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Jim Petosa Takes the Reins at NRT

By Kurt P. Slawitschka, Contributing Writer

“The theater is really enjoying a kind of early days of a golden age,” says an enthusiastic Jim Petosa, the newly named artistic director of Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre. Petosa believes that the combination of the regional theater community’s strength and the recent tendency for local audiences to demand more challenging and experimental theater, such as the American Repertory Theater’s joint venture with British theater company Punchdrunk on “Sleep No More in 2010, will ignite the new golden age. And he wants to be a part of it.

“The artistic director is the prime steward of the artistic mission of the institution” says Petosa. He or she is in charge of the general artistic and production value of any play that the company puts on. In that sense, Petosa has the power to change how the NRT presents drama as a medium to the public. An example of this is how Diane Paulus, who was appointed artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard in 2009, took an institution that specialized primarily in avant guarde theater and refocused it on a more populist, and commercially viable, strategy. In other words, Petosa will be determining both the direction and the aesthetic for each season through the plays he chooses to stage and the people he hires. In the context of New Repertory Theatre this means he “has a commitment to doing plays that have a certain dramatic quality to them as works of literature and also have a certain human component in the stories that they tell,” says Petosa.

Petosa has an extensive background in direction as well as in theater administration. He began working at Olney Theatre just north of Washington D.C. in 1985 and became the artistic director there in 1994—a role he will continue to play until the end of the 2012 season. At the same time he will continue to hold his role as Director of the School of Theatre at the College of Fine Arts at Boston University, a position he has fulfilled since 2002.

He also has previous ties to the NRT as a guest director of several shows, including the off-Broadway cult hit, “The Last Five Years.” His experience working with the NRT won him the new role. “After three months of negotiation, we arrived at the notion that this was going to be a very positive relationship, and we decided to make it happen,” Petosa says.

“The energy of the theater community has grown exponentially over the 10 years that I’ve been living here,” Petosa says. ”We’re going to find a community that is growing not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of the range of works that it seeks to provide.” Petosa sees this as a regional phenomenon. “While Boston has always been a very smart city and a very cultural city, I think theater is really growing in profile in this region.” He points to a wealth of regional theater companies that focus on commissioning new works—such as the Boston Playwrights Theater at B.U.­—and to foreign theater companies like Punchdrunk deciding to stage shows in the Boston area.

“There are challenges that come with a 21st century economy, but there are also great opportunities,” Petosa says. Boston’s diversity, both intellectually and culturally, allows for theater to be both artistically and financially successful. He hopes that an eclectic fan base will allow productions that might not be commercially viable in some cities to become successes in Boston. ”We are looking forward to a new era where we can serve this robust audience and grow it in numbers, in size, and in scope—and create a real artistic home,” Petosa says. His strategy is “to put on terrific plays that tell terrific stories and to cast them with the best actors that we can,” not only to satisfy the NRT’s audience, but also to develop artists and give them a place where they “always consider themselves as growing and evolving.”

The 2012-13 theater season reflects many of Petosa’s hopes. It embodies the sort of complexity Petosa describes with both political and universally human themes ranging from marriage equality in “Marry Me a Little” to the morality and justification of bringing a child into the world in “Lungs.” This is a series of plays that demand something from their audiences. Regardless of the success of Petosa’s first season at the NRT, it is clear that he will have a central role to play in maintaining Boston’s reputation as a home for dynamic new theater.

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