Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Theater Commons Comes to Emerson and What This Means for the Boston Theatre Scene

As 2011 was coming to a close, the big news on the Boston theatre scene was that David Dower and Polly Carl of the American Voices New Play Institute would be moving from their base of operations at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage to Emerson College. In the midst of this excitement, The real question was what this means beyond Rob Orchard's aim to make ArtsEmerson a major regional player in the performing arts.

As outlined by Dower on the Arena Stage blog, this is essentially means that efforts that had previously been grouped under the hashtag of "#newplay" are branching in two directions under the auspices of two separate organizations. The first, staying at Arena Stage and retaining the American Voices New Play Institute name, will, amongst other things, focus on the much lauded resident playwright program and on Arena's own developmental work.

The second branch, now using the name "Center For the Theater Commons at Emerson College" will focus

on the tools and initiatives designed to advance the national infrastructure for new work and the people who make it. So, where the AVNPI will house Arena's activities, this new entity, The Center for the Theater Commons, will develop and maintain the tools of the #newplay commons and act as staff to the nationwide effort. The map, the live stream channel, the journal, the research projects, and the activities of Howlround will be housed at the new Center, situated in the Office of the Arts at Emerson College. The web portal for this platform becomes Howlround.com.

Polly Carl and Vijay Matthew, writing at Shareable while explaining the needs that brought the New Play Institute into being, outline the projects that the Commons will continue to develop at Emerson. Most of these involve using technology both to both build and document the "new play infrastructure." The two most visible of these initiatives that the Commons will be bringing to Emerson, are the online journal Howlround and the New Play Map, of which I've written about twice before.

Given my position in the industry: entering the field of playwriting without the connections that comes with an MFA, not having a salaried position at a regional theatre, I have had little use for the Howlround. The contents had sadly struck me as being more about omphalloskepticism than about theatre featuring often cryptic essays by more connected figures than myself wondering if they were reaching an audience or not.
The New Play Map, on the other hand, was a project I have supported enthusiastically since it went online last year. It is a crowd sourced map, documenting the new play infrastructure, presenting the artists, collaboratives, conferences, venues, and companies writing, developing, and presenting new plays. I even explored the possible uses that could be explored since the source code was released (New Dance Map anyone? New Opera Map? New Performance Art Map?)

The question, for the Boston theatre scene returns to "how do we use this?" Theater Commons, despite being local, is under no obligation to show Boston playwrights or Boston theatre companies any special favor, especially when the new staff understandably come with any number of professional obligations to past collaborators, however it does become incumbent on the Boston theatre scene to become aware of what is going on in its own neighborhood.

I have already suggested to the newly elected board of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston to strongly urge that member companies, and individual artists working in new play development document their efforts on the New Play Map. Some already have started to do just that, some already had. This longer essay is for those who have not responded to the Alliance's urgings. Placing our work on the map is not just to advertise our presence to the larger national scene, but to document how we operate, so that organizations like the Theater Commons have a better grasp on what tools we (both nationally and locally) need.

What this means for the local theatre community is what we are willing to make it mean.

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