Thursday, June 13, 2024

Connie Chin at the 585 Arts construction site in Cambridge’s Kendall Square on Friday. (Photo: Julia Levine)

It’s been almost exactly four years since the Covid pandemic brought live theater to a halt, emptying seats and leaving production companies wondering how they would move past the setback. The question remains: Will theaters ever fully recover and get back to pre-pandemic numbers? Nationally, and even in Greater Boston, the answer seems to be no, or at least not yet.

But in Somerville and Cambridge? The answer is a lot less grim. Professionals working in the area’s theaters and production companies report optimism, and new and forthcoming spaces suggest theater is on the rise.

Arrow Street Arts, a theater and community space that took over the former Oberon space, is now open. It was created to address a “compelling need – the lack of top-quality, reasonably priced rehearsal and performance facilities in the Boston area,” per its website. Led by David Altshuler, it provides a home for Moonbox Productions, the Cambridge theater company founded in Harvard Square in 2011, as well as other companies.

“It’s got a wonderful, large black box theater; it’s got great amenities for audiences; it’s located in a place that people know about because of the history of the Oberon; and it’s got a great feel,” said Sharman Altshuler, founder and producing artistic director at Moonbox.

The Boston Opera Collaborative’s “Carmen” performs in April at Arrow Street Arts in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Sam Brewer)

Another major performing arts space, 585 Kendall, is in the midst of development after ground was broken in October 2022. The 600,000-square-foot building will include a 30,000 square-foot performing arts center with a 400-seat theater and a 150-seat amphitheater programmed by a nonprofit called 585 Arts spun off of the Global Arts Live organization. (The rest of the building will provide lab and office space for the pharmaceutical company Takeda.)

Cambridge’s Global Arts Live has been presenting music and dance performances for more than 30 years – it presents more than 60 shows a year at venues all over Greater Boston – but now can expand into a larger and more versatile space.

“There was originally going to be a baroque music center [at 585 Kendall], the Constellation Center. When that project did not come to pass, the City of Cambridge said anyone who developed that site had to have a performing arts center,” said Connie Chin, executive director of Global Arts Live.

Construction on the 585 Kendall life-sciences building, with its 30,000-square-foot performing arts center, continues Friday. (Photo: Julia Levine)

BioMed Realty bought the property and chose Global Arts Live as its operating partner.

“There’s a lot of theater that will fit very beautifully in the space,” Chin said.

The American Repertory Theater is also moving, albeit to a new home outside Cambridge: It has called the Loeb Drama Center on Brattle Street in Harvard Square home since its founding in 1980, but in 2026, it will move to Allston. The 70,000-square-foot David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity and Performance will include two indoor performance venues plus an outdoor performance yard, in addition to rehearsal studios and teaching spaces. At 175 N. Harvard St., the project will also include a 276-unit residential building that will provide housing for about 500 Harvard affiliates. The facility is set to open in the fall of 2026.

“These new spaces really show that people still care about theater, and they care about getting to see art performed live,” Altshuler said.

Struggling to excite

Even with the promise of new spaces, there’s still the challenge of getting seats filled. Altshuler noted a downtick in attendance in the past few years.

“I think Covid has something to do with it, but I think we also have a tremendous amount of competition with iPhones and Internet and streaming,” Altshuler said.

The Central Square Theater has faced the same challenges, but executive director Catherine

Cathy Carr Kelly of the Central Square Theater is flanked April 5 by the theater’s Kortney Adams, left, and Lee Mikeska Gardner. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Kelly attributed them to the divisiveness of the current cultural climate and said that they’ve had an especially tough time with plays.

“Social justice is a big part of our core values, and the divisiveness happening now, when thinking about social justice issues, makes it harder to put on a brand-new play with an unknown playwright maybe about challenging issues,” Kelly said.

Altshuler echoed the sentiment that it’s challenging to fill seats for new plays, but that doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem at the American Repertory Theater. Its public relations director did not respond to numerous requests for comment, but its tickets go fast, even for works such as “Becoming a Man,” a new play about a trans man’s journey to gender acceptance.

