jakub | October 31, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Pour One Out for New Rep

Zohar Tirosh in “Pieces,” the cast of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Austin Ku and Brendan McNab in “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” the cast of “Boom”

It’s been more than a decade since I left Boston for New York City, but in the seven years I spent as a theatre critic in the Bean, first at the weekly Dig and then the Boston Herald, I saw most of the plays and musicals that came through the area, sometimes as many as five shows per week. These ran the gamut from micro-budget productions in black boxes and unfinished basements—and, once, a literal hole in the wall in Fort Point—to Broadway touring shows at the Colonial and pre-New York tryouts at the American Repertory Theater. I started out in the business when I was a senior in college, decades younger than any other theatre critic in the city at the time. I was hungry to see exciting, incendiary new works, but found precious little in the staid Boston scene of that era.

In the years since I decamped to Brooklyn, I’ve watched from afar as bad news rolled in about performing arts venues shuttering in my former home, from the American Rep’s Oberon and ImprovBoston (which still mounts shows at other venues around town) to scrappy concert venues like Great Scott, the Milky Way, and Thunder Road. Some closings were due to the financial toll of pandemic shutdowns, but the brutal truth is that, factoring in the state of the economy and declining audience numbers, theatrical productions have become prohibitively expensive to produce.

By far the greatest loss to the Greater Boston stage community in years was announced only a few weeks ago: the shuttering of Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre after 40 seasons and 300-plus productions. Like virtually every venue across the globe, the New Rep took a major financial hit in 2020 when COVID-19 forced the world indoors. But when the world began to return in 2021, the New Rep remained dark due to a lack of funding. It opened its doors once more in 2022 with a reduced budget and shorter season, returning this year with a full season that, sadly, would be its swan song.

Between 2006 and 2012, I reviewed shows at regional theatres in Boston and beyond, but I often found the programming overall kind of dull. At least in the late aughts and early 2010s, regional theatres tended to play it safe, with most of their seasons dedicated to classics and crowd pleasers rather than recent plays and musicals from major theatrical hubs like New York, Chicago, and London—let alone original works by local playwrights.

The New Rep was the notable exception to this rule. Sure, it dutifully mounted A Christmas Carol every December and staged oldies by the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, and Tennessee Williams. But under the artistic direction of Rick Lombardo and, later, Kate Warner, the New Rep made some of the most innovative choices of any of its regional peers.

The one that made the strongest impression on me in the early days was New Rep’s 2008 production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Katharine Viner and Alan Rickman’s controversial one-woman show is based on the diaries of a young activist who, in 2003, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while standing between it and a Palestinian house slated for demolition in the Gaza Strip. To present an alternate view on the hot-button topic, the play ran in rep with Zohar Tirosh’s Pieces, about the author’s time in the Israeli Army.

Performed at the New Rep’s Downstage space, the production was one of only a handful staged in the U.S. since the 2005 London debut of Rachel Corrie. It was a daring move for a theatre that largely relied on subscriptions from older theatregoers. To me, a young critic, it felt like a revelation.

Over the years, I continued to be impressed by the shows New Rep mounted, including two plays by the bloody, irreverent Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore); the New England premieres of recent Off-Broadway works like Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House and Eurydice, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s apocalyptic comedy Boom, and David Gow’s explosive drama Cherry Docs.

Downstage, the New Rep staged irreverent works like Scott Brown and Anthony King’s wonderfully weird Gutenberg! The Musical!, which got its start at the Upright Citizens Brigade and only recently had its Broadway premiere. The theatre also supplemented its annual Christmas Carol with a concurrent staging of David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries for theatergoers, like yours truly, who prefer their holiday fare quirky and wry.

That said, until very recently, the New Rep was suffering from the same rot that afflicted—and is still afflicting—theatre companies nationwide: a dearth of representation, both in programming that didn’t include works by BIPOC artists, and a lack of non-white people in positions of power. New Rep took its first step toward correcting that in 2019 with the appointment of its first Black artistic director, Michael J. Bobbitt. (He stepped down in 2021.)

This history makes it even more of a shame that, in its final season, the company made a genuine commitment to championing inclusivity. The New Rep partnered with local organizations on shows including Reconsidering, co-presented by RootsUprising and Theater for the People, which focused on the experiences of women of color; Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark work about Black life in the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun; and the world premiere of DIASPORA!, Phaedra Michelle Scott’s play about a Black woman tracing her roots back to the Civil Rights Movement.

In my early days at the Dig, I had an annoyingly 20-something tendency to ask what every play I reviewed said about the state of the performing arts. In retrospect, all those basement black-box shows didn’t do anything to deserve this kind of self-serious scrutiny—nor did, say, the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. Chill out once in a while, young Jenna!

The programming at the New Rep, on the other hand, did stand up to that level of examination. And what a gift that was not just for me—and my fervor to write compelling ledes—but for the Boston theatre community as a whole.

Now, as the curtain comes down for the last time for the New Rep at its longtime home, the Mosesian Center for the Arts, without even a final “God bless us, every one!” from Tiny Tim, I can’t help but look back on the time, long ago, when this regional theatre gave a young critic with a hunger for innovative works hope for the future of the art form. There’ll always be a ghost light shining in my heart for you, New Rep.

Jenna Scherer (she/her) is a Brooklyn-based culture writer and editor whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Time Out New York. She’s the senior copy editor at Backstage magazine and co-hosts the podcast “We’re Not Over Six Feet Under.”

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