New plays pose real risks for theaters. They take a financial commitment that may never pay off, and it’s hard to know how audiences will respond until a play opens.
Still, the Greater Boston Stage Company, until recently called the Stoneham Theatre, announced in March that it now plans to produce a new play every year.
Weylin Symes, the theater’s producing artistic director, is aware of the risks.
“As everyone in theater knows,” Symes says, “new plays aren’t exactly the most lucrative programming decision.”
But Greater Boston Stage has one key advantage in this bold endeavor: the Don Fulton New Play Project. Part of a million-dollar gift from longtime Stoneham resident and theatergoer Don Fulton, the $100,000 fund is intended solely to support the production of new works.
One Last, Large Gift
Fulton became a regular at the theater after retiring 12 years ago, and he’s been donating for almost a decade. In 2014, though, he learned that he had an incurable disease, so he decided to make his final gift to the company a big one.
“Don Fulton is, I think, every theater’s dream,” says Symes.
And that’s not just because of Fulton’s generosity. Fulton is a true supporter of what the Greater Boston Stage Company aims to do: provide professional theater to a suburban community.
Staging new plays, despite the risks, is part of that mission. And that ambition is a quality Fulton admires.
“I trust Weylin and the theater,” Fulton says.
The first Don Fulton Project production, which Symes will direct, opens in October. Set in a Florida hardware store, Callie Kimball’s “Alligator Road” explores themes of family, community and race. Maine’s Mad Horse Theatre Company produced an earlier version in 2015, but this production is the work’s professional premiere, Symes said.
Some of Kimball’s other plays, including “Dreams of the Penny Gods,” “Rush” and “May 39th,” have been staged in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. But Greater Boston Stage is her largest venue yet, she said.
“When there’s support and material resources [for new plays] that’s invaluable, and it does a lot to further playwriting,” Kimball says.
As the Stoneham Theatre, Greater Boston Stage produced seven original plays. In Symes’ experience, though, midsize theaters see fewer new plays than either larger companies like the Huntington, which have the resources to develop them, or smaller ones, which simply don’t have as much to lose by putting on untested work.
So the donation puts Greater Boston Stage in a unique position.
“This is making it possible for us to do what I think a lot of theaters would love to do,” Symes says.
Greater Boston Stage gets about 30 percent of its budget from donations, Symes says, so this gift is unusual only in its size. But what’s more striking, Symes says, is Fulton’s trust in the theater.
A Fan Becomes A Donor
Fulton, 63, has lived in Stoneham for 45 years, but only started going to plays regularly after retiring from an engineering career. His interest gradually deepened, and he started talking with Symes about making a major gift.
Then came the diagnosis of multiple myeloma, which is considered incurable.
“Since then, I have gotten more serious about giving my money away,” Fulton says.
He had a large sum of money saved up from a technology he patented in the 1970s. And while he set aside some for his immediate family, Futlon still had a significant amount left over.
So he began making a list of organizations he would like to donate to.
Thirty-one places, to be exact, ranging from universities to charities. At the top of the list? The Greater Boston Stage Company.
Fulton consistently donated to the theater for almost a decade. In recent years, some contributions were in the thousands; over the past five years, Fulton estimates, his donations total about $100,000.
It was after his diagnosis that Fulton told Symes he was considering his largest gift yet.
“He quite literally walked into our lobby and said, ‘We should talk about that major gift because I’m dying,’ ” Symes recalls.
“He’s a very matter-of-fact guy,” he adds with a laugh.
Two years later, the deal was set. Upon Fulton’s death, the theater would receive a million dollars in three installments.
But the Greater Boston Stage staff wanted Fulton to see his money being put to use.
An Idea Takes Hold
So Symes and managing director Amy Morin presented an idea to Fulton: Let them dip into the fund while he was still alive. Fulton agreed, and so the Don Fulton New Play Project was born.
Fulton’s gift will do more than support new plays. As the theater heads into its 18th season, the building is starting to show its age, so some money will go to structural repairs.
The company is also hoping to get the theater “looped.” It’s a technology that uses Bluetooth to transmit a play’s sound directly into hearing aids.
For now, though, the Greater Boston Stage Company is focusing on its upcoming world premiere. “Alligator Road” plays Oct. 12 to 29.