If You Build It, Will They Come?

On Monday I went to an ArtsBoston event and talked to a number of our members. Mr. Scratch, from Boston Babydolls, caught me up on their latest production which they mounted in a non-traditional space (it runs through the end of October). Since we are going to have a panel about this process next spring, I asked him to write a blog post. We will keep you posted on the date of the panel on producing in site-specific and/or non-traditional theater spaces.  —JAH

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The original run of The Boston Babydolls’ dark burlesque, The Wrathskellar, was in a small, black box theatre.  The intimacy of the space helped promote the intensity of the performance, but interaction between cast and audience was limited and we wanted more.  In our second run (at The Cambridge YMCA Theatre) the left the stage a little more: audience members were greeted by blind beggars and ladies of ill-repute before they got to the box office; the cast had pre-show scenes on the floor; the waitstaff burst into song throughout the night.  It was better, but it still wasn’t what we wanted.

For this year’s incarnation of The Wrathskellar, we built our own theater cum tavern in a vacant storefront on Cambridge Street in East Cambridge.  This temporary “pop-up” theatre posed a number of challenges as compared to mounting a show in a purpose-built theatre, but also presented a number of opportunities.

The challenges included:

  • Interacting with the local community.  Since we were creating a performance space where there hadn’t been one before, there were concerns about noise, parking, and other issues.
  • Electrical load: most buildings, even commercial spaces, aren’t set-up to handle the demands of theatrical sound and lighting
  • A tabula rasa.  It’s one thing to build sets for a production; it’s another thing entirely to have to build a stage (or, in the case of The Wrathskellar, multiple stages)
  • Licensing.  A traditional venue already has jumped through the various municipal hoops to get the necessary entertainment licenses.
  • Inertia: since this was a new performance space, we couldn’t count on an existing audience base or relationships with the media.  We had to quickly develop an awareness of what we were doing and where (at least one ticket-holder went to last year’s venue, not realizing we had moved).

All in all, the experiment has proved successful, although exhausting.  The resources used in custom construction pay-off in a deeply immersive experience, but the challenge isn’t for everyone and the start-up costs and legal hurdles can be intimidating.

The Wrathskellar plays through Halloween at 535 Cambridge St., Cambridge (enter through the alley on 7th St.).  For tickets and more information, please visit www.BostonBabydolls.net

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About jhennrikus

Julie Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource
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