Boston is a revolutionary capital of long standing, not only as the young nation’s first “city on a hill,” or as the site of its initial stirrings of revolt, but as a crucial hub for national upheavals like abolition and the Industrial Revolution, as well as for reverberant cultural benchmarks from Transcendentalism to the Kennedy ascendancy to the biotech boom.
This past summer Boston became the official home to an unassuming but undeniable new insurgency—one that’s been years in the making but may have at last found its ideal form in the home of the original Tea Party and the Big Dig. It’s called the Center for the Theater Commons, and it aims for nothing less than to transform the way American theatre is done and talked about, both in the short term and, most especially, over the longer one. Call it a think tank, a knowledge platform, a laboratory, a gadfly—the Center for the Theater Commons, located within the office of the arts at Emerson College, is, as one of its admirers puts it, an “alternate universe that is naming itself.”
Like many revolutions, this one came together in fits and starts from disparate elements, and formed as much from within the institutions it aims to shake up as from outside. Polly K. Carl, now ensconced as director of the Commons and as editor of its popular online journal, HowlRound, recalls a lunch with her friend and colleague David Dower in 2010. She was working as director of artistic development at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, after 11 years heading up Minneapolis’s the Playwrights’ Center, while Dower was shepherding an ambitious suite of new-play development programs funded variously by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mellon Foundation at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, under the rubric of the American Voices New Play Institute.
“I had been in a field conversation for so long at the Playwrights’ Center, and I wasn’t in a field conversation in the same way anymore at Steppenwolf,” lamented Carl over brunch in Boston last June. Carl is a wiry dynamo, a self-described “boy in a man’s theatre,” butch but bubbly and irrepressible; she puts me in mind of what Bob Dylan memorably wrote about Bono, that spending time with him was like “eating dinner on a train—feels like you’re moving, going somewhere.” Carl is a similarly propulsive figure; more than forward-looking or -leaning, she’s already steps ahead by the time you’ve clocked her.
“David Dower had just gotten all that money for the institute,” Carl continued. “And I said, ‘What if you just gave me a little bit of that to design a website and I started a journal?’ He had funds for ‘documentation and dissemination’ and he just was like, ‘Done—take it and roll.’”
So Carl hired a small editorial staff, and HowlRound—named after the ear-piercing screech of amplified feedback, the bane of every school assembly but a godsend for musicians who know how to sculpt it—was born in January 2011, with a nearly 6,000-word manifesto by Carl (“Confessions, Contradictions, Beauty”) that set a high bar for personal transparency and authenticity. Not every contributor to the now-at-least-daily site has been as intimately honest as Carl, who has written as frankly about her own grapplings with gender as about her views of economic inequality within nonprofit theatres. But none has pulled punches, whether in Catherine Trieschmann’s regular “Parenting & Playwriting” series, in opinion pieces by the likes of Marshall Botvinick, Sherri Kronfeld, Todd London, Karen Malpede, Jason Loewith, Timothy Douglas, Claudia Alick and Richard Montoya, among many others, or in-depth week-long surveys of regions and topics hosted by hired curators.
But if HowlRound is the public face and easy-to-find entry point for the Center, Carl’s contribution is only one leg of the new organization’s three-legged stool. Indeed, its origins can be traced chiefly through Dower, the former founding artistic director of San Francisco’s new-work incubator Z Space, who was looking for new horizons for himself in the mid-2000s after 13 years at that theatre.
“I had done what I could do to develop Bay Area theatre,” said Dower in a recent phone conversation from Boston. Dower is more circumspect in tone than Carl but no less far-ranging in the sweep of his vision. “[Artistic director] Molly Smith was talking about creating a center for American work at Arena Stage, and it seemed like the next step in my own work would be to develop American theatre and theatre artists, their own voices, their own work.”
Dower started as Smith’s associate artistic director at Arena in 2006, and soon thereafter launched the American Voices New Play Institute. The following year, the institute partnered with the NEA on a New Play Development Program (NPDP), intended to bring more new plays out of the workshop/reading ghetto and into full productions throughout the nation’s nonprofit theatres. Other initiatives included an ambitious multiyear playwrights’ residency program and something called Theater 101, a behind-the-scenes program taking interested patrons through an entire production process.
The opening of Arena’s sparkling new Mead Center for the American Theater in late 2010, and the addition of Carl’s online journal to Dower’s already lively Arena new-play blog months later, seemed to seal the deal for Arena as both an inarguable hub of national creative energy and a fertile R&D site/best-practices laboratory.
This turned out to be too many good things in one basket, though, as Dower recounts.
“There was a perception of conflict of interest,” Dower recalled. “It is true that it’s very hard for an organization to study itself effectively and document and disseminate that information unilaterally when it’s part of a system like the LORT theatre system—to be that transparent about what’s happening.”
In retrospect, Carl agreed: “I’m not sure what regional theatre could have housed us.”
