There Is No “I” in Theater
David Dower is in Hungary, and we’re talking about talking. The newly appointed artistic director of ArtsEmerson has agreed to an interview for this profile, but he’s having second thoughts. His concern has nothing to do with jet lag or the water in Budapest, where he is part of an international contingent viewing the best of contemporary Hungarian theater. And it’s not that he has anything to hide. This is a man who will happily tick off a list of folks who either mistrust him or jealously grumble that he is new to town yet seems to have a direct line to the mayor’s office. He’ll even spell their names.
Despite his reservations, Dower is actually one of the most transparent and inclusive arts leaders this city has ever seen. He wants more participation, more representation, more diversity, more dialogue, more everything. His vision is huge—and, some say, overly idealistic. He wants to use theater to spark debate about the city’s racial divide, to break down long-entrenched barriers, to ignite social change. And he’s hardly afraid of controversy: Over the past three decades, he has been an ardent and vocal champion of playwrights and artists, claiming that the nation’s nonprofit theaters are impenetrable bureaucracies that have lost sight of their original mission to nurture local talent and emerging artists. This stance has earned him the respect of individual artists, but has also angered colleagues in regional theater.
So what’s he so worried about? Turns out he doesn’t want to be identified as the singular leader of ArtsEmerson, Boston’s acclaimed presenter and producer of international theater, which he took over in January from founder Rob Orchard. No, Dower wants it to be shouted, loud and clear, that he is just one side of an equilateral leadership triangle and that he shares power with creative director Polly Carl and managing director David Howse.
Emails cross through the international ether. Requests are made, explanations offered, agreements reached. By the time Dower returns to Boston, the interview is back on.
Dower, a former community organizer, oversees a high-profile organization with a full-time staff of 40, and he’s running it like a collective. That’s a rare thing in the nonprofit theater world, where institutional identity is most often attributed to one powerful and charismatic individual—someone exactly like Dower.
He has an open-door policy that begins in his office, which Dower voluntarily shares with a staff member. He doesn’t own a car, rents half of a two-family home in Dorchester for $1,500 a month, and rides the bus to work. By most accounts, this isn’t posturing. The most common word colleagues use to describe him is “authentic.” He certainly doesn’t want to project the aura of a supreme leader who inherited his kingdom, holding forth at a designer desk behind closed doors. “This is why we insisted we all talk to you,’’ he says. “As much as we know what we mean, the visual is still the same old visual. It is still the idea that I was prince, and now I am king.”
At 6-foot-4, Dower is every inch an egalitarian, and still sees himself as a blue-collar kid whose family once worked a not-so-successful farm in New Hampshire. “We didn’t know what we were doing,’’ he recalls. An avuncular 56-year-old with a penchant for sweater vests, he always seems to know everyone in the room. “He has been here for three years, and he knows more people than I can even imagine knowing,” says Orchard, who spent three decades helping lead the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge before launching ArtsEmerson.
It’s no accident that Dower’s trinity of leadership reflects his eye toward diversity. Creative director Polly Carl, 48, who identifies as transgender, is readily recognizable for her colorful tattoos and funky sneakers. She is the director and editor of HowlRound, a research initiative that holds “convenings” around hot topics in theater, charts the progress of new plays, and publishes an online journal of industry critiques. An academic with a Ph.D. in comparative studies in discourse and society from the University of Minnesota, she shares Dower’s blue-collar roots and got her introduction to the arts by combing the shelves of the public library while growing up in Elkhart, Indiana. “I have never forgotten where I came from,’’ Carl says.
Howse, on the other hand, is a wunderkind with a fondness for bow ties. As executive director of the Boston Children’s Chorus, he built a fledgling organization into a nationally known institution. His childhood in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was marked by an appreciation for education, exposure to the arts, and a circle of multicultural friends. “In a relatively small town, that was an anomaly,” Howse, 39, says. “If you were a black kid, you were supposed to hang out with the black boys.” That diversity growing up helped define his professional life. Like Dower and Carl, though, he discovered a striking sense of racial division in Boston when he arrived here to earn his master’s in vocal performance at the New England Conservatory of Music. “I didn’t see a lot of people of color,” he recalls. “My family would say, ‘Where are all the black people?’ I said, ‘I know they are here. I just don’t know where they are.’”
Most notably, all three share the same language and the same sweeping mission: to use the arts as a way to unite people, and to rewrite the “narrative” of a city still repairing the fallout from school busing and desegregation. Dower puts it this way: “We want to use the tools of art and civic engagement to create civic transformation around issues of equity, around race and class.”
