Opening Address by J. Hennrikus #BTC11

Below are the opening remarks made by Julie Hennrikus, Executive Director of StageSource, at the Boston Theatre Conference 2011 on February 27, 2011.

Good afternoon. Welcome to Homegrown, the 2011 Boston Theater Conference. I am so pleased to be here, and to start us on this two day conversation about what it means to be homegrown in Boston. And I am very pleased to be here as the new Executive Director of StageSource.

Twenty-five years ago, StageSource and I started our careers in Boston. I worked for a man named Steve Warnick at the Next Move Theatre, and the Charles Playhouse. It was a very different world then. Most of the large theaters were barely lit. The Opera House was a dive, and no one ever stepped foot in the Paramount. The difference in the theatrical landscape between then and now is significant. Granted, the Next Move and New Ehrlich and some other companies are gone. But what is in their place is a vibrant, exciting, and inspiring theatrical community that includes the Calderwood Pavilion, the renovated downtown theaters (including the Paramount and the Modern), a swath of small and fringe companies that work cooperatively to support one another’s work, a range of mid-sized theatres doing ambitious projects, LORT theatres hiring locally, Broadway sized theaters that are open, refurbished and lit and a wide range of theater throughout the regions. It is a thrilling time to be part of this community.

My job prior to this was in the performing arts department of Emerson College, where I worked along side passionate students, faculty and staff. You cannot help but be thrilled at the future of theater in this environment. But teaching arts management classes also makes me think a lot about the issues surrounding theater, and the opportunities and need for rethinking existing models. But before we go there, we need to do some basic background work on our existing community.

A visitor to my class last semester said that for him theater was both a vocation and an avocation. That resonated with me.  I am an active audience member in the theater community, and one of the things I look most forward to in my new job is to expand my audience experiences. I love theater because I know, deep in my soul, it consists of four truths.

First, theater is a collaborative art. In order to get a production on stage you need to channel the hard work of directors, actors, designers, technicians, administrators, front of house, facilities and others. But here’s where theater makes the next step. In order to exist, the final collaborator is the audience. You need to be in the room with people breathing the same air in order for it to work.

And this brings us to the second truth. Theater is a mirror for society to work through ideas, issues and questions. This mirror is a shared catharsis. This catharsis can take the form of tears, laughter, joy or even anger. But whatever it is, theater creates a visceral reaction to the experience.

The third truth, and one we all know, is that theater creates magic. There are moments that thrill, and stay with you, whether it is watching Malcolm dance with Mrs. DeWinter and then disappear into the mist of a Brookline school, or Ralph Nickleby tying a noose over an open trap, or Mary Poppins flying out over the audience at the Opera House, or Whistlers dangling from silks in the Factory Theater we all have moments that completely enrapture us, and show us the magic that stay a part of us forever. How wonderful is that?

The final truth is how we impact our community. Money spent on theater generates money in related businesses. And the arts employ in different ways a large number of people. We are a significant player in the economic infrastructure of our community.

And yet.

And yet the NEA is looking at a $22 million dollar cut, and no one is shouting about job cuts. When I read articles and blogs on line, I always read the comments, and that is where I find the disconnect between our passion and the perceived reality. People blithely dismiss shutting down a theater company as an easy business decision, not realizing the economic impact of that decision. Some people, most perhaps, see the arts as something for others, rather than the way your neighbor pays his taxes, or the job she goes to six days a week. Sometimes I get the sense that we are considered the castor oil of art forms, good for you but not fun. We know that isn’t true, but our community is closed. We need to open it up, and get buy in for our process as well as our product. We need to change these conversations, and get much better at involving our community in our narrative.

I am relentlessly optimistic about our ability to do this. The exciting opportunity that this moment presents is to reimagine what we want our world, and our community to look like. We have so much to gain by stopping and considering the possibilities. We will not agree on our paths, and that is wonderful. Lets talk. What we will agree on is the goals for our future. And for me, the goal is summed up in engagement.

The next two days is about reframing this discussion and coming up with an action plan to help this engagement.  Other sectors, which could also be considered extravagance by some, are very good at this. One example is the slow food movement. The slow food movement has taken some complicated ideas and made them accessible, and part of a vocabulary. The process of food, the importance of locally grown and the creation of unique experiences are all understood by everyone, and share a common vocabulary. How can we take the lessons of their success and apply them to our sector? Since passion is a commonality between the two, I don’t think the leap is huge, but it is a leap.

We have invited Barbara Lynch to help start the conversation. Chef Lynch is homegrown, and has channeled her passion into a food empire that has helped make Boston a destination. In reading about her, I have been struck by how her ferocity of ideas take hold, and help transform her industry, and her community. I am so pleased that she is here. Welcome Chef Lynch.

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About jhennrikus

Julie Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource
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