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BOSTON — Paul Daigneault and his then-fledgling fringe theater company SpeakEasy Stage won their first Elliot Norton Award for “Jeffrey” in 1995. Daigneault took home a Norton award for directing “Bat Boy: The Musical” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” in 2003, and a second five years later for his work on a trio of shows: “Parade,” “Some Men” and “Zanna, Don’t!” He’s the founder and producing artistic director of a company that in 23 years has morphed from a scrappy startup to a medium-size ensemble known for nurturing local theater artists and staging Boston premieres.
So few local theater veterans were surprised last month when the Boston Theater Critics Association announced Daigneault would receive this year’s Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence at the annual awards ceremony at Wheelock Family Theatre May 19. Huntington Theatre Company Managing Director Michael Maso, for one, wondered why the committee waited so long to bestow the honor.
“Paul has done the hardest thing there is to do in this business, which is to do good work on an arc of continual growth,” Maso explains.
SpeakEasy’s origin story echoes that of any number of promising theater startups. It launched in 1992 with a few friends from Daigneault’s undergraduate acting days at Boston College. Staged runs so sparsely attended they would hand out flyers on the plaza at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) in the South End, urging people to come inside for a free performance. In 1995, it opened Paul Rudnick’s comedy “Jeffrey” with less than $10 in the bank.
“Paul carved out a niche,” says Maso. “He nurtured the company from its inception, with friends and volunteers, then professionalized it. Now it employs people, it pays people. No one else in Boston has done that!”
Boston actor and playwright John Kuntz, who starred in SpeakEasy’s acclaimed production of “The Whale” this year, calls Daigneault “an excellent businessman and an artist with impeccable taste.” His shows, says Kuntz, "are fresh and contemporary and new and vital. His seasons are really good not only because the work is good, but also because Paul really knows who he is, who his company is, who his audience is.”
Low-key and affable, Daigneault attributes SpeakEasy’s success to “putting the right people together” both behind the scenes and on the stage. He’s quick to share deserved credit with his longtime collaborators, Paul Melone and Jim Torres. Melone, director, general manager and production manager, has managed more than 60 of the company’s plays, musicals, concerts, cabarets and special events. Torres is SpeakEasy’s singular marketing and communication manager—the public face and master of the preshow curtain speech at the Calderwood Pavilion.
“He is great at gathering people,” Kuntz concurs. “He draws on a stable of talented local actors but he always brings in new talent. He has a gift of connecting people with others and to SpeakEasy Stage.”
Kuntz counts himself among those who reaped rewards from connecting with SpeakEasy early in his career, when he appeared in the cast of “Jeffrey,” SpeakEasy’s first hit, during its extended run in 1995. ”And I was joking around a lot backstage, and Paul came up to me one night, and said, ‘You’re really funny. If you write a one-person show, I’ll produce it.’ So I wrote it, and it was ‘Freaks.’” That was the first of five late-night shows Kuntz wrote and performed at SpeakEasy, bringing crowds to the bare-bones BCA theater while establishing himself as a gifted comic performer and playwright.
In the late 1990s, SpeakEasy followed its success with “Jeffrey” with productions of plays like Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” that drew a number of gay men to the South End theater company. “I had a love-hate relationship with those plays,” says Daigneault, sitting in a Brookline coffee shop on a rainy late-April morning. “But I didn’t want to be a gay theater.”
He started snapping up rights to produce the first Boston runs of contemporary shows and musicals—recent Off-Broadway hits including “Bat Boy: The Musical,” an engaging, off-kilter comedy about a bloodthirsty freak of nature who longs to be a normal boy. Like many small ensembles, SpeakEasy was struggling financially in the fall of 2002, when “Bat Boy” kicked off its fall season. “I didn’t have enough money to paint the floor black” before the show opened in the BCA Plaza Theatre, Daigneault recalls.
The quirky musical ran for 105 performances over the course of the 2002-'03 season, raising SpeakEasy’s visibility and putting the BCA, then a South End community arts center, on Boston’s mainstream arts and entertainment maps.
