“I wanted a theater all my life. That was my dream.”
As he speaks, Duggan Hill moves to the center of the room on the first floor of the City Lights Performing Arts Center on Washington Street in the South End, the building that he bought from the Boston Redevelopment Authority for $36,000 in 1985, when it was just a burnt-out hole on a street with more than a few of them. The unsightly column running down the middle isn’t ideal, he concedes, but for the last 30 years, he’s made it work. “We’ve had performances on the stage, in the middle, we’ve had them on either sides with the audience in the center. Every configuration you could imagine has happened. We built all the scenery, all the sets. It’s a theater, and that’s what I always wanted.”
Hill’s humble appraisal of the space reveals a bit of the philosophy picked up from a Monsignor at Catholic school: “the mostest, the bestest, the fastest, for the leastest.” With minimal resources, he’s sustained City Lights not just as a theater, but as an institution in Boston’s grassroots arts scene where hundreds of kids have learned to act, sing, dance, play music, and create art for free.
Many of them will be back for the annual Christmas show on December 23, but Hill always seems to keep them close to his thoughts; as we walk down a hallway covered in photocopied pictures and news clippings, each one conjures another story out of him, each adding another piece of Boston history. Within these walls, Jordan Knight took dance classes as a six-year-old and a crew of talented breakers became The Floorlords. An upstart local rapper nicknamed Esoteric cut his first records in the basement studio.
One person appears in noticeably more pictures than the others: Hill’s son Braun, who’s poised to assume responsibilities as the center’s administrator at the beginning of 2015. Having grown up attending and sometimes teaching classes, he’s clearly the best, and possibly only, viable candidate to keep his father’s work going strong, while seeking to enhance and expand the school’s curriculum for a new generation.
“I want to put my spin on it, but I want to keep the essence of what the program is, because it has been working for this long,” says Braun, also known as DJ Braun Dapper. He has ambitious plans for City Lights, aiming to boost enrollment to 100 students a year and introduce a revamped music production program for kids, which will augment education with artist management and job placement services. “I want all the students to work with each other; if you are good at production, I want you to work with this singer or this rapper. You can get a finished product of an artist and everyone has been involved in it.”
As for Duggan, he has more than enough passion left to burn. He’s enthused about plans to teach more classes for younger kids (under 10) and produce a feature film with in-house talent.
As one generation gives way to the next, City Lights still shines bright.