Falling to earth

While its 'Angels' soared, one small theater company discovered what other arts groups are learning: sometimes bigger leads to big problems

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

When Jason Southerland took the stage this month to accept two of the city's most prestigious theater awards for his production of "Angels in America," he knew what many in the audience did not: that the play, a critical and popular hit, may well have pushed his company, Boston Theatre Works, out of business.

The ambitious production of the two-part, four-hour Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which sold out seats at the Calderwood Pavilion in January, left the company in dire financial straits, forcing it to cancel two of the season's scheduled remaining shows and leaving its future uncertain.

Like the popular Irish-themed Sugan Theatre Company - which went on hiatus in 2006 and has yet to return - Boston Theatre Works is one of several local arts groups struggling to grow amid the reality of tight budgets and limited resources. Snappy Dance Theater, which has been featured in national magazines and celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, was forced to close its doors this year for financial reasons.

The company last year mounted a heralded 13-day run of its work "String Beings" at the Calderwood. Now there is no telling when or if the company will return, as the group is currently "reassessing Boston's desire to have a thriving dance scene," said Martha Mason, Snappy's artistic director.

Competition for grants, space, and audience dollars has proved challenging to smaller companies hoping to gain greater name recognition and community support in an arts scene that has grown considerably in recent years. Indeed, a controversial Boston Foundation study last year suggested that small, struggling arts groups should resolve their problems by merging or closing up shop. "We could be one of them," Southerland predict ed at the time. "We are always on the verge of great success or total collapse."

Southerland and Mason had hoped the introduction of two new Calderwood spaces four years ago in the South End would help change the equation. Putting on a show there gives a company the opportunity for bigger audiences and prestige, but can also mean a bigger strain on the bottom line, thanks to rental and related costs.

"Angels" was produced in the Calderwood's smaller theater, the Roberts Studio - the first time Boston Theatre Works had done a play in the new pavilion, which is owned and operated by the Huntington Theatre Company. Signs of trouble came early on. Actors were told on the first day of rehearsals that the show might not happen at all because of longstanding financial problems, and in order to meet its budget the company had to shorten the play's anticipated run by a week.

Yet the end result was an artistic triumph for the 10-year-old company. At the May 12 Elliot Norton awards, Southerland, the company's founder and artistic director, took the stage twice, accepting awards for best small-company production and for best director (along with Nancy Curran Willis.) He referred very briefly to the financial troubles, and promised that he would continue to produce theater in town.

"The current financial climate is making it difficult for us to do our work, so we're going to go on hiatus to regroup," he said in a phone interview. "We are not trying to rush to put out a season in the fall. We're taking stock of this entire climate in America, socially, politically, and economically . . . we're trying to decide whether we want to get smaller or take a break and come back as who we are."

Immediately after "Angels" closed, the company canceled an April run of "The Crucible." Southerland said the costs of returning to the Calderwood were just too high. Without much fanfare, the company has also postponed this month's world premiere of the emo rock musical "Love Kills," written by rising young playwright Kyle Jarrow. Southerland had directed a workshop production of the show in New York last summer, but the full-fledged debut has been put off until "later this summer," Southerland said in the interview, adding that he is still searching for an affordable sound-proof space to stage it.

Reached by the Globe, Jarrow said he only learned about the fate of his play earlier this month and knew little about a summer production in Boston. The New York-based artist has decided to shop the play around, hoping to premiere it elsewhere by next year.

"Since I hadn't heard from them in so long I knew something was awry," Jarrow said. "They had commissioned the play and I didn't want to pursue other options for it. . . . I knew they were struggling, but I didn't want to jump the gun."

Members of the local theater community praise Southerland for his passion and hard work, noting that running Boston Theatre Works, with a budget under $500,000, was a huge undertaking for one person to manage. Corporate sponsors, including Bank of America and Sovereign Bank, and such private individuals as Douglas and Judith Krupp and George and Lizbeth Krupp were major supporters of the company over the years. The Krupps could not be reached for comment.

