Boston’s Huntington Theatre Gets Fresh New Start

The vanguard of Boston theater is bold, accessible and now corporate-sponsored.

The Huntington Theatre Company, in its fourth season under its imported New York artistic director, Nicholas Martin, is finally taking up the mantle of a premiere regional theater. In other words, it is finally done planting its feet as it moves through a season that has put Nathan Lane on its stage, and as it stands at the helm of the first major building project of the last 75 years of Boston theater history, a project funded by seven banks and Boston corporations.

It’s not the same Huntington as in the ’80s and ’90s, when it stuck to the old scripts and the old stagings and watched all the new stuff happen in the American Repertory Theatre (ART) across the river. And it’s not, now, another ART. Instead, the Huntington has managed to be rejuvenated on its own terms—still classical but with more conviction; still powerful, but with new subtlety.

The company was founded in 1982, moving into the old, regal Boston University Theater. The theater itself has been around since 1925 as the original Repertory Theater of Boston, the first non-profit playhouse in the country, and a complement to nearby Symphony Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts. But it was never home to much successful theater, and after two decades of dubious usage (in lesser days it was a movie house), Boston University (B.U.) bought it for its School of Fine Arts.

But the theatre is still majestic. There is an air of antiquity about the auditorium, though the seats and carpets have been redone in recent times. The impressive feel of the place comes from the absence of an effort to be impressive—it’s the powerful sense of a large theatre being used exclusively as a theatre and not as a forum for decoration or the statement of artistic design. The sole purpose here is training eyes on the stage.

The two floors of seating, which have 890 seats in total, almost wrap around the stage, expanding outward from a moat-like pit that encircles the thrust. At one point, this cavity did contain water (it was a river in a production of Dead End), but now it alternates between simply being added to the stage and concealing an orchestra.

The stage is directly connected to the theater workshop, where sets are constructed, through a set of enormous wooden doors. The shop itself has another set of elephantine doors leading to the street. Conceivably, one could charge right onto the stage from the

street while mounted on, say, an elephant. The shop is divided unevenly into smaller rooms for painting and welding, and the whole thing sits on top of the prop room.

The opposite side of the stage gives access to more work rooms: the costume shop, the dyeing room (the proud home of the Huntington’s own dyeing machine, “Mr. Spock”) and the sewing room, where a significant portion of the costumes worn in productions are expressly made.

B.U. shares the theatre with the Huntington in an arrangement much like the one between the Loeb Center, home of the ART, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club. Unlike the ART, the Huntington is not a repertory theatre, so it does not have regular cast members. It does, however, have an artistic director who directs two shows out of a six-show season lineup and a few regular crew members with long working relationships with the director, like costume designer Linda Cho and set designer Alexander Dodge, whom the Boston Globe regularly praises.

TURNING AROUND

The turning point for the Huntington came with the arrival of Nicholas Martin in 2000. Previously working in Broadway and Off-Broadway and as resident director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (which still maintains strong ties with the Huntington, as the same people tend to work in both places), Martin was hailed as a second creative wind after a stagnant period for the company. He was a working director. He had won an Obie. He knew Ethan Hawke and Nathan Lane.

But while Martin brought his directing experience to bear on the Huntington’s artistic direction, the decisions he made did not move the company’s artistic vision into the sole hands of the director. So he decided to hire a dramaturg. He began to explore scripts and looked for newness, not in directorial interpretation or adaptation, as has become the hallmark of the ART, but in new texts.

“[Martin] was really interested in making the Huntington more pertinent to American theater as a whole, to the artists who lived and worked in this city and to the American playwright,” says Ilana Brownstein, the Huntington’s literary manager, whom Martin hired. “We don’t look to do experimental, directorial-vision plays, which the ART does. Our theater looks toward the playwright and the play as text: How do we mount a production that is not experimental, but reimagines it?”

The New Play Development department was created, which, in addition to holding seminars for reading new plays, is also a driving force behind the Huntington’s $19.7 million building campaign. Two new theatres, which will constitute the new Theatre Pavilion in the South End, will serve as smaller, more accessible venues for new plays, many of them by Boston playwrights. The Virginia Wimberly Theatre, the larger of the two, will be used by the Huntington exclusively for new plays, and the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre will be rented out to smaller theater companies associated with the Boston Center for the Arts.

The smaller venues are better suited for new plays, says Brownstein, because they minimize the pressure of filling seats and generating revenue. “To put a new play in a 900-seat house, you’re sort of damning it already. You probably want to put that play where it has a chance to grow and find its audience,” Brownstein says.

In October and November of last year, Nathan Lane was in town rehearsing for Butley, the story of a jaded English professor. The play was directed by Martin and pronounced a success by the Globe even over the original 1971 production, which starred the legendary Alan Bates. Two years ago, Martin was so successful with the Huntington’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler that the show was taken to Broadway, where the same lead actress won a Tony. With Hedda Gabler, Martin managed to turn a familiar script into a more effective telling, not altering the essential strains of the classic story, but drawing them out in subtler, more powerful ways. The Boston Globe called the production “crisp and potent.”

And that is the extent to which the Huntington has settled into solid footing. As it wraps up its current season with Joe Orton’s 1960s farce, What the Butler Saw, and Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, the Huntington has given the theater-going public a certain measure of expectation and a wondering anticipation of what will, finally, appear on the stage.

—Staff writer Lily X. Huang can be reached at lxhuang@fas.harvard.edu.