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“Diversity is life,” says Michael J. Bobbitt as he tells me about his theater-filled childhood in lower Northwest D.C. and adult life as a black gay man with a white partner and adopted Vietnamese son. Bobbitt is committed, he says, to sharing theater with others from different backgrounds. “I see what theater has done for me so I’m obsessed with getting other Michael Bobbitt’s into the theater,” he says.
Starting Aug. 1, Bobbitt brings his multi-faceted experience and passion for inclusion to New Repertory Theatre as the new artistic director. Bobbitt joins the mid-size theater company in residence at the Dorothy & Charles Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown for its 35th anniversary.
Before joining New Rep, Bobbitt served as the artistic director of Adventure Theatre Music Theater Center in Maryland — a hub for new theater commissions and education — for 12 years. Bobbitt led Adventure Theatre’s merge with Music Theater Center, a performing arts education organization, in 2012. Adventure Theatre MTC is known for educating elementary through high school students with their many training programs including a pre-professional curriculum. The company also produces premiere stage adaptations of children’s stories.
At ATMTC, Bobbitt commissioned over 30 new plays, many of which went on to receive publishing licenses and subsequent productions. “New work is a part of my DNA as an artist.” says Bobbitt. His ability to bolster new work falls in line with New Rep’s commitment to bringing new plays to the stage.
Bobbitt is especially interested in figuring out how “New Rep and new work fit together in the massive market of new work in Boston.” Producing new work can be financially tricky for theater companies because they do not guarantee ticket sales. And yet, produce no new work and risk staid irrelevance. It’s a fragile balance: fresh, cutting-edge, pertinent work can put a theater company on the map and it also means financial risk for these nonprofit organizations. Like many theaters, New Rep tends to balance its seasons with new works and more popular shows. This upcoming season includes the New England premiere of “Trayf” by Lindsay Joelle, and musical “Hair,” a contemporary work and a much-revived classic.
Bobbitt calls these kinds of strategic choices “mission moments, where one show covers the cost of another.” He says that the biggest challenge is “how to get audiences to appreciate new work as much as they appreciate the classics.”
In addition to new work, many Boston theaters have shifted their focus toward diversity and inclusion in the work they produce and the artists they employ. However, the language around equity, diversity and inclusion often turns into a cacophony of trendy social-justice buzzwords that obscures real, foreseeable change. “I find so much that organizations have the beliefs in [diversity and inclusion] but they don’t know how to actualize it,” says Bobbitt.
He believes that “the work to diversify the organization from the inside out takes intentionality and action.” He hopes to soon be certified in race equity training so that he can teach it himself.
In 2009, Bobbitt helped pioneer the sensory-friendly production model, and the concept spread throughout the country and internationally. Sensory-friendly productions allow neuro-diverse audiences to experience theater comfortably in a supportive environment by altering technical and dramatic elements in a production, like theater house lights or noise level. He realized that movie theaters were offering sensory-friendly showings so there had to be a way that live theaters could do it too.
New Rep has yet to incorporate sensory-friendly productions, but they have taken steps toward making their shows more accessible. The company recently received a grant from the Theatre Development Fund for one open-captioned performance per each production in the upcoming season, providing the opportunity for deaf and hard of hearing folks to experience the work more fully.
Bobbitt is looking to diversify audiences at New Rep, as well as the organization itself. “I want people of color and people who have been marginalized to feel like New Rep is their home,” says Bobbitt. New Rep Board President Chip Phinney said in a recent statement that New Rep is excited about Bobbitt’s ability to draw in diverse audiences through community engagement and inventive programming.
This year, New Rep’s season features a staged memoir of African-American icon Billie Holiday, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and August Wilson’s poignant drama “Fences” which captures a black man’s struggle to reconcile the past at the dawn of the civil rights movement. This upcoming programming, which Bobbitt helped curate, seems to demonstrate the company’s desire to diversify its storytelling.
Bobbitt hopes to continue to bridge the gap between artists and audiences by posing “a call-to-action” pertaining to the specific show at hand at Post-Show Talk-Abouts. If a play tackles a question or societal challenge, Bobbitt wants audiences not just to contemplate it, but plan how to contribute to change. “Once they see the show, we have this discussion, I might leave them with, ‘What are you going to do about this once you leave the theater?’ ” says Bobbitt. Post-Show Talk-Abouts is New Rep’s take on what’s known as a “talkback,” but the shift in language is intended to promote connectivity and audience empowerment.
In terms of challenging audiences, another tenet of New Rep’s mission, Bobbitt says, “I want people to feel like when they walk into the theater, they are part of the art that’s being created, not just looking at the art that’s being created.”
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