Indeed, where to place this strange new hybrid organization, which had unleashed such promising energy and conversation but whose questions and internal contradictions couldn’t seem to be contained within a traditional producing organization?
Enter the third leg of the stool: an arts manager who has even more years in the regional theatre trenches than Carl or Dower, and who had just embarked on a brave new venture of his own. In fact, Rob Orchard had been set to retire after 30 years managing Cambridge, Mass.’s American Repertory Theater when Emerson College tapped him in 2009 to program its four downtown spaces, some new, some lavishly renovated. After doing it the LORT way for so long, and knowing the Boston theatre scene intimately, Orchard had a few stipulations on taking the helm of the presenting organization that’s now called ArtsEmerson, and currently entering its third successful season.
“There were three things I told the board when I was interviewing for the job,” said Orchard in a recent phone interview. Cheerfully pragmatic, Orchard rounds out the Center for the Theater Commons troika with a deep-rooted local sensibility and an entirely un-jaded veteran’s wisdom. “The first priority, I said, is that because we have four new spaces, I want to be rigorous about bringing work to these spaces that wouldn’t be otherwise seen in Boston. Two, I want to help generate new work. And three, I want the work to be international. There’s always competition for resources, but I think we’ve carved out our own niche.”
Orchard got proof of that in data provided by ArtsBoston after ArtsEmerson’s first season, which showed that more than two thirds of the audience for his programming had no relationship to any other cultural institutions in town.
ArtsEmerson’s fresh, sui generis approach, not to mention the academic setting of Emerson, were especially attractive to Dower, who was shopping for a new home for the New Play Institute.
“ArtsEmerson calls itself a ‘world stage,’” Dower noted. “I asked Rob if there was room in what he was doing for what I do, and if it could come together in the office of the arts at Emerson. The new college president, M. Lee Pelton, immediately saw the potential of this collaboration.”
On the one hand, the institutional baggage of a producing regional theatre would not be an issue at ArtsEmerson. “It’s so young, there’s no history that needs to be prioritized,” Dower said. “It has no legacy structures or even dominant aesthetic. So we can build something new, adjust to the new normal, rather than try to figure out how to move into an existing frame without destabilizing it.”
On the other hand, Dower noted, “There are lots of start-ups, but not many at this level. It’s a unique position we’re in, and I want to make sure we capture that abundance for the field.”
Dower now serves as a kind of administrative bridge between ArtsEmerson, which he is helping Orchard program, and the Center for the Theater Commons, where he is still counted as founder. From that vantage point, Dower says, he can serve both masters—he can “develop programs with an eye toward their research value.”
One, for instance, involves what Dower called a “seats” lab.
“It’s focused on running a set of different interventions in communities that are not participating or are under-participating in the cultural life of Boston,” Dower explained. “We’ll be trying to find ways to understand and address their barriers to participation, and working with artists who can help me do that.” That may sound like relatively standard community-outreach boilerplate—except for the next part of Dower’s strategy.
“You never budget more than 70 percent of your seats for any given show,” he continued. “The remaining seats are left there; sometimes you end up papering. What if we thought of those seats as an asset and developed those as a resource for the field? We’re going to turn them into a resource and a tool.”
Throughout conversations with Dower, Carl and Orchard, this is the kind of sucker punch you regularly encounter: First, a lofty theatrical goal you’ve heard articulated so many times before it makes your eyes glaze over, followed by an interesting new way to put it into practice that makes you sit up and go, “say what?” Orchard mentioned offhand, for instance, that ArtsEmerson recently merged its box office and fundraising departments into one silo, with the thinking that “everyone who sells tickets also has the responsibility to raise money,” and vice versa, because at bottom, they’re all “dealing with audiences and asking for money.”
That’s a head-clearing idea, to say the least. Even the playwrights’ residencies that Arena pioneered, which are still ensconced there but will be mined by the Center for the Theater Commons for research and learning value, may seem at first glance like a bit of garden-variety largesse—just souped-up commissions with more perks. But with three-year salaries and productions included, those residencies have been a genuinely radical experiment that, if even partly duplicated at several regional theatres around the country, would dramatically change the playing field. As Carl put it, “If it weren’t five playwrights who made a living in the American theatre but actually 50—that’s a pretty good percentage. That’s a field you have a shot to live in.”
Theater 101, another Arena-based program that will remain there (but may be mimicked at ArtsEmerson, and has been picked up by several regional theatres), was modeled after an initiative at Steppenwolf in which theatregoers were invited for minimal ticket cost to follow productions through rehearsal, tech, previews and opening. The result? Said Dower, “What they were doing was creating these deeply informed advocates of new work in an organization they loved.” The Arena version, first employed around a production of The Music Man, was a hit, too, Dower said: “The audience was astonished that that’s how you make a musical.”
The Commons has microfund projects studying the actual material effect of New York Times reviews on theatre productions, on the value of theatre as a form of civic engagement, on the search for an artistic home. As Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, who’s written for HowlRound and taken advantage of a microfund grant, put it, “I’ve thought for 25 years that the American theatre needs a think tank, and that’s what this is.”