"When all that falls on one person, it is a challenge," said Jeffrey Poulos, executive director of StageSource, a group that promotes professional nonprofit theater. "There will always be these theater companies emerging, doing the type of art they want to produce on the barest of budgets. They are not always going to reach the wide range of audiences. They'll last as long as the artistic leader can physically endure it."

Boston Theatre Works was launched in 1998 by Southerland; its mission was to stage bold plays that might not otherwise find a home in Boston. Without a theater of its own, the company mostly did its shows at the Boston Center for the Arts' Plaza Theatre, a 142-seat venue where many of the city's emerging groups have done their work. Among BTW's notable productions were "Not About Nightingales" (2000), "The Laramie Project" (2001), and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (2007). According to details on the Boston Center for the Arts website, it costs $2,040 a week to rent the Plaza Theatre, and $1,450 a week for the 90-seat Black Box Theatre. But playing at either of the two plush theaters in the Calderwood Pavilion next door is enticing to companies like BTW, which can work with more ambitious lighting and sets and offer far more comfortable seating and sight lines to its audiences.

Southerland's company had suffered a setback when it wasn't chosen as one of four Calderwood resident companies, or one of two others chosen for this fall. Selected by a committee of the city's arts leaders, resident companies enjoy a stable home to produce an entire season, priority scheduling, and reduced rental rates.

In dance, the idea of a permanent home is even more unusual, which led Snappy to bring its shows to various spaces. The troupe had a $350,000 budget and a staff of two. Producing "String Beings" cost $80,000 including dancers' salaries, renting rehearsal space, and the rental at the Calderwood, which was "very high" Mason said, even though the group received a 17 percent discount. Mason declined to give details of the rental cost but said a lack of foundation and grant money caused the company's current situation.

"If we had been given the funding we needed a year ago we would be a thriving company right now," she said.

The Huntington does not keep a posted rate list for theater rentals because the costs are often negotiated and they vary by the type of programming and length, said spokeswoman Temple Gill. They do charge organizations by a tier system, she said, one rate for for-profit groups, a rate that's 25 percent lower for nonprofit groups, and 40 percent off for-profit rates for resident company groups.

Southerland chose to produce "Angels" at the Calderwood even though his group wasn't a resident company there. In the interview, he declined to provide details of the costs and fees. But Gill said that the Huntington tried to be flexible when, before the run, Southerland indicated he "would not be able to meet his obligations." The company was provided a rental rate much closer to the resident company deal than the 25 percent off rate that he had negotiated, she said.

But Southerland said that "hidden costs" came to be overwhelming, such as paying for additional Huntington staffers on show nights, overtime, and meeting fire inspection requirements.

David J. Miller, the artistic director of Zeitgeist Stage Company - a group even smaller than Boston Theatre Works - also had a good night at the recent Norton awards, winning best production for his version of the six-hour "Kentucky Cycle," coproduced with Way Theatre Artists. Despite the strain on a 23-person cast, the play was produced in the BCA's tiny Black Box Theatre, where Miller said he'll continue to work.

"People in the theater community are constantly saying, 'When are you going to move to a bigger space?' and I tell them, 'If I can't sell 90 tickets why in the world would I move to a bigger space?' We know what our costs are at the Black Box. We know what challenges we have and choices we have to make."

Southerland, who is currently directing "A Streetcar Named Desire" in Worcester, says Boston Theatre Works will be back. A showcase of new works by emerging playwrights is still on the summer schedule, and he hopes the hiatus will lead to a new season next year.

What he fears most is that his supporters and audiences will write the company off for good.

"If too much credence is put into the idea that we are closing and this is it, then we are making it a reality," he said. "But how do you cut back? How do you get smaller? How do you take a break without everyone saying, 'They're gone'?"

Megan Tench can be reached at

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