The trick, for Altshuler, has been to include well-known shows in Moonbox Productions’ calendar in addition to new plays she’s really interested in. Since the pandemic, Altshuler said she’s seen the biggest turnouts for known musicals. Last year, those included “Sweeney Todd” in October and November and “Legally Blonde: The Musical” in December; both sold extremely well, Altshuler said.

“People know it and they come out. There is something to be said for familiarity when you’re competing with so many other entertainment options,” Altshuler said. “It’s harder to get people through the door to see something new.”

The same thing happened at Central Square Theater when it presented “The Rocky Horror Show” late last year. The cult musical was such a hit at the theater that the theater extended its run, and Kelly said that 70 percent of the audience was attending a Central Square Theater production for the first time.

What matters over what sells

Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas visits The Foundry building’s theater space May 23. (Photo: Julia Levine)

The success of well-known musicals doesn’t mean the Central Square Theater or Moonbox Productions are doing away with their usual, lesser-known fare. Moonbox, Altshuler said, has always had a goal of promoting and developing new works.

“Picking the things that would be surefire, fill-the-house things is probably more fiscally smart, but in terms of the artistic enjoyment of it, it’s really great to be able to pick things that are a little more important to us as storytellers and creators,” Altshuler said.

Kelly agreed: “It’s all about balance.”

“In a five-play season, we do have room to offer a significant variety of work, and we certainly lean into that,” Kelly said.

In other words, theaters can run a big-ticket show such as “Rocky Horror” or “Legally Blonde,” but that doesn’t have to be all they do. There’s still room for plays that are more off the beaten track, such as “The Manic Monologues” by Moonbox at Arrow Street Arts, an intense look at living with mental health conditions, or Central Square Theater’s “Beyond Words,” about a scientist’s 30-year research relationship with a parrot.

The Foundry building’s theater space. (Photo: Julia Levine)

The Foundry, a relatively new space in Kendall Square that opened its doors in 2022 and offers a range of community events, has found great success in the small plays it puts on.

“We hear from different companies that when they’re putting on a show, especially in the current climate, if you get 75 percent, 60 percent of the seats filled, it’s a good day, and we’re seeing lots of 90-plus percent shows,” Foundry executive director Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas said. With its 135-seat theater, she’s found the small size to be approachable for audiences of all kinds.

Looking to the future

Kelly, tuned in to the theater climate in Greater Boston and beyond through her role as president of New England Area Theatres, said she believes “changing strategies and considering new ways of engaging the community is really important.”

One way Moonbox has done that is through its New Works Festival, born in 2020 as a response to the pandemic but continued annually since. The festival last year featured seven original plays by local playwrights selected from more than 50 submissions on topics from the gentrification of a dive bar on Chicago’s Near North Side to a fantastical, darkly comedic retelling of “Swan Lake.”

“It’s more challenging to sell, but it’s super exciting and it’s important,” Altshuler said. “There’s so much stuff to write about that is different, and that’s an important part of what we’re starting to do.”

At the Foundry, there’s a similar desire to uplift voices of all kinds; its size is an advantage for newer companies who might struggle to fill seats in a bigger theater. The multiuse building is just another draw.

“I think there’s a genuine excitement about this space, and people are looking to it as a place to experience lots of different things,” Navarrete-Rackauckas said. “You’re able to pull in an audience that maybe is not your traditional theater audience. They hear about it because they’re here for a cooking class or a sewing class, and then they come and they love it.”

A performance of “Angels in America” at the Central Square Theatre in the fall. (Photo: Nile Scott Studios)

This kind of engagement is what Kelly pointed to as boding well for the future of theater in Somerville and Cambridge. Another positive will be 585 Arts’ ability to provide spaces for all types of plays.

“Global Arts Live is contracted and committed to rent 100 nights in the theater [a year], so we’ll be bringing our presenting into the theater, but the rest of the nights are for other people,” Chin said.

The stated emphasis is on affordability for groups who want to use the center. Another benefit is the two stages – groups can choose between a formal setting with an audience capacity of 400, or a more relaxed amphitheater that can fit 150. That means Global Arts Live can support established companies and amateur playwrights.

Kelly has observed that for most theaters across New England, attendance is not back to its pre-pandemic levels. But she believes it can – and will – continue to improve.

“I’m forever optimistic,” she said.