Not only will ArtsEmerson’s wildly divergent spaces create tantalizing operating theatres for ideas that would be devilishly hard to carry out in an overhead-heavy, season-subscribed LORT theatre, but the academic setting makes it an ideal place to record and report results. Emerson’s students, Orchard noted, “speak the speech of creativity; Emerson students are makers. They study it but they’re also making it.”
The studying layer is where the loop closes, with the benign scrutiny of Carl’s Commons and its many venues of dissemination and discussion (which also include #NewPlay TV, a streaming service, and the New Play Map, an interactive new-play finder) busily sharing and arguing over these findings online, in book form and in various convenings.
Boston is the Center for the Theater Commons’s backyard, but not the whole oyster: The Center will still have a national mandate and pursue projects outside its home base—and not only in the vestiges of the New Play Institute still housed at Arena. All the same, ArtsEmerson is clearly the central performance partner in this experiment. Does Orchard think it’s ready for such a microscopic close-up?
“Because we’re new and we’re growing, we’re going to succeed and fail,” Orchard said. “And I want the successes and the failures to be equally emphasized.” No, that doesn’t mean he expects to see individual ArtsEmerson productions receiving scathing reviews on HowlRound. He puts it this way instead: “A production process idea that ArtsEmerson undertakes can be seen as not successful, and we can have a constructive, honest, smart discussion of why it wasn’t successful. We want this to be a laboratory for both best practices as well as less than best practices. I mean, we won’t be seeking out worst practices.”
That squares with the instincts of Carl, who closed our meeting with a rousing mini-manifesto, a coffee-shop stump speech.
“Discourse is my highest value,” she said. “I believe in discourse more than I believe in anything. And the idea that there’s anything off limits to talk about—I just don’t believe that. I think we have to talk about everything, and we have to struggle with it. We have to be open to criticism; people criticize me for what I write and it hurts, but we have to be willing to do it.”
Indeed, the aim of the transparent, open-source model of the Center for the Theater Commons is not to begin polite academic seminars but to broaden and better the theatre field. To that end, alongside many celebratory and informative posts on HowlRound are several others that directly and fearlessly interrogate the structures, ethics and aesthetics of the American nonprofit theatre. That’s the playing field Carl, Dower and Orchard know intimately in all its glories and dysfunctions—and that they love well enough to want to improve.
“Steppenwolf’s a lovely organization, and I had a really cool job there, but I guess my failing as a human being is probably I’m not interested in my own career as much as I’m interested in advancing the art form,” Carl began, contemplating her career’s left turn into a kind of meta-theatre outside the institutional theatre. “What I’d seen at the Playwrights’ Center, which ruined me, is all these talented people who had no outlet for their work. And I felt like there were enough resources for there to be more outlets; I’m not saying we were going to serve everyone; I’m not being pie-in-the-sky or Pollyanna about it. But I felt that legitimately, we could do a better job of making this field more inclusive of people like me who want to live in it.”
She cited Dower’s 2009 report, The Gates of Opportunity, which made similar points about the imbalance of resources and access.
“I’m kind of a political activist at heart, and I think more people should have access to what we do,” Carl continued. “I’m just not at ease sitting comfortably in my career, making plays, while I’m one of the one percent who gets to do what I love.”
HOW TO READ HOWLROUND
By Rachel Hutt
There are two main entry points into this comprehensive knowledge-building platform: the Journal and the Blog.
The Journal contains in-depth articles written by and for the theatre field and is divided into four sections: Opinions, Interviews, Ideas and Process.
The Blog, meanwhile, houses seven different categories:
- Ideas, Practices, Bright Spots.
- Podcasts: Every Friday, David Dower interviews theatre artists showcasing what’s simmering in the new-play world.
- #NewPlay TV: Livestreams new-work related events and performances.
- New Play Map: Illustrates where new plays are “born” and where they travel on their “life’s journey.”
- Happenings and Announcements: Includes “The Weekly Howl,” a Twitter conversation about and for the new-play community, occurring every Tuesday.
- City Series: Different U.S. regions are featured in week-long explorations of pressing theatre issues affecting given areas, hosted by hired curators.
- Regular Columns: Theatre practitioners share insights and perspectives in ongoing columns organized around themes and topics (Catherine Trieschmann’s “Parenting & Playwriting,” a series on finding an artistic home, even a summer series of short plays published online).
Once you’ve encountered ideas proposed on the site, you can share the information and opinions via Twitter, Facebook or e-mail. To stay on top of new content being generated every day, you can subscribe to a variety of different platforms:
- The Journal and the Blog can be followed via RSS Feed or e-mail updates.
- The Podcast series can be subscribed through iTunes.
- The Weekly Howl can be accessed through Twitter. Remember to use the hashtag #newplay to make your Tweets visible.
Visit the Commons Library on HowlRound for all things research. Convening Reports, Commons News and Required Reading are housed in this virtual library. For more information visit www.howlround.com.