When the Huntington, the BCA and the City of Boston announced plans to build what became the Calderwood Pavilion — a two-theater complex that would house a second stage for the Huntington and a smaller, black box performance space for resident theaters at the Boston Center for the Arts — SpeakEasy was invited to share the smaller Roberts Theatre with similar-size troupes.
Buoyed by the financial support of the Huntington and the BCA, SpeakEasy strutted its best stuff throughout the 2004¬'05 season. They inaugurated the Roberts with a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” featuring a stand-out cast of Boston-based musical theater performers, staged the Boston premiere of the Pulitzer-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” and wrapped with an extended run of Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning comedy, “Take Me Out” — another Boston premiere.
“We were determined to live up to the space, and our sales were brisk all season. Then the reality of what it would cost to run that building hit, the Huntington had to reduce the size of its subsidy to us. And we had a couple of really rough years,” says Daigneualt, who praises his board for getting the company back on track and in the black within six years.
Even as SpeakEasy struggled financially, it mounted increasingly sophisticated, award-winning productions that showcased a slew of local talent. Directors like Scott Edmiston and David Gammons and performers such as Kerry Dowling, Paula Plum, Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan became SpeakEasy audience favorites, helping to turn the Calderwood into a Boston theater destination. Daigneault, who is on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory and has staged student musicals at Boston College, is particularly proud that he’s given many of the young people he’s worked with a chance to work on a professional stage.
“One of the reasons the Calderwood is a success is that SpeakEasy had the capacity to grow into a midsize company, and make the Roberts work,” says Maso. “That’s good for us and it’s good for them.“
Paul has done the hardest thing there is to do in this business, which is to do good work on an arc of continual growth.Michael Maso
With an operating budget of $1.2 million and seven full-time employees, Daigneault’s company is financially sound these days. But a raging “weather event” like last year’s Winter Storm Nemo — which forced the company to cancel the final three performances of “Other Desert Cities” — “can still send us into a tailspin,” he points out.
SpeakEasy subscribers fill about one third of its houses during most show runs. “I’d love it to be closer to half,” Daigneault says. “That way we could take more risks, and not rely so much on New York approval” before trying out new work.
Meanwhile, the company is experimenting with new theatrical forms as well as original productions. Daigneault is increasingly drawn to smaller, more intimate versions of shows like “The Color Purple,” which he helmed last fall; “Carrie: The Musical,” currently running at the Roberts; and next season’s “Big Fish.” These scaled down musicals are based primarily on books and movies that inspired large (sometimes overproduced) Broadway shows. “This could be the beginning of a new model,” Daigneault says brightly.
Daigneault’s show choices “echo my life,” and the people he likes to work with, he says. He was drawn to “Big Fish,” for example, because “the father-son relationship in the story spoke to me.” (Daigneault and his husband, Rev. Jeffrey Mello, the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Brookline, are parents of 13-year-old Ardani Mello-Daigneault.)
SpeakEasy made a stab at staging a world premiere last fall with playwright Nicky Silver’s clunky, occasionally cringe-inducing adaptation of an unpublished 1993 Kurt Vonnegut play, “Make Up Your Mind,” that probably should have stayed in the drawer where Vonnegut left it. (It came with its director, Daigneault says, but acknowledges: “I wanted to crawl under a rock when it was open.”)
Next season holds more promise for original work. After a 15-year hiatus, Kuntz will return to the South End company in the role of writer, when SpeakEasy stages the world premiere of his "Necessary Monsters" in early December.
“Paul gave me my first opportunity as a playwright,” notes Kuntz, “so it’s really kind of nice to be going back.”
Daigneault agrees: “This really feels as if we’ve come full circle.”
A former Boston Globe arts reporter and author of the critically acclaimed “Irish America: Coming Into Clover,” Maureen Dezell is now a senior editor at Boston College. Her website: maureendezell.com.