Dearth of Small Space:Theatre Groups are Getting Squeezed Out of Boston

March 25, 2016
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By Seth Daniel

It’s never easy on the cutting edge, or else it wouldn’t be the cutting edge.

But at the same time, when it comes to the cutting edge and fringe small theatre companies in Boston, it also shouldn’t be impossible – say theatre company participants and advocates.

Yet such is the case, they report, just as the City of Boston concludes its Boston Creates venture on March 28 in Charlestown’s Bunker Hill Community College campus and prepares to do an inventory of performance spaces and needs within that community.

What many say they know will be found – and hopefully acted upon – is that small theatre groups are getting squeezed out and spaces for them to perform, from the South End to Allston to Charlestown, are few and far between.

“What this is about is what is the future of our city; we’re fighting for the soul of our city,” said Julie Hennrikus, executive director of StageSource – a 30-year old advocacy organization. “We’ve seen other places where they lost that soul. We can’t afford to do that. That soul is why people want to live in Boston and what makes it what it is…We have companies paying 40 to 50 percent of their budget for space on average. That is insane. How are you going to be able to pay an actor or actress or put money away for a larger production? When you’re paying 40 percent of your budget to rent space, how will you be able to grow into something bigger? There are some paying up to 80 percent…Nobody in the arts expects it to be easy, but they don’t expect it to be impossible either.”

Darren Evans, a small company founder and a veteran of the theatre rental scene (having worked for 10 years as the rental coordinator at the South End’s Boston Center for the Arts), said with small companies leaving town due to space and affordability concerns, it leaves a hole in the theatre scene of Boston’s future. He said providing space for small groups helps the overall community to blossom and grow. The small theatre companies working today, he said, are the larger theatre companies of tomorrow.

“This is a problem for the entire theatre community,” he said. “If you think of the theatre ecosystem, it’s like a pyramid in Boston. You have a couple of big ones at the top and at the bottom are the smallest and there are about 75 of them and they cannot locate space to perform in. The small companies are crucial because they are the places that the actor, designer and writer gets his or her first work out of college. It’s a ladder to get experience and add to their resume…If the small companies don’t have a place to perform, it will effect all of the the companies all the way to the top of that pyramid eventually.”

While the larger theatre companies do struggle with space issues, the smaller companies are at a critical juncture where it is either they get a lucky break, or they leave the city.

Already, some veteran performers like musician and playwright Michael Epstein have announced they can no longer make it work. Epstein announced that he would take his unique brand of music and theatre to Los Angeles, saying on an official announcement he could “no longer make it work in Boston.”

Evans’s Theatre on Fire – a small company – said he has looked at creative ways to put on plays. He considers himself lucky because he has an agreement with the Charlestown Working Theatre (CWT) to use their performance space to put on two productions a year – including rehearsal time, a key element in the factor. Others, he said, aren’t so lucky and they’re leaving or getting very creative.

“There’s absolutely no question that people will leave and look for other places that have space for what they want to do,” he said. “The small companies in Boston are already shutting down because they can’t afford to operate. It’s not that it’s going to happen; it’s already happening…I consider my company blessed because we have an agreement for two shows a year at CWT. There were years though when I wanted to do a third show and I couldn’t do it there because they didn’t have space. We put on a ‘home invasion’ play where we put on a play set in an apartment or home in someone’s actual apartment or home. We’ve done that twice now and gone all over the area, performing in homes to a private audience and a public audience. I guess necessity is the mother of invention sometimes, but there are also complications there with those kinds of things regarding the fire codes and other regulations. Some people try to get creative like that and run into problems and they end up leaving.”

Trip Venturella, who is associated with Apollinaire Theatre in Chelsea – which is currently building a new Black Box theatre for small companies to rent, said he ran into a problem with space for his small theatre company, and got lucky this time.

“I’m actually one of the small companies (with this problem), as it happens,” he said. “I’m producing ‘Killer Maples: The Musical!’ which I wrote with a friend of mine, a composer. We’re going to be at POP Allston in June with my company, Yelling Man Theatre. The only reason we were able to do it was because POP Allston offered us a very reasonable rate, as they are an organization committed to supporting artists, and I was able to convince my friends to help me build a performance space in a found location. It’s not ideal, but we make do.”

But how many will be that persistent, many wonder, and why should they have to scrape and hustle in a city that advertises itself as a mecca of the arts.

Evans also has experience in renting out small space, having been the overseer for rentals at the South End’s BCA – one of the very few places where small space exists. A major blow to the scene recently, he said, was the closing of ‘Factory Theatre’ in the South End’s Piano Factory. The small, 50-seat Black Box theatre in the long-time artsy-leaning apartment building on Tremont Street was recently closed in favor of adding a workout gym.

That displacement, and other stories like it, have turned the theatre community on its ear.

“That’s a whole other issue where good spaces are being lost for other uses,” he said. “That was a little theatre for a long time and now it’s a gym. That loss really threw the scene into disarray because so many companied relied on that space. The space was packed all the time and then suddenly there was nothing. That place was a great proving ground for the smallest of the small companies. It was a place to take risks and find success or failure on the way up the ladder.”

The City announced last week that it will conduct an online survey until the close of the Boston Creates meeting on March 28 in Charlestown. The survey, formally called the Performing Arts Facilities Assessment, will garner feedback from the community that will contribute to the creation of a comprehensive report on the challenges and opportunities facing the Boston performing arts ecosystem. That survey is an essential component of the Cultural Facilities Study, allowing the City to hear directly from members of the performing arts community. It is designed for the members of the performing arts community, both those who provide rehearsal and performance space and those who use rehearsal and performance space.The consulting firm TDC of Boston will conduct the study.

Those in the theatre community are cautiously optimistic about the City’s efforts and hope the small companies aren’t overlooked.

That process aside, some in the community are already stepping up. As mentioned above, in Chelsea’s evolving theatre scene, Apollinaire Theatre company announced earlier this year that it would expand and renovate its theatre – with the inclusion of a small Black Box theatre and rehearsal space meant to be rented by small companies.

At the CWT, Co-Director Jennifer Johnson said the CWT formed 40 years ago when there were ample unused buildings. They were able to get their space, a former firehouse, for $1, and put in much sweat equity to get it to the thriving professional theatre and community resource it has become. She wonders now, in the current building boom, if there are any spaces left that can be had for $1, or whether property now is too valuable to be cast off for next to nothing.

She said they get many requests for space, but currently are so busy with their own productions that they cannot accommodate many – but that might change.

“I get calls all the time from companies looking for space for long-runs or one-night shows, and we do what we can do for them, which is not a lot,” she said. “We’re really seriously working with our Board of Directors now talking about what we can provide to try to address some of the problems and building certain artistic relationships with companies who want to rent. Our theatre has always been dedicated to new works and we really want to begin to prioritize supporting some companies in Boston…We want to be able to support adventurous work that requires risk taking, with one of those risks being failure…The crux is that people have to be willing to support each others work in a way that is above and beyond what we can imagine right now. You will really have to be pulling for a particular work, even if it’s not yours.”

The Boston Creates meeting in Charlestown – the final Town Hall event in the series of cultural planning events – will take place on March 28 at Bunker Hill Community College in the Auditorium, 6 p.m. It will feature a discussion with Julie Burros, the City’s new chief of Arts and Culture.

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