A first season as staging ground

ArtsEmerson aiming for more

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011

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As ArtsEmerson’s first season was drawing to a close, executive director Robert Orchard seemed to be of two minds about how far the initiative had come. It was only last September when he started filling three downtown stages and a screening room with theater, films, and music from around the world.

“It was all rhetoric, it was all aspirational, until now,’’ Orchard said as rain poured down outside his Emerson College office. “We have a body of work that either aligns in your mind or doesn’t to what we said we were going to do - and people can have differing opinions about that. But a conversation can be had. A concrete conversation can be had.’’

Except that, given his druthers, Orchard would rather not have the conversation yet, at least not with a reporter.

“There’s more work to be done. Those questions that you might want to ask naturally at the end of an inaugural season I probably won’t be comfortable asking until after the third season,’’ he said. “In order to get a trajectory, you need at least three points along the way. I’m going to need that.’’

ArtsEmerson’s launch last fall was accompanied by much fanfare about its artistic ambitions for programming Emerson’s newly renovated, multi-venue Paramount Center on Washington Street and its nearby Cutler Majestic Theatre on Tremont Street.

Live drama has been at the center of the venture for Orchard, who launched ArtsEmerson after 30 years at the American Repertory Theater, first as founding managing director, then as executive director. He articulated a desire to step into what he saw as a programming gap in the city, presenting work by performing artists whose international audiences had not generally included Boston.

His first season of theater featured work by such famous names as the Abbey Theatre from Dublin and legendary British director Peter Brook, as well as lesser known companies like the New York ensemble The Civilians and the Canadian circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main. (The Canadians proved so popular that the company is playing a return engagement this month, and the New Yorkers will be back this fall.) All in all, the season included 17 theatrical productions, 92 films, and four concerts.

At season’s end, however, hard numbers about ArtsEmerson’s finances are difficult to come by. Orchard referred all such inquiries to Emerson College, which refused to disclose the size of ArtsEmerson’s budget but said its projected income had been set at $2.1 million. It is expected to exceed that goal, the college said, bringing in “closer to $2.3 million,’’ including approximately $250,000 in contributions.

In an e-mailed statement before her tenure ended last month, the college’s then-president, Jacqueline Liebergott, said that “ArtsEmerson has met projections selling some 50,000 tickets, enrolling nearly 4,000 members.’’

In comparison, the Huntington Theatre Company said it sold 106,058 tickets and had about 10,000 subscribers in 2009-10, the last season for which figures were available, while the ART put its ticket-sales total at 81,789 and its subscribers at 2,640 in 2010-11. The Celebrity Series of Boston said it sold about 53,000 tickets in 2009-10 and had about 2,700 subscriber households.

Building an audience There is one number from ArtsEmerson’s first season that Orchard called a “kind of mind-boggling revelation.’’ It comes from ArtsBoston’s Big List, a collective mailing list used by 40 area nonprofit arts organizations.

An analysis of ArtsEmerson’s audience found that 65 to 70 percent of its audience members did not appear elsewhere on the Big List. In other words, Orchard said, ArtsEmerson is the only one of those 40 organizations with which they have a relationship.

To Orchard, that means he is building and widening the Boston theater audience rather than, as he put it, “stealing from’’ other companies.

“What I felt good about is we are stimulating somewhat of a broader audience,’’ he said. “I don’t like the idea of people choosing to come to us and therefore choosing not to go somewhere else.’’

Across town at the Huntington, managing director Michael Maso said that while ArtsEmerson has done a great job in getting its message out, he was unable to tell what impact, if any, it’s had on his audience. Still, he said, “If 35 percent of ArtsEmerson’s audience comes from other organizations, from whom?’’

Maso remembers hearing concerns that the city would have too many seats to fill when the Huntington’s Stanford Calderwood Pavilion opened at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2004 just as the Boston Opera House was reopening, but he said there is no “predetermined number of tickets that can be sold in Boston’’ and no shortage of audience for good work.

