“Every year is a new adventure, but the goal has always been to have this as an annual event.”
By Noah Schaffer
When Outside the Box kicks off July 13 on the Boston Common, the performing arts festival will mark its third and perhaps most important edition. With the demise of the Boston Globe/WGBH Summer Arts Weekend, OTB now stands as the city’s only major free multiday arts event. A new technology conference could provide both a revenue stream and connect artists with the tech community. Several sponsors are on board as the Ted Cutler-funded event attempts to become a sustainable entity.
But clearly some challenges remain. The lineup — an eclectic mix of mostly heralded local, national, and international acts — was announced just a few weeks before the event. One headliner, jazz singer and actress Lea DeLaria, was disclosed only 16 days before the fest’s start. The conference was the source of significant confusion — it was initially announced as carrying an attendance price tag as high as $1,000. After a short time the conference’s website and social media channels were deleted. The tech component of the festival was reannounced later in the spring — registration now closer to $100.
Recently OTB Artistic Director and local actress Georgia Lyman talked with the Arts Fuse about the festival’s accomplishments, goals, and challenges.
The Arts Fuse: We’re talking just a few days after the full lineup of the festival was announced, and the list points to what I think is both so great and so frustrating about OTB. The musical gathering covers a wide range of disciplines and genres. The artists that I know are really respected in their field. The ones I don’t know look really interesting. And yet, we’re finding out who is playing just a few weeks before the start of the festival, long after most other summer events have released their rosters. Why is that?
Georgia Lyman: There are a few different reasons. We work on a quick timeline in terms of curation and that’s for internal reasons. What I found especially exciting this year was that we had an interdisciplary open call and that took some time because we had a lot of applications, especially for theater and dance. I sat with panels of professionals and insiders for multiple genres. We wanted to take our time and not just have a lineup scratched off the back of an envelope.
The other thing that is unique but OTB is that we don’t have to sell tickets. The fact that people know about the festival and that word is spreading that it’s a good destination to be at allows us to have more prep time. It meanswe can put the lineup out a bit later.
AF: Would you have an ideal timetable for a lineup announcement in future years?
Lyman: I think every year we’re working on pulling it back a little earlier as we take this journey. I think early June — six weeks — would let us ramp up so people can start planning a schedule ahead of time. We’re getting closer to that each time.
AF: This year you had some different panels working on curating the acts. How did it change the curation process?
Lyman: I’m the main artistic director, and then we had was three juried panels. There were three or four artistic panelists on each panel. They weren’t curators, but they helped me go through the overwhelming number of applications and they helped me spread the word about the open call. They also helped me cull the cream of the crop and insure there was a good diversity — not just of genres and styles and cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but also diverse types of performances so we could really start accurately reflecting the Boston community.
This is first time we’ve done an interdisciplinary open call. We did one for theater in 2013. I extended the deadline for both theater and dance this year because the initial submissions weren’t quite as robust. I wanted to make sure enough people were hearing about it. We enlisted some organizations and players to spread the word like the Boston Dance Alliance and Boston Playwrights’ Theater, just to make sure everyone was aware of the call.
AF: Is every performer booked through the open call application process?
Lyman: To be clear, the entire curation is not generated by open call. There is my own curation in there as well and that was definitely enhanced by the panel — they’d tell me who and what we were missing. So there is definitely an individual curatorial touch. I can provide a bird’s eye view for what the festival looks like, so we can cover as much ground as possible.
AF: I want to ask about the bookings of ’90s nostalgia acts, which has been an OTB mainstay. I realize that musical taste is subjective, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun, but when the announcement was made earlier this spring that Smashmouth was one of the headliners I heard the annual grumbling. I think it’s because they’re a band one would normally find at a casino or county fair, not at a curated festival where the local talent consists of acts which are acclaimed in their field. What’s your response to that critique?
Lyman: This year Smashmouth and Veritcal Horizon are playing a targeted and packaged event as a Throwback Thursday night, so it is a nostalgia evening. People my age who remember when Smashmouth was [popular] when we were in college are really excited. Let me also point out that some of our headliners are co-presented by sponsors like Capital One or 92.5 The River. We rely on and are appreciative of our co-sponsors, and some of the curation is from their side of things, so we find things that work with our budget and work with the overall festival.
AF: Maybe the reason I hear so much pushback on those acts is that they get announced well in advance of the rest of the lineup. The problem is that for many months that’s what people think about when they think about OTB. Do you worry that creates a credibility issue: some people, who are turned off by that aspect of the programming, won’t explore the the considerably deeper roster of other artists?
Layman: There will always be some who take a first glance and won’t like what they see, and that’s a shame because there is something for everyone at the festival. We work very hard to make sure that everyone can recognize themselves on stage, but you can’t please everyone. You might say the same thing about people who get excited about Boston Calling, and then they look at the ticket price. There’s no way to please absolutely everyone. I think OTB has proven itself as worth a second look. Even if Smashmouth isn’t your cup of tea, come and take a look again. Look at who is playing at another stage and you might be pleasantly surprised.
AF: Let’s talk about Outside the Box Interactive, a technology and innovation conference which was originally announced as an expensive component of the festival. Suddenly, the plug was pulled on all references to the event. Now it is back as a largely off-site event with a smaller (although still three-figure) registration fee. What happened with the messaging?
Lyman: Well, the messaging has been the same: the basic premise is that creativitiy is not limited to performance or literature or robotics. Creativity is boundless and we’re hoping to reinforce that with innovation.
The confusion for the public stems from the fact that we are a free performing arts festival. The innovation events are ticketed, but that was initially unclear. Some people thought that all of a sudden we were forcing people to pay $100 for the fest. This is a separate series for people with a defined interest — all of our performances are free and always will be, That’s what we’re here to do. This is an evolution.
AF: Let’s finish by discussing the future of OTB, starting with the obvious and biggest question: At this stage do you know if there will be a festival next year?
Lyman: Every year is a new adventure, but the goal has always been to have this as an annual event. We’re on a really good path. This year we’ve partnered with CapitalOne. There are struggles regarding sustainability, but sponsors are stepping up and pitching in and we’re feeling really confident. It’s a great relief for Ted [Cutler] to begin to have some of the burden of writing the checks lifted. He’s pretty amazing in his commitment and support for the arts.
AF: This year the Boston Globe is one of your sponsors, and I noticed that there hasn’t been any announcement of the Summer Arts Weekend, a smaller event they had been doing in recent years. Have they moved their arts involvement over to OTB?
Lyman: I loved SAW and I miss it. I don’t think I’d call it an inheritance — SAW was an amazing event and I went and had friends who worked on and off the stage, and it was a blow to lose that, because free outdoor events that give people access to the arts are a rarity and it is sorely missed. The Globe’s committment to free outdoor performing arts should be recognized, and we’ve been working on a relationship and we were lucky enough to turn it into a reality.
AF: What would you most like to accomplish with OTB that you haven’t been able to?
Lyman: The ultimate goal, besides sustainability, is to make this a destination event — not just for tourists, although that would be good too — but for audiences and for artists to connect with each other, for tourists to come and see what Boston has and for arts presenters to come for five days and cherry pick acts so we can start touring and exporting the work that goes on here.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.