Dower’s populist philosophy is evident during a staff meeting in the windowless green room of the Paramount Center, the renovated complex on Washington Street that houses three of ArtsEmerson’s four state-of-the-art theaters. (The other is the Cutler Majestic, around the corner on Tremont Street.) The staff is debriefing after a two-week run of Muse & Morros, featuring the Latino troupe Culture Clash. Dower opens the meeting with superlatives. “This show was a home run,’’ he says. “We landed it in every way.” Then he takes a handmade “immunity idol,” a sort of triangular pyramid crafted from three programs taped together, and passes it to the person on his right. It goes around the room, and everyone—from the unassuming guy who mans the box office to the woman with the Day-Glo hair who writes the paychecks—gets a chance to speak. One can only assume no one will get voted off the island, even if things go terribly wrong. After an hour, everyone is done talking, and one thing is striking: No one mentioned whether the show made or lost any money.
The subject of finances, it turns out, is touchy. Emerson College’s Office of the Arts presides over ArtsEmerson and HowlRound, but after weeks of asking for budget numbers, I was ultimately told that the college does not release budgets for individual departments. Dower admits that the new leadership didn’t know the exact figures, and scrambled to get them for me before the college’s edict came down. Dower’s hands are tied by bureaucratic policy, but he can say that ArtsEmerson’s annual program budget is similar to that of a midsize theater company, which he estimates ranges from $500,000 to $7 million at the top end. Philanthropic support from foundations and individuals alone reaches more than $1 million a year.
Clearly, the new leadership is big on ideas, but it remains murky on many details. Dower will tell you proudly that every ZIP code in Boston was represented in the audience at ArtsEmerson’s opening nights this season, but he can’t instantly cite the operation’s budget. The leadership team readily discusses its lofty goal of making its productions affordable, but it took repeated requests to learn that it has given out more than 2,600 reduced-price or complimentary tickets to individuals in need over the past two years. Dower and his colleagues speak idealistically about a coalition called One Boston, which aims to bring civic leaders and community members together to discuss social change, but that project is still in an incipient stage. “It is an idea they are fumbling with and trying to engage,” says Shawn LaCount, the artistic director of Company One, a local theater company that has been embraced by ArtsEmerson and will be featured in the 2015-2016 season.
Still, ArtsEmerson’s most fundamental relationship is firmly intact: It has the stamp of approval from Emerson College. M. Lee Pelton, the college’s president since 2011, views ArtsEmerson as the “portal” to the college and describes it as a “significant and highly recognizable brand,” noting it is in sync with three of the college’s strategic goals: civic engagement, internationalization, and innovation. “It is a part of our academic footprint,” Pelton says. “We don’t expect our math department to raise its own money.” And when Orchard approached Pelton about bringing Dower onboard as the heir apparent, Pelton didn’t let him finish his sentence—he simply said yes.
The time is ripe for new ideas in the arts community. Mayor Marty Walsh made good on his campaign promise to hire a cabinet-level arts czar by bringing Julie Burros to town last year, and her office recently announced plans to conduct a sweeping review of the city’s cultural capital, ranging from homespun knitting groups to entrenched institutions. Orchard notes a significant attitude shift at City Hall. When he approached the late Mayor Thomas Menino about using the theater as a forum to discuss race, “[Menino] said, ‘We don’t have a racial problem,”’ Orchard recalls. When he approached newly elected Mayor Marty Walsh, however, “Walsh said, ‘Yes, we need every opportunity we can.’’’
It doesn’t hurt that Walsh’s chief of policy is Joyce Linehan, a long-standing community activist who has deep roots in the city’s music, arts, and political scenes—and who also happens to be the former publicist for ArtsEmerson. Dower is hyper-aware of the perception that his organization has direct ties to Walsh’s administration. He brings it up, without being asked. “I have the conversation with City Hall that some of my colleagues don’t have,’’ he says, acknowledging some discontent. “I understand the nervousness. I understand the exhaustion of, once again, there is a shiny new thing and all the attention goes over there. It is not going to stop us, but it is not going to be ignored.”
Burros, who was introduced to the arts community last fall during a gathering at the Paramount, brushes off a question about that perception. But LaCount, of Company One, is direct. “It is true that they have a direct line to the mayor’s office,’’ he says. “I am just grateful someone in the theater community does.”
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