Theater Commentary: What’s a Fringe Theater in Boston to Do Today?

By Davis Robinson

My point is obvious: real estate is key to the survival of the small theater scene.

A glimpse of the late and lamented dance floor and performance space at The Machine nightclub in Boston.

Where are the basements, garages, factories, and hole-in-the wall spaces for start-ups to incubate? And where are the media outlets who can make that work known to the public?

Beau Jest Moving Theater was formed in 1984 by a group of actors sitting around a table in a cheap restaurant called The Pied Piper (long gone) on Mass Ave. in Boston. Our first rehearsal space was our loft in the Piano Factory (no longer subsidized artist housing) and our first performances were at the Mirage Studio Theater in the Boston Center for the Arts (still there, no longer a theater). Our next show was at the Dinosaur Dance Space in Downtown Crossing (long gone), and several productions at the New Ehrlich Theater (currently the Studio Theater at the BCA). In 1994 we took over the former Galaxy Theater/Ramon de los Reyes Dance Theater space in the back of the Piano Factory, and got it legally approved as a public performance space with the city. It ran as The Factory Theater until the building reclaimed the space to make it a gym for the tenants after artists were evicted. For several shows our second home was at the Charlestown Working Theater along with several other companies, where we worked with the wonderful Kristin and Jennifer Johnson. But that producing structure has changed and the space is now primarily the home to Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

My point is obvious: real estate is key to the survival of the small theater scene. The BCA became an engine for the development of the South End, and it wouldn’t have been possible if the city didn’t own the building and rent it for a dollar to a nonprofit to manage it in what was then a very blighted part of the city. The investment paid off, and start-up theaters like Company One, Speakeasy, and others flourished, as did the South End. It’s an old cycle: the artists move into cheaper parts of town, make it more attractive and vibrant, get priced out, and move out of town. The rapid development of high-priced condo towers on Outer Boylston in the Fenway led to the demolition of The Machine night club and the end of the fantastic performance home developed by Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans. An attempt was made to keep a theater in the basement of the new building, but development pressures pushed that out. Areas like SoWa cry out for a few small performance venues and feisty art spaces to balance out the throngs of tourists, boutiques, and high-end restaurants. But, of course, that requires a commitment by the city and developers to value subsidized housing and performance spaces for artists.

As Willem Dafoe said in a recent interview, if you’re young and thinking of starting a theater company, buy your space. The intrepid Wooster Group in New York City continues to exist because they bought their SoHo space decades ago. No one in the early years of the company collected a salary; all of their earnings went to paying the mortgage. Big institutional players like The Signature Theater in New York exist because the city made a deal with the developers who wanted to build a tower in a blighted part of 42nd street to force them to include a theater complex on the ground floor to replace the theaters being knocked down. A similar arrangement led to the Calderwood Pavilion when the National Theater was demolished, but the rent structure of those theaters price most small companies out of all but the tiniest of spaces there.

And let’s not forget that the fertilizer for many of these spaces was the critical arts coverage in the Boston Globe, Herald, Boston Phoenix, South End News, Bay Windows, and other papers who wrote every week about the interesting and not-so interesting work going on. That coverage has also all but disappeared. The Arts Fuse is one of the last spaces dedicated to covering the arts in Boston. In searching for a theater to rent for our new show Screwball, we looked far and wide before finding a lucky available week at Boston Playwright’s Theater (thank you Kate and Darren!).

If there is any kind of movement afoot to create new, affordable spaces, please let me know. I’ll donate, I’ll put in sweat equity, and I’ll book it for our next Beau Jest show. In the meantime, it sure has gotten harder to rehearse and produce work in Boston, never mind getting the word out!

Davis Robinson is founder and Artistic Director of Beau Jest Moving Theater and a Professor of Theater at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of A Practical Guide to Ensemble Devising and The Physical Comedy Handbook. He is also an actor and was mostly recently seen in Don’t Look Up, Julia, and the upcoming film The Holdovers.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on July 5, 2022 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for the shout-out for The Arts Fuse, but I wish it wasn’t needed. As coverage of the arts shrinks in the Boston media, the hardest hit are the productions on the fringe, which itself is on life support. Among COVID’s downsides has been a centralization of power and money. The larger theaters are sucking in what support they can to mount conventional/New York approved fare. There are few efforts in the media (or among philanthropies, such as the Boston Foundation) to nurture an audience for provocatively alternative productions, products of the fresh imagination that comes from young theater artists working on the margins, willing to take chances. Everyone is hunkering down on their real estate.

    The actions of the American Repertory Theater, a major regional stage, tells the tale. We don’t hear much about it now, but in 2019 it was announced that “Harvard University alumnus David E. Goel and his wife Stacey are giving $100 million to the school to fund development of new “state-of-the-art research and performance center” in Allston, which will also be home to a new location for the American Repertory Theater.” Many small theaters are struggling to find performance space, but there is no problem when it comes to buying land for buildings dedicated to creating productions that, judging by artistic director’s Diane Paulus’s commercial record, will be groomed to run on Broadway. For all the A.R.T.’s absurd marketing claims that these productions (such as the revival of the 1969 musical 1776) are “groundbreaking,” these shows are about making their rich backers richer — it is the theater of neoliberalism par excellence. That’s one thing that you can’t say about fringe theater, which is why companies that challenge rather than assuage are increasingly without a home.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts