Off Center Stage

Perched above a liquor store on Boylston Street, the original Actors Workshop put on no-frills local theater for nearly half a century. Last June, when the lease expired, Workshop director Frank Storace packed his bags and gave away most of the props, costumes, and set pieces that had accumulated over the years. While the building was bulldozed to make way for high-priced condominiums, Storace took a deep breath and invested both the Workshop's and his own life savings into a new space he hopes will provide a much-needed home for some of Boston's back-street theater companies.

“The local theater scene in Boston has always survived,” Storace says, standing in the middle of the new Workshop on Summer Street, a short walk from South Station. Workers buzz around him, setting up light fixtures and painting the ceiling. The new space houses a main stage with 100 seats, a black-box stage with 40 seats, a cafeteria, a prop room, offices, even a shower. His theater has recently opened, but he's not optimistic about the state of the scene. “Theater in Boston will continue to survive, even thrive. But it's difficult without any funding. Artists are really struggling right now.”

Cuts in arts funding have hit the independent-theater scene especially hard, driving an already marginal community further off-off-Tremont. But local troupes have responded with steadfast commitment to a wide range of artistic visions and productions. SpeakEasy Stage produces musicals, such as A Class Act, by and about A Chorus Line lyricist Edward Kleban, February 28 through March 22. Zeitgeist Stage's sophomore season includes Suzanne Bachner's award-winning Circle, February 21 through March 15, and Pearl Cleage's one-woman play, Chain, February 22 through March 15, both at the Boston Center for the Arts. Company One plans multimedia performances, such as next month's Boston premiere of Mark Ravenhill's Faust (Faust Is Dead). The Industrial Theatre celebrates its seventh year in Boston this month with a festival called “7×7,” in which seven previously unproduced local playwrights will present works featuring the number 7 through February 15. Centastage Performance Group launched “Le Salon Littéraire,” a series of readings by local playwrights and directors with question-and-answer sessions.

“It's hard to find audience members who want to take a risk on a play they've never heard of by a playwright they've never heard of,” admits Joe Antoun, Centastage's artistic director. The payoff, he insists, is worth the extra legwork because only small companies are willing to take the risks that keep theater vibrant.

The Theater Offensive's Dagger: Dykes with a Cutting Edge is an example. The so-called “guerrilla theater troupe” often performs in area T stations and is now offering an original show about queer perspectives. Another recent success was Cambridge playwright Zayd Dohrn's critically acclaimed Shameless, the final production at the original Actors Workshop. An exploration of modern sexual mores, Shameless was directed by Robert Saxner, a graduate of Harvard's prestigious ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training who could hit the big time but so far has opted for small, local productions. Aside from issues of control, Saxner considers it important to build “an inclusive community that produces daring new work.”

There are tradeoffs. At the final performance of Shameless, a cockroach leapt onto the arm of Saxner's wife. “It added to the flavor of the show,” Saxner says, chuckling.

“Call it back-street or fringe or whatever,” asserts Theater Offensive artistic director Abe Rybeck. “The truth is that we are American culture just as much as anything you can see on any big-money stage. Folks know why most entertainment has that 'remote control' feeling: because giant, corrupt corporations are holding your clicker in their money-grubbing hands. Our kind of theater gives you an utterly human experience.”

Frank Storace appreciates innovations such as Theater Offensive's subway performances, but he still hangs his hopes on a more traditional solution, something more along the lines of the Boston Center for the Arts, which already rents space to troupes as varied as SpeakEasy, Centastage, and Theater Offensive. Standing in the front of his new space, Storace gestures toward the wall behind the reception desk/ticket booth. He plans to hang works there by local visual artists. “We want this to be a happening place, where theater companies and other artists can come together and produce new works, share new ideas,” he says. “I'm hoping we're working seven days a week, productions going on in both theaters all the time, acting classes, casting opportunities.” Asked how many productions the space can handle annually, Storace thinks for a moment. “Forty,” he exclaims. “No, wait. Eighty!”

The companies are ready. And according to most of their artistic directors, audiences might be ready, too.

“People are aching for an alternative to the lockstep conservatism and mealy-mouthed neoliberalism we find in both the political and cultural scenes,” Rybeck says. “Money is very tough right now and we're struggling for every penny we get, but whining about it is the weakest possible response. Money isn't what makes great art. We need courage, honesty, creativity.”

And, of course, a stage or two.