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“The problem seems to be to find the joy,” Shawn LaCount, Company One Theatre's co-founder and artistic director, says with a reassuring smile to a young actor. “Once you find it, the rest is great.” The actor smiles back a little nervously.
It’s a rehearsal for last June’s “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them,” a wrenching but hopeful play about the road that high school students have to walk these days. Two of the three characters are gay; two of the three are Filipino-American — and yet A. Rey Pamatmat’s script feels universal and embracing.
This is typical of Company One’s aesthetic. Many of the shows have age, gender or racial specificity, but very few of them feel like they’re pushing politically correct buttons. The inclusiveness is open-ended; the vibe is “Let’s all celebrate being alive and sane in a world that often seems deadening and crazy.”
There has been the occasional politically correct lapse — like excising a joke at Hillary Clinton's expense from the production "Colossal" (with the playwright's blessing) — but the politics of Company One haven't compromised the quality of the plays or the productions.
When you start ticking off some of their recent big hits -- Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” and “The Flick;” Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity;” Walter Sickert and the Army of Toys in “Shockheaded Peter;” and, wait for it, “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915” -- you’re talking about some of the most thrilling local theater in New England during the past five years.
They've done all this by attracting audiences that look more like Boston than you see at other theaters. Not only is there a mix of young and old, but also white and non-white. If you were looking to the future of theater in Boston, Company One is a great place to start, even as it struggles to succeed financially.
What Is Company One’s Secret Sauce?
That this small theater company, started in 1998 by six Clark University students in Worcester, has been so successful at broadening the base of theater with such exciting work has not escaped the notice of the bigger kids on the block. By the end of next season, Company One will have worked with ArtsEmerson, the Huntington Theatre Company, Suffolk University and the American Repertory Theater.
Diane Paulus, the A.R.T.'s artistic director, sees Company One as soulmates in “expanding the boundaries of theater,” which she has made her life’s mission, or at least her A.R.T. mission.
And A.R.T. is solidifying that kinship. Its second stage, Oberon, is presenting Company One's "We're Gonna Die," a “weirdly dark song cycle” by Young Jean Lee.
So what is Company One’s secret sauce? And does it point to where theater might go in the 21st century?
First there is a vibe which makes many of their productions — in particular, “Chad Deity,” “Shockheaded Peter” and last summer’s “Colossal” — seem as high-energy as a sports event or rock show. “Chad Deity” was actually set in a wrestling ring. “Colossal” was played in four quarters on a football field with warmups, a halftime show, dance company and a drumline. “Shockheaded Peter” featured local Steamcrunk legends Walter Sickert and the Army of Toys rocking out.
But there’s also a huge effort to make outreach less of an abstract concept than an invitation to be part of something that’s both a social gathering and something larger than oneself.
“From top down we are a mission-specific organization," says Company One's LaCount. "We are invested in social change in Boston as much as we are invested in making great theater, and the key to social change is representing and connecting with lots of different people who make up the city.
“And so we are really proud that 55 percent of our audience is under the age of 35 and that more than a third of our audience is made up of people of color," LaCount added. "It’s a point of pride for us.”
Still, LaCount knows that the one important piece of the pie that's missing as the theater goes forward is money. The theater, which now has a $515,000 budget, has only recently started paying some staffers -- though they're hardly unique in that department.
“It is the case for 95 percent of the theater companies in Boston that companies don’t generate the revenue for infrastructure," says Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company. "There are only about five theaters here that pay their staff. That’s the norm. The question is, how does Company One, which has all the professional respect it can want, how do they create the financial model that gets them the infrastructure they need?
“I don’t know the answer,” Maso continued, “but their work is so consistently engaging that there has to be an audience that grows with them, who turn into donors and institutional leaders. Somebody has to jump start that process with a major investment. It probably has to be foundation-driven.”
'A Deep Commitment To Who They Are'
Part of the trick, so far, has been getting big established organizations, like the Huntington, on their side. The two theaters have joined forces for an Annie Baker festival (along with SpeakEasy Stage Company), and last summer hosted an A. Rey Pamatmat doubleheader.
Catherine Peterson, executive director at ArtsBoston, a clearing house for Greater Boston arts organizations, raves about the way they conduct themselves.
