#SmallStagesSOS

Three years ago I brought some friends with me to see the T Plays. We had dinner and then walked over to The Factory Theatre. As we walked through the parking lot, and down the stairs, I asked if anyone had been there before. None of them had, but at the end of the evening all of them promised they would be back. That is often how it works in the small and fringe theater world. Once you discover an entry point, you will return. But often discovery is difficult, since the companies themselves have very, very small budgets, and marketing budgets are even smaller. It is a word-of-mouth world made easier when there is a specific location known to support the work.  The Factory Theatre is one of those entry points in Boston theater, home to several small and fringe theater companies.

Last week the managers of The Factory Theatre were informed by the owners of the Piano Factory that their lease would not be renewed, and that the theater would be closed as of October 31, 2014. Ed Siegel reported on the closing that day (on WBUR’s ARTery), there was an article in the Boston Globe, and Joyce Kulhawik wrote a letter to the owners which I shared as a blog post. Behind the scenes and on social media there have been rallies of support, emergency meetings, and lots of discussions about what to do immediately to help the companies orphaned by this decision. And orphaned it is. The Factory Theatre has been a theater for years, and its existence is one of the reasons that the small and fringe theater scene has flourished. Small, affordable, and T accessible. Perfect, no, but it was/is still a space where theater is made. And that work, on whatever scale, is vital to the health of the entire theater community, as well as the Boston arts sector.

The current resident companies include Fresh Ink Theatre, Happy Medium Theatre Company, Science Fiction Theatre Company, Heart & Dagger Productions, Vagabond Theatre Group, Sleeping Weazel, Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company, Porpentine Players, and Wax Wings Productions. As there was no suggestion that the theater would cease operation from the owners, most if not all of these theaters have at least one show, if not more, booked into The Factory Theatre this season, through July 2015.

In the short term, these companies need to know where they are performing this coming year. Unlike the world of real estate, which can turn around in 4 months, the world of theater is scheduled a season at a time. While the preference would be for The Factory Theatre to remain a theater, at the minimum, I hope that the owners of the Piano Craft Guild let the theater stay in business through this season. Give these companies time to plan for a move.

Other options are being explored. Brainstorming is happening on many levels, from the mayor’s office to organizations including the Boston Center for the Arts, ArtsEmerson, and the Charlestown Working Theatre, as well as the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston. There are spaces outside of Boston offering assistance, and creative thinking about non-traditional spaces. This scramble is difficult, and time consuming, and stressful, especially for the companies involved.

In the long term, the space conversation is happening on a number of levels. And they need to happen on a number of levels. Because this is more than about finding a replacement space for a 49 seat theater in the city. This conversation goes to the heart of who counts when it comes to conversations about the arts, and access, in our city, our state, our region. These arts organizations have limited budgets and small audiences, since they usually perform in small venues. If we only measure value by economic impact, these companies have little statistical impact. (Though I suspect the businesses around The Factory Theatre will feel the loss of that venue keenly.)

But for the theater sector, and the art? The loss of The Factory Theatre is important. These small and fringe companies serve a number of roles. They operate on another level, and can take risks in their programming. They support new work, and playwrights. They provide access to artists at the beginning of their careers who are learning their crafts. They provide opportunities for mid-career actors interested in exploring directing or playwrighting. They provide theater artists with “day jobs” an opportunity to work avocationally in theater. They provide a home for a specific breed of theater artist. Not every theater artist dreams of “growing” beyond the small or fringe community. In fact, many of these artists thrive in this community. In the past ten years or so, the Boston theater community has come into its own, due in no small part to this part of our ecosystem.

Also, this change in mission for the Piano Craft Guild is troubling. It was created as artist housing, back when that neighborhood was less desirable. Artists coming into a community, being part of the turn-around, and then being priced out of the neighborhood, happens too frequently. This isn’t just a conversation for Boston. It is a conversation for Cambridge, and Somerville, and Arlington and Medford. It is a conversation for Portland, Portsmouth, Bennington, and Providence. It is a conversation for the Gateway cities, and small towns, and colleges and community theaters throughout New England. Arts Matter. All Arts Matter. Even those with small budgets.

The importance of the arts was a conversation during the mayoral campaign in Boston last fall. And electing an arts champion, which I believe Mayor Walsh to be, will help create change in Boston. But this is a complicated issue, and one person, or one administration, can’t do the work alone. Advocacy is the role of the entire community, but it needs to be on behalf of the entire community, not just those with agency. On Tuesday, I will be at the Gubernatorial Arts Forum at the Hanover Theatre, and I look forward to hearing what 6 of the 7 candidates have to say about the role of the arts in their platform, and in their vision of Massachusetts. As a citizen, my voice, and my vote matters. It is time to use them both. Follow the #ArtsMatter hashtag to follow the conversation on Tuesday.

Other conversations/dates/initiatives that I know of as of this writing. I will update this post as more information comes in.

  • On Thursday, July 16, we will have a meeting about Organizing and Advocacy at the StageSource offices. The meeting will start at 6pm. Our office is at 15 Channel Center Street, Suite 103, Boston. We are located in the Midway Studios Building.
  • The Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston is bringing SpaceFinder to Massachusetts over the next four months. SpaceFinder is the Uber or Open Table for performance and creative spaces and was created by Fractured Atlas in NYC. The Mass site will be the 9th location to have this service. StageSource will be helping to ensure the theater community is fully represented on the site so we need your help to make that happen! The goal is to get as many spaces as possible on the site by the end of August with a soft launch for the fall. The site will only work if there is a robust platform of diverse spaces. If you have a space you would like to list please sign up your space by going to the link and by hitting the bottom “List Your Space”. This is for the region, so don’t hesitate. If you have questions about signing up please contact Scott at the Arts & Business Council at coop@artsandbusinesscouncil.org.
  • The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston is hosting a conversation on July 26 at 2pm at Hibernian Hall. Details at the link.
  • StageSource will also be having a Space Summit soon, and will post details when they are finalized.
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About jhennrikus

Julie Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource
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One Response to #SmallStagesSOS

  1. Julie – Somerville is having a meeting on July 21 to get input about what to do with the old Powderhouse School House. Maybe the theater community could organize a group to go there and see if some of the space can be used as a performance space? Somerville is a great place and very supportive of their artists…. – Adele

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