It’s hard to tie a creative boom to any particular date. But it’s safe to say that Oct. 8, 2004, was a landmark for Boston’s theater community.
That night brought the first theater performance in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Sonia Flew” by Melinda Lopez. The Calderwood, at 527 Tremont St., offered four new venues for local theater in a state-of-the-art facility, giving a boost to companies large and small.
“There are so many other companies that have made the space work for them, and that’s exciting to see,” says Michael Maso, the Huntington’s managing director and a driver behind the project. “Mostly, when I walk in the building and there are four things going on, which happens many, many weekends, the energy of the building, the excitement when there are audiences and artists in four different spaces . . . that’s really kind of thrilling.”
On Monday, the Huntington will cut a ribbon to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening ceremony at the Calderwood on Sept. 28, 2004.
Inside the Calderwood are the Virginia A. Wimberly Theatre, seating 372, where “Sonia Flew” debuted; the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre, seating up to 250, where SpeakEasy Stage Company opened “Company” a week later; and Rehearsal Hall A and Deane Rehearsal Hall, spaces with no fixed seating and windows overlooking the street.
The site was once home to the 3,500-seat National Theatre, which was built in 1911, closed in 1978 and, because of structural problems, demolished in 1997. By then developer Ronald M. Druker was planning the Atelier 505 condominium and apartment complex next door. The city brokered a complex deal with the BCA and Druker to build the Calderwood on land owned by the BCA, partnering with the Huntington to build out and run the theaters inside. The Huntington raised $14 million for the project as part of a larger capital campaign, including a $4 million gift from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation established by the late Stanford Calderwood.
The nonprofit Huntington is the primary manager of the facility, under a lease that runs through 2050, and subsidizes about half of the venue’s annual $800,000-plus budget. “Our board made a very clear decision we were going to invest in the facility in large part as a community service,” Maso says.
The opening of the Calderwood “really enlivened the whole campus and allows us to fulfill our mission in a diverse way,” said Veronique Le Melle, president and CEO of the BCA. “It really has a very positive economic impact for the city and for the South End neighborhood itself.”
The BCA continues to book Hall A for theater and dance and also has rights to several weeks a year in the Wimberly, which it has always turned back to the Huntington.
The Huntington, whose larger venue is the Boston University Theatre on Huntington Avenue, uses the Wimberly primarily to offer new plays of its own; besides “Sonia Flew,” they’ve included the world premieres of Pulitzer Prize finalist “Sons of the Prophet” by Stephen Karam and the Broadway-bound “Stick Fly” by Lydia R. Diamond.
“We had a steady stream of producing two plays a year there, which a few years ago we upped to three plays, and then two years ago, when we did ‘Our Town,’ four,” Maso says. “So our first production at the Roberts was ‘Our Town.’ And this year again we will have four productions, three in the Wimberly and one in the Roberts.”
The primary tenant of the Roberts is SpeakEasy, now in its 24th season and a resident company at the BCA for most of that time. SpeakEasy got its start in the smaller venues next door in the BCA’s basement, the Plaza Black Box Theatre and the BCA Plaza Theatre. It has grown so that now it occasionally stages shows in the Wimberly.
“I can’t tell you how many reviews we got that said ‘They make the most of their shoestring budget,’ which is a good thing and sort of a not-so-great thing at the same time,” says SpeakEasy founder and producing artistic director Paul Daigneault.
“It’s been a great thing. Being in the [Calderwood] has raised our profile in so many ways,” he says. “When I first thought about it, I thought, oh my goodness, we’re going to be right next to the Huntington, no one’s going to come see us, they’re going to steal all our patrons! And it was the exact opposite. It was the fact that we were neighbors to the Huntington that exposed all of these theatergoers to us.
“The costs were a lot more, but at the same time we were getting a lot more too,” Daigneault says. “I am all for being the person who runs the theater company, who doesn’t have to worry about is there toilet paper in the bathrooms.”
Under manager Joey Riddle, the Calderwood provides front-of-house services such as ushers, concessions, box office, and online ticketing through www.bostontheatrescene.com; companies booking theaters have to worry just about putting on their productions.
SpeakEasy raised ticket prices a bit, extended its runs, and gradually figured out how to make it work, Daigneault says.
Another BCA resident company, Company One Theatre, has put on several shows in the Calderwood, including “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” in the Roberts.
The BCA basement theaters have always been an incubator for the city’s fringe companies, but many also use the Calderwood’s two rehearsal halls, which can be configured to seat up to 100.
“It feels very professional, and there’s an energy to the building that is really exciting,” said Daniel Morris, producing artistic director of the fringe troupe Bad Habit Productions, who is also on the Huntington payroll as house manager of the Boston University Theatre. “It’s kind of the hub of where I see most of the theater people. It’s definitely a great place to be.”
Bad Habit is in its eighth season, its fifth producing at the Calderwood, and will offer Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” in Deane Hall in November.
“The level of beauty of the building in general just provides a certain cachet and gravitas and sort of assures our audience members that they are about to have a professional experience,” says Olivia D’Ambrosio, producing artistic director of Bridge Repertory Theater, another frequent renter.
The demand has exceeded the Huntington’s expectations.
“We only expected to have performances in the Wimberly and the Roberts,” Maso says. “And even before we opened, the BCA was getting requests from their constituents to perform in Hall A. I don’t mind saying that when we were presented with that question, it made us nervous, because it wasn’t designed as a performance space. It’s astonishing.”
And that’s not the only unexpected use. Lately some small companies have used the stage and wings of the Wimberly as a sort of de facto black box with temporary seating when the theater is not otherwise booked. Bridge Rep’s production of “The Forgetting Curve” ends there Saturday.
Strengthening the fringe companies strengthens the scene as a whole, says Spiro Veloudos, producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, which hasn’t played the Calderwood but occasionally rents rehearsal space there.
“More and more people are staying [in Boston] because now there are more and more opportunities,” Veloudos says. “A lot of good has come from that building.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Numbers help tell the story of the Calderwood Pavilion’s impact on Boston’s theater community since it opened a decade ago. The 10-year tally (through July 2014) was provided by the Huntington Theatre Company, which is the primary manager of the four venues at the Calderwood:
- Nearly 750,000 audience members
- 4,168 performances
- 316 productions
- 393,260 tickets sold by small and emerging theater companies
- 24 Huntington world and regional premieres
- 153 performing arts organizations have used the building for auditions, classes, rehearsals, and productions
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org