With collaborations all the rage, Steven Maler and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company look to change the game
If you’ve been attending theater in the Boston area anytime recently, you might have noticed something in common shared by the very best productions: they’ve been collaborative efforts. Whether this joining of forces has been out of choice or out of necessity, there’s no denying that these collaborations have fortified the city’s artistic infrastructure in ways that feel almost incredulous given how the industry was left bruised and battered by a pandemic that just won’t stop terrorizing live performance.
When performances resumed just about a year ago, audiences were like the munchkins coming out of hiding when Dorothy first crash lands in Oz, cautiously tiptoeing back to the theater a little bit at a time. And among the fare that was most dazzling during this year of re-coming together in the dark, the most thrilling theatre has often been born out of collaborative efforts.
No talk of collaboration is complete without mentioning The Front Porch Arts Collective, which is just about celebrating its fifth year of co-producing works that aim to advance racial equality in Boston through theater. Their first post-pandemic production was “Queens Girl in the World,” which told the story of a teenage Black girl coming of age against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It was a co-production between Front Porch, The Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., and The Nora at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, and it won an Elliot Norton Award recently for its star, Jasmine M. Rush. But what Front Porch really knocked out of the park this year was “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, a musical celebration of the Harlem Renaissance that put a gleam in the eye of anyone who was lucky enough to see it. And fortunately, thanks to a tremendous collaborative effort between Front Porch, The Nora at Central Square Theater, and Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, the vital and effervescent celebration of black joy and culture got to run for two full months in two completely different cities. It’s the perfect example of how these unique partnerships can work in ways that are mutually beneficial for the companies involved and for the audiences whose lives will be enriched by what they see on stage.
This past spring, Chelsea’s Apollinaire Theatre Company joined forces with Teatro Chelsea, a company that aims to celebrate Latin cultures while showcasing and fostering local talent. Their joint production of “Don’t Eat the Mangos” was one of the most refreshing and fulfilling plays I’ve seen in years. This month, running from Aug. 5-20, Apollinaire will once again be joining forces with Teatro Chelsea for a free, bilingual production that will take audiences through the streets of Chelsea. “And Your Little Dog Too” (or, “Y Tu Perrito También”), is an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” by local treasure Brooks Reeves, which will be directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques, one of the most creatively thrilling visionary directors working in New England today. Once again, this collaboration between Apollinaire and Teatro Chelsea reinvents the theatergoing experience while removing barriers such as income and language.
Another company that has long been on the forefront of collaborating, removing barriers, and expanding art for all has been Company One Theatre. Earlier this season, C1 partnered with American Repertory Theater, Boston Public Library, and Boston Comics in Color Festival for “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” which told the story of one black mother’s journey through grief as though she was a hero from the pages of a comic book. And playing right now at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre through Aug. 13, C1 has partnered with the City of Boston for “Can I Touch It?”, a play by local playwright Francisca Da Silveira with direction by Summer L. Williams. In both collaborative instances, C1 has made all tickets pay-what-you-want—even $0—in an effort to remove financial barriers to life-changing art.
There’s also some major news on the collaboration front that’s been brewing all summer long on the Boston Common. Last summer, the first production to open in Boston after all the restrictions were lifted was Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “The Tempest” starring John Douglas Thompson. For more than two decades, CSC has been presenting first-rate Shakespeare productions on the common for Boston audiences free of charge. Artistic Director Steven Maler, who is thankfully still at the mighty helm of CSC, has been instrumental in making the magic of Shakespeare and live performance free and accessible to each and every person. This summer’s show, “Much Ado About Nothing,” runs through this weekend. And while the production, which is being directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, is not a co-production between another theater company, it nonetheless heralds several game changing collaborations that stand to make waves both on the Common and beyond.
Historically, CSC has had to rent all the equipment used during their Free Shakespeare on the Common productions, from portable toilets and generators to audience chairs and lighting equipment. “What most people don’t realize about the Boston Common is that we may as well be performing the show on a field in the farmlands of the Berkshires,” said Maler. “There’s zero infrastructure on the Boston Common for us.” Over the years, CSC had tried to purchase a few things at a time, namely infrastructure related to the actual performance stage. And because storage in a city like Boston is impossible, CSC entered into a partnership with two vendor companies to store and maintain the equipment, in addition to renting it out to others when it’s not in use, providing both CSC and the vendors with some rental income.” Thanks to American Rescue Plan Act funds, Maler and CSC were able to make their pitch to the Senate President’s office, which centered around a $1.3 million investment in infrastructure for CSC on the Boston Common. And they got it.
Using the model of renting out their equipment that they started a few years ago, Maler entered into a partnership with Flexetail, a minority-owned small business out of Woburn. Maler started by purchasing a handful of state-of-the-art trailers from Flexetail, which he plans to use over the summer for performances. After that, the trailers with go into Flexetail’s rental inventory, which provides a rental income for both partners, until CSC is ready to haul them back out onto the Common next summer.
“It’s kind of transforming the business,” Maler said. “This is allowing us to do two amazing things that we’ve wanted to do for a long, long time: first, diverting resources, donations, and support that comes our way from the rental of trailers and into artists and salaries. One of the many crises facing our industry is that no one is able to pay living wages when you look at what it really costs to live in Boston, and that’s why there’s been such a mass exodus over time from our sector. This is helping us increase our salaries this year. We increased our artists’ salaries by over $100,000, which is a huge, huge move for an organization of our size. That’s one thing that this is doing. But the second thing, which is really exciting, is that we’ve always had this vision that once we’ve kind of built this huge infrastructure on the Boston Common, wouldn’t it be nice if other organizations could use that infrastructure rather than us just taking it all down after the three-week run?”
This summer, CSC’s visionary leader will finally get his wish. Following the closure of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Maler will direct a production of Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” on the Common for Boston Lyric Opera, which will be performed on August 11 and 13. Complete with a full orchestra, it’s the first time in 20 years that BLO has performed on the Common. Like all of CSC’s summer Shakespeare offerings, “Romeo & Juliet” will be performed free of charge. On August 12, CSC will lend their stage to Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción for the closing night of their Tito Puente Latin Music Series, which will feature Eguie Castillo, who actually used to perform with Puente himself. Thanks to Maler and CSC, thousands of Bostonians will be exposed to free art from around the globe, all on a patch of grass in a 388-year-old park, the oldest in the United States.
“This is a way of sharing these resources with those organizations and bringing more great free art to people in Boston,” Maler said. “I think every organization now has realized how fragile and vulnerable and frail we all were institutionally. I think one of the things that came out of [the pandemic] was an eagerness and an openness to sharing resources and collaborating and seeing how we can all build a community together that’s sustainable and resilient.”
One of the goals of the joint CSC-BLO production of “Romeo & Juliet” was to co-create a production that neither organization could have done on their own, and Maler calls this experience a “wonderful, imaginative, leaping off point,” one that led to some one-of-a-kind changes to the opera that will bring about a true melding of “Romeo & Juliet” the opera and “Romeo & Juliet” by Shakespeare, rich changes that fuse the art forms of opera and theater, created just for the people of Boston.
“One thing all of us arts leaders struggle with is that we know how much our organizations can give to this community and share with this community, the richness that we can bring to this community,” said Maler. “But it really takes visionary funding and visionary funders who want to dig deep and make some bold decisions and bold commitments to the city of Boston through its arts organizations.”
I’d add visionary leadership to his list, as well.