“You can’t give away seats to shows people don’t want to see,’’ Maso said. “It’s really about what you’re putting onstage and the quality of what you’re putting onstage.’’

But it’s also important, he said, that the aesthetic boundaries between institutions are clear. As he sees it, they are, even if the lines aren’t as solidly drawn as they were back in the days when the Huntington was devoted to the classics and Robert Brustein was running the ART.

In any “theatrical ecology,’’ ART producer Diane Borger said, there’s a little programming overlap. She agreed, however, that audiences here seem to have clear notions about which company does what kind of work.

“I think it’s funny how people will say, ‘That’s a Huntington play’ or ‘That’s an ART play’ or ‘That’s a play that ArtsEmerson would do,’ ’’ Borger said. “Those identities, to me, happily coexist.’’

Boldface names Next season’s ArtsEmerson lineup will include work by boldface names like John Malkovich, Laurie Anderson, Anne Bogart, Martha Clarke, and Robert Lepage, but Orchard said the total fees ArtsEmerson pays to visiting companies will likely be lower than in the past season.

The 2011-12 budget is “about the same’’ as in 2010-11, but Orchard is putting some of that money into intensifying fund-raising efforts with the hiring of two development staffers.

“Our fund-raising goals next year are double what they were this year,’’ he said. “Still modest, but double.’’

Meanwhile, Liebergott said, the college’s budgeted subsidy of ArtsEmerson “will decrease next year and is expected to diminish further over time as community support continues to increase.’’

Most contributions in the first season came from individuals, she said. But the program recently received a $375,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to support artist residencies in its second, third, and fourth seasons.

It’s over that span of time that Orchard expects ArtsEmerson to truly find its form.

“I think the frame is pretty much there,’’ said Orchard, whose tasks in these early days are often about building awareness: making sure that theatergoers know performances take place at various venues in two different buildings, for example, and that the runs tend to be short.

“I aspire to be able to do more performances of each project,’’ he said.

An encouraging sign, Orchard noted, was “a steady increase’’ in ticket sales throughout the season - a season that crescendoed in the spring with F. Murray Abraham in “The Merchant of Venice.’’

But selling a Shakespeare play starring an Academy Award winner is a very different task from selling the unfamiliar.

“What I learned is that we have to work harder at getting audiences for the really experimental stuff,’’ said Orchard, who discovered that he wasn’t consistently able to sell out the 125 to 150 seats in the Paramount’s black-box theater, where much of the edgier work is staged. “We have to build that part of our brand more deeply and find those audiences that are willing to take that leap of faith.’’

Such theater is at the heart of what Orchard is trying to do. Last July, before the season started, the New York company Elevator Repair Service - which had wowed audiences with “Gatz’’ at the ART the previous winter - was in residence at ArtsEmerson. The troupe had come to rehearse a Hemingway adaptation called “The Select,’’ which it took to Edinburgh and elsewhere before returning to Boston with it in March.

To Orchard, part of the point of having Elevator Repair Service and other companies in residence as they develop their work is to raise the profile of the college: to put the word out that Emerson and Boston are where interesting theater is being made.

This May, Orchard brought the new issue of American Theatre magazine to a meeting of the Emerson board. He held the magazine up so the trustees could see the cover image: a scene from “The Select.’’

It was the kind of validation that doesn’t come from numbers.

“The measure that I value the most is not a quantitative measure. It’s more a measure of impact: impact in the community and impact in the field, nationally and internationally,’’ he said.

“By every measure - both quantitative and subjective, spiritual as well as aesthetic, pedagogical as well as community - I am happy with what we’ve accomplished,’’ Orchard said.

Whether ArtsEmerson is a success, however, is a topic on which he prefers to reserve judgment.

“After three years, I can be more conclusive,’’ he said. “We haven’t hit critical mass yet.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at