“There is such a strong company ethos that permeates [Company One's] marketing, their design, the way they talk about themselves on social media," she says. "It’s very clear what they believe in and are very much on point as individuals when they talk about Company One’s work and that’s extraordinary.
“In addition, when you go to a performance there’s always something to engage you in the foyer," Peterson adds. "You feel welcomed, part of something special. They want to engage with you. They’re very fresh and smart and lively and welcoming. And very affordable.”
The Huntington's Maso, a shrewd observer of the local scene, agrees.
“They know who they are. They have a very clearly defined mission and they live that mission through play selection, they live that mission by the staff they bring on, they live that mission through the audience they try to recruit," he says. "In a difficult marketplace it’s admirable --- and a smart move as well — but mostly it’s a deep commitment to who they are."
Maso points out that Company One successfully employs two key strategies: programming and pricing.
"The two strategies they employ are what we employ," Maso adds. "Pricing seems to me to be the key issue with young people and they are determined to keep their prices low with pay-what-you-can performances, pricing that changes during the run of the show. When the show is in the last week and the demand is higher, you’ll pay a little more. Anybody who wants to go can go.”
(The top ticket price at Company One is $25 in the early run of a production, $38 toward the end. For those under 25, tickets cost just a bit more than what it costs to see a movie.)
And then there’s that social component, which used to be organic to all theater, says A.R.T.'s Paulus, and still should be. She recounts how one student at a Harvard Business School class was saying how he eschewed the theater.
“ ‘I’m a social person, I’m just not a cultural person,’ " Paulus recalls the student saying. "And I remember sitting there thinking — that’s the problem, a large sector of the generation … puts theater in a box, where they don’t really include it in what they do in their lives … And I love to look back in time to theater history and include a social aspect of going to the theater as it was in fifth-century Athens or Elizabethan England when you saw Shakespeare plays. It wasn’t just cultural. I don’t even know if that idea of ‘cultural’ existed in the same way then. It was so much more integrated into your life as a citizen.”
The social aspect of theater ties in neatly to how millennials define culture in general. According to Culture Track 2014, a survey commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, each succeeding generation is more likely to see culture as “a meeting place for like-minded individuals”
Katie Getchell, the MFA's deputy director, said the survey found that a lot of millennials “don’t go [to cultural events] because they have no one to go with." What that implies, she says, is that they would go if there were a social aspect to it. For example, Getchell pointed to a sake tasting night that went along with the MFA's exhibit of the Japanese artist Hokusai.
More Like A Church
A lot of theater professionals in Boston admire Company One’s ability to get new audiences into the theater, but say that the theater hasn’t been very successful at getting them to come back when the production isn’t about their specific ethnic/gender/age concern.
Maso, from the Huntington, doesn’t think that’s as big an issue as it’s made out to be.
“Most people don't go to everything. Most people are going to pick and choose," he says. "If one of those connections is, ‘I get to see more of people like me,’ then it’s just natural that people want to feel a connection to the work that you’re doing.”
LaCount and Summer L. Williams, a Company One co-founder and frequent director, know the challenges in front of them, but they seem confident that the financial situation will be resolved without sacrificing the company’s aesthetic. “It’s a huge leap for us,” Williams says. “Some companies do it too quickly and fall by the wayside.”
A consultant told the company a few years ago that there weren’t any arts organizations like them in the country — that they were more like a church or a faith-based organization.
“And I thought, ‘There’s a lot of truth to that,’ " LaCount recalls. "I also don’t think that will be sustainable. I don't have any doubt the money will come. The money is coming."
LaCount and Williams say that the company's mission shouldn't be compromised in the search for funding.
“The more we talk about the need for our finances to be stable, the more risky our programming becomes," LaCount says. "I think we all feel pretty strongly that Boston doesn’t necessarily need another theater company. What Boston needs is a company that will jump off the artistic cliff to show everybody else how far the fall is. And we’re really proud to be that company, and this is where the faith comes in, we believe that that has value not only to our audiences and artists, but to every other theater company in Boston.”
Whether other companies agree, it's a jump that Company One audiences are finding increasingly exhilarating.
Rebecca Sananes contributed to this report.