, and its ability to chronicle the human experience,” he says, “but I’m also obsessed with embracing more artists and audiences who look like me.”
New Rep’s season was jointly programmed by outgoing artistic director Jim Petosa and Bobbitt; it includes the two-hander “Nixon’s Nixon,” the musicals “Oliver” and “Hair,” August Wilson’s “Fences,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and the regional premiere of “Trayf,” a play exploring faith and friendship in the Hasidic community.
Bobbitt says he’s also committed to finding creative ways to involve the community earlier in the creative process, so that “by the time we get to the performance, audiences are deeply connected to what they see on stage.”
Although in the 12 years he spent leading Adventure Theatre-MTC in Washington, D.C., Bobbitt produced 32 new works, he says the Next Voices program, which selected a small group of local playwrights to develop new work, will remain on hold this season.
“I’m trying to see as much theater around town and meet as many people in the community as I can,” he says. “I built my career on merging art and commerce, and I want to make sure I’m drawing on the imagination and creativity of an inclusive group of colleagues, so I don’t act in a vacuum.”
Boruta, at Umbrella Stage in Concord, says the company has a three-year plan with Equity (the union of actors, directors, and designers) to make sure they take the time to get to know both the professional theater community and a broader audience base.
“We are opening the new space with ‘42nd Street,’ ” says Boruta, “because that show is such a pure celebration of theater and the people who make it happen. It will allow everyone who has been supporting the $20M building campaign over the past seven years to see what they donated to.”
The rest of Umbrella Stage’s mix includes “Fences,” “Tuck Everlasting” (“our first family-friendly production,” Boruta says), the regional premiere of a new folk-punk musical “Hundred Days,” and the dueling divas musical “War Paint,” starring Boston favorites Leigh Barrett and Shana Dirik.
This time of transition promises to usher in an exciting new wave of theatrical experiences in the Boston area.
Kudos to local high school songwriter
Tessa Barcelo, a rising high school sophomore at Andover High School, is one of six regional winners in the National Endowment for the Arts’ annual Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge. In Barcelo’s song “Queen,” the queen of the mermaids reminds a young mermaid to embrace who she is and do what she must. “Queen” was chosen from nearly 170 applications submitted nationwide. Produced in partnership with the American Theater Wing (producer of the Tony Awards), the Songwriting Challenge will pair Barcelo and the other finalists with a professional theater songwriter and music director for a mentorship that will result in a Broadway-stage-ready original composition, as well as publication in a songbook from program partner Samuel French. Recordings of the songs will also be produced featuring Broadway performers and musicians.