Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More on the Publick Theatre

Photo: Mark Simpson
I did promise I would try to find out more about the sudden "hiatus" announced this week by Boston's Publick Theatre (see post below), so I chatted with its (now former) artistic director, Diego Arciniegas, by phone this evening to see if he could shed any further light on the situation.

A short article in the Globe had revealed little more than the press release (which Arciniegas had written), even though the situation was quite unusual, to say the least: both the Publick's artistic and producing directors (Arciniegas and Susanne Nitter) were quitting simultaneously, and the company, while maintaining its residency at the Boston Center for the Arts, had no immediate plans to produce anything - indeed its Board intended to use this "hiatus" to explore "options to continue or retire the company."

This kind of thing doesn't often happen this way (in fact I've never heard of this sort of thing happening this way) - so I had a hunch there was more to the story than the principals were letting on. So I gave Arciniegas a call. But let me say up front that based on our discussion, my guess is he would do well under cross-examination, should he ever face court action for any reason. The press release version of the situation - that he and Nitter had decided simultaneously that it was time to move on (after ten years together on the job) - was his story, and it was clear throughout our conversation that he was sticking to it.

And it may, indeed, be all there is to his and Nitter's personal stories. But another question looms behind the Publick's hiatus - the question of its performance space in Christian Herter Park (above left).  For some time the Publick has been producing both a summer season in the park as well as an "indoor" season at the BCA; only last summer it gave over its parkland stage to Gabriel Kuttner and members of the Orfeo Group for a few low-tech shows that could be produced during daylight hours - because, it was explained, the stage's electrical system had been deemed unsafe for the requirements of lighting a full production.

The story back then was that the system was being renovated - but Arciniegas did confirm for me that the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation had not, in fact, completed the work that would have enabled the Publick to return to the space.  And the theatre's Board felt it was not feasible to pay for the repairs from its own coffers, as the Department was unwilling to enter into a long-term use agreement with them (surprisingly, according to Arciniegas, the Publick had to go through the process of renewing its agreement with the state every season).

Thus at least part of this story is that the Publick has lost its home base.  (And the Commonwealth has lost, at least for the time being, one of its few functioning outdoor theatres.)  When I asked Arciniegas if part of "redefining the theatre's mission" (which was mentioned in the press release) included ending its tradition of open-air Shakespeare and focusing exclusively on productions suitable for the BCA, he refused to comment.  But it seems more than possible that this particular artistic crossroads, in combination with the joint decision by Arciniegas and Nitter to resign, could be what led the Board to declare the current "hiatus."

The trouble is that "hiatuses" have a way of devolving into "closings," particularly when keeping the company going requires a double search process, and the "option" of closing down operations entirely has already been floated.  Let's hope that doesn't happen to the forty-year-old Publick.  And let's hope that one way or another, the Commonwealth eventually coughs up the dollars to return the stage at Christian Herter Park to its intended purpose.


  1. Dear Tom: A couple of clarifications. The onus of repairs to the electrical system rests not upon the DCR. It is upon the users of the space. When faced with the prospect of upgrading an electrical system we might not have the right to use beyond a year or two, the correct course of action became evident. This, however, has nothing to do with my reasons for stepping down. I have greatly enjoyed our successes producing at the BCA (something we'd been doing since 2006 - some five years ago!), and respectfully suggest you may be conflating. Finally, I'd like to remind you the only things to which I refused comment were the questions regarding the opinions and positions of persons other than myself. I rewrote the mission statement when I took over in 2001, changing it to: "Demonstrating the Power of the Spoken Word. It had nothing to do with performance venue ten years ago, nor does it figure in why I'm stepping down now. I simply want to devote myself to performance and directing more fully. It's not a story I'm sticking to, it's my intention. There's not much more mystery to it than that. Best, Diego Arciniegas
    P.S. I'm selecting "anonymous" as a profile because I do not possess any of the other accounts offered in your drop down menu. If you want to verify that it is I, feel free to give me a call.

  2. Okay, "clarifications" noted, Diego (I'm just going to accept, in the interest of bemused efficiency, that this is indeed Diego). But btw, I don't think I ever said that you left the Publick because of the issues around the Christian Herter Park stage - perhaps you're conflating yourself a bit there? Perhaps; although I confess that after our discussion I wasn't really able to definitively parse what your attitude was toward that development.

    If indeed the Department of Conservation and Recreation expects a tenant to upgrade the physical plant of the Christian Herter Park stage without guaranteeing that tenant long-term access - well, I'm not really sure how that differs in essence from what I wrote; it's obviously not a viable expectation, and I doubt the Department will have any takers. The "onus" may have rested with the users, as you have clarified, but the acceptance of that financial burden (it is really only reasonable to say) should have in turn led to a more responsive attitude from the state. As you say yourself, the "correct course of action" was to walk away from such a situation.