Recipe for adventure

Theatrical residencies are key to creativity at ArtsEmerson

“I’m not an artist myself . . . but I can build the studio and open the door for them,’’ says Robert Orchard, executive director of the arts at Emerson College, seen at the Paramount Theatre. “I’m not an artist myself . . . but I can build the studio and open the door for them,’’ says Robert Orchard, executive director of the arts at Emerson College, seen at the Paramount Theatre. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 26, 2010

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Robert Orchard is luring them to Boston from New York and Montreal, from Ireland and England and Austin, Texas: theater artists whose work has been seen here rarely or never.

There are globe-trotting celebrities like British director Peter Brook, whose last area production was nearly 40 years ago, and Canadian director Robert Lepage, whose “Ring’’ cycle opens this week at the Metropolitan Opera House but who has worked here only twice in the past 25 years. There are big-name companies like Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and experimental ensembles like Elevator Repair Service, which spent three weeks here over the summer readying its latest piece for its Edinburgh premiere before it returns to Boston in March. Another adventurous company, the Tectonic Theater Project, on Friday night kicked off the national tour of “The Laramie Project’’ and its new epilogue, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,’’ at ArtsEmerson.

Orchard, Emerson College’s executive director of the arts, is part theatrical presenter now, booking shows into the three venues at the new Paramount Center on Washington Street as well as at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, all under the umbrella of ArtsEmerson. But after decades at the American Repertory Theater, most recently as executive director, producing is in Orchard’s DNA. Probably — he admitted this somewhat reluctantly, with a laugh — he would be bored if all he got to do was present. What he really wants is to be of some assistance in the creation of art. So he is bringing these companies here not merely to perform but to develop their work, too, in residencies that are a key element of ArtsEmerson, and part of its raison d’être.

“I’m not an artist myself, so I can’t be there in the studio, creating, but I can build the studio and open the door for them, and create a comfort zone for them,’’ Orchard, 63, said recently in his 11th-floor office on campus. When he began there last Oct. 1, ArtsEmerson didn’t even have a name, let alone a logo, a ticketing system, or a staff. “It was a brand-new office of one: me,’’ he said. But what the program would become was up to him to create, which is the challenge that had drawn him to Emerson in the first place.

Orchard’s vision, now beginning to take shape, is of multiyear relationships between ArtsEmerson and artists who will return repeatedly to develop new projects, using Emerson’s stages, rehearsal spaces, and other facilities. Ensconced in apartments overlooking Boston Common, working on campus, they will invite students and faculty into the process if and as they see fit, and cross paths with members of the local community, who in turn will get to watch the evolution of the work up close. And as that work goes out into the world, ArtsEmerson’s name will go with it, in programs and elsewhere, and become known as a place where theater is made.

Developing new work is “important to my sense of helping the art form, in a school that’s dedicated to the arts,’’ Orchard said. “That’s what we should be doing. The universities should be the Medicis of the age. Nobody else is gonna be it.’’

It was a residency that brought Tectonic Theater Project artistic director Moisés Kaufman to the Cutler Majestic last week. The company was preparing to premiere “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,’’ the follow-up to its most famous play, about the Wyoming town where Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten and left to die in 1998. The new piece, like the original, was constructed by company members from interviews they conducted with the people of Laramie — including, this time, Shepard’s two killers.

“This production has never been done anywhere,’’ Kaufman said. “That’s a very, very exciting thing. And I think when you’re at this stage you feel incredibly vulnerable because you’re out of town and you’re trying new things. So it needs a space like Rob’s.’’

Each company’s residency is tailored to meet its needs and desires. Tectonic — which before “Laramie’’ was best known for Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,’’ and which since then has done his “33 Variations’’ on Broadway — wanted not only the space and stage time to “dream our production here,’’ as Kaufman phrased it, but the opportunity to discuss homophobia and gay rights. In addition to various panels and public events, the company will be visiting Emerson classes, talking about “The Laramie Project,’’ and teaching its methods to theater students, said Leigh Fondakowski, who is directing the tour with Kaufman.

When the company revisited Laramie to see what it was like a decade after the murder, it found that students at the university Shepard attended had either never heard of him or had only a badly distorted sense of his story. To work in a college milieu matters to Tectonic for that reason. It matters to Kaufman for a somewhat different reason as well.

