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What makes theatre in Boston, ‘Boston theatre’? If anything…

As I find myself at the precipice of preparing for my move to Los Angeles, I am forced to acknowledge the fact that I am also about to leave behind a theatre community that has raised me, and like many familial relationships, I have complicated feelings towards. The individuals that make up Boston’s theatre community are some of the most beautiful, heartwarming, and nurturing artists I know. As a city, Boston is recognized as a home for progressive thinking—a city where hundreds of thousands of young people congregate each year to learn about the world that they live in, their place in it, and what they can do to better it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists, engineers, CEOs, activists, and leaders of all fields have had the beginnings of their work occur in this city. So, why does all of this suddenly feel distant when it comes to Boston’s place in the American theatre scene?

A couple of years ago, an older theatre practitioner who I respect told me that while theatre makers who live in Chicago do so because they did not want to work in New York, theatre makers who live in Boston do so because they could not make it in New York. Now, I don’t think that that’s true, but the more I critically think about Boston’s theatre scene as a living organism, the more I begin to recognize something that makes me feel uneasy: the Boston theatre community lacks a desire for discovery. Here, in a location praised for its progressive political decisions and strides in civil rights for marginalized individuals, the amount of companies and organizations producing work that is in direct conversation with the world around us are slim, and poor; the ones that aren’t poor continuously fail to take actual risks—risks that demand more of an audience than a ticket stub. So, how can we, as theatre artists in this city, actually call ourselves progressive?

In a recent post made on The Arts Fuse, local theatre critic Bill Marx calls out Boston’s lack of a programming response to the election of the problematic 45th POTUS by, rightfully, feeling disappointed in our city’s continual turning of the other cheek (Puritan pun intended) when faced with difficult conversations regarding the status quo.

“Resistance, at least in Boston theater, is futile. Aucoin argues that in ‘this age of Trump’ we should simply accept what has been marketed as engaged theater. It is a lame substitute for the real thing that our timid drama critics, from the Globe to NPR, accept without a demur. For me, Brecht’s vision of political theater remains more salient than ever: ‘the radical transformation of the theatre has to correspond to the radical transformation of the mentality of our time … it is precisely theatre, art and literature which have to form the ‘ideological superstructure’ for a solid, practical rearrangement of our age’s way of life.’ Of course, before our stages take on that worthy mission, they are going to have to transform themselves.”

It is unfortunate that so many of us have reached a place in our time as Boston theatre makers where fighting for diverse storytelling—in all that the word ‘diverse’ could mean—is simply too much effort. Not only is our lackluster way of looking at our work detrimental for the underrepresented artists and audience members that continue to be failed by our programming choices, but in regards to our collective identity as a theatre community, I truly believe that we are holding ourselves back.

I may be young, but not much comes to mind when I think about what makes Boston theatre different than theatre in any other location. We rarely produce experimental work; our vow to produce new plays—and I mean new plays, not plays that just won over the hearts of New York City critics—needs to be renewed sooner rather than later; our commercial theatre is not actually ours—not when those hired to create it are from other parts of the world; and frankly, we suck at constructively criticizing one another in the hopes of communal growth. So, what is Boston theatre? I’m not exactly sure.

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