“You know, many, many times I’ve thought that I should give up directing theater and only direct children’s theater,’’ he said. He exhaled a weary half-laugh, half-sigh. “Because sometimes I feel very cynical about whether you can really effect change in adults, and I wonder if doing theater for children allows you to effect change at an age where it would matter.’’

In fact, Kaufman is dipping into children’s theater with a production Orchard is eyeing for ArtsEmerson: “El Gato con Botas’’ (“Puss in Boots’’), opening this week in New York. But Kaufman sees young adults as a sort of bridge between the two audiences. “I think that college students manage to still have the hope and the idealism that over the course of the next three decades of their lives will be hammered out of them,’’ he said, rather bleakly.

Most of the students were gone this summer when Elevator Repair Service, another nomadic New York company, took up residence at the Paramount Theatre, rehearsing its new Ernest Hemingway adaptation, “The Select: The Sun Also Rises,’’ before whisking it off to the Edinburgh International Festival last month. It was a return to the area for the company, which had performed “Gatz,’’ an acclaimed stage version of “The Great Gatsby,’’ in Cambridge with American Repertory Theater last season.

The company worked on the Paramount stage, not in a rehearsal room as it would have in New York, and on that stage was a set that ArtsEmerson had built for the company at cost: a grimy, sprawling Spanish cafe. A second set, also built by ArtsEmerson in its scene shop, had been shipped ahead to Edinburgh. Elevator Repair Service had hung the lights before it began rehearsing, and its lighting designer was in residence the entire time — a nearly unheard-of luxury. The sound design, crucial to any Elevator Repair Service production, was refined using the Paramount’s full sound system, allowing the designers “much more subtle variations in where they put the sound and the quality of it,’’ John Collins, the company’s artistic director, said last month.

Constructing one set, let alone two, was an idea that Collins said came from Orchard and Jonathan Miller, ArtsEmerson’s administrative/production director and former ART general manager. So was the notion that ArtsEmerson should be one of the commissioners on the project, an idea that arose, Collins said, when Elevator Repair Service wanted to take advantage of Orchard’s residency offer.

“As we were talking with Rob and Jonathan about what we would need as we worked our way up to the Edinburgh premiere, they just kept coming back and offering us solutions to every question we had, every little problem that came up,’’ said Collins, who had worked with them at the ART on “Gatz.’’ “It’s the mark of a really skilled, experienced producer that they find a way to make things happen without saying no to you all the time. They have actually encouraged us to do more than we would have done.’’

Before Elevator Repair Service left for Scotland, ArtsEmerson subscribers got a look at “The Select’’ in an invited dress rehearsal of the first act. For Orchard, who is building a subscriber pool from scratch, such glimpses of the creative process are an important perk to offer, and a way to let his audience follow an artist’s development even more closely.

“People are curious about how artists work,’’ Orchard said, “and it’s a real privilege to be brought into their process and to be able to participate in some way — sometimes more actively, sometimes rather more passively. And an artist who is open to that can use those moments constructively in the development of their work.’’

Elevator Repair Service will return to perform “The Select,’’ part of an Emerson season that will also bring The Civilians, the Montreal circus-arts troupe PSY, and Austin’s Rude Mechanicals.

ArtsEmerson’s partnerships with the various companies are not meant to last forever, Orchard said. Companies will cycle in and cycle out. But he does want them to be collaborations that do not falter in the wake of a failure. “That’s to me the definition of a true partnership: that you go from your successes to your not-so-much-successes and beyond to a sincere partnership where you’re actually engaged in a process that will accept levels of success and levels of failure. Because that’s how growth happens.’’

And when growth stops, he believes, so should the partnerships.

“They’ll last for as long as they are mutually productive,’’ Orchard said. “That’s really all I’m asking for: that we benefit, sincerely benefit — and that, from my point of view, I feel as if we’re helping. I’m a producer. I want to help. It’s natural instinct, you know?’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at

THE LARAMIE PROJECT THE LARAMIE PROJECT: TEN YEARS LATER At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, through Oct. 2. Tickets: $15-$79, student discounts available. 617-824-8000,