Boston’s Theater Scene: What Makes It Hot and Why You Need to Be There

Move over Broadway. Contemporary, local playwrights exercise their talents right here in this town.

Boston’s erudite, enthusiastic audiences have long made the city a favorite spot for Broadway producers trying out new material. But as its vibrant network of homegrown theater companies gets busier and busier, Boston has become a fertile source of new playwrights, whose soon-to-be-acclaimed work can be seen on stages all over town before migrating to New York and beyond.

Within the past 15 years, innovative fellowship programs at established theaters have aligned with plucky, upstart troupes and a supportive academic culture to nurture a community of playwrights that aims to write the new, great stage works of the 21st century.

“My hope is that we are able to continue to grow our audiences as well as our talent pool and head into a theater renaissance,” says playwright Melinda Lopez, herself a leading light of the scene. Her voice rising in enthusiasm, she cites the heralded Chicago theater world of the 1980s as a precedent.

“That’s Boston in the 2020s—people saying ‘That was a heyday of new plays in Boston, that’s when it was all happening.’ I feel like that could be where we’re going.”

If so, it’s folks like Lopez who lead the charge. In 2003 she was one of four young writers selected for the first playwriting fellowship offered by the long-established Huntington Theatre Company. Fellow participant John Kuntz says he remembers watching her write a play called “Sonia Flew” on “napkins and scraps of paper.” It was the first play performed at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion the next year, when the shiny new center for performance and rehearsal opened up and became an anchor for the burgeoning South End neighborhood. “Sonia Flew” won Boston’s top theater awards, the first of several on Lopez’s shelf, and has since been performed around the country.

The Huntington is one of the city’s larger theaters. But small-and-midsize troupes including Company One and New Repertory Theatre have launched playwright-support initiatives in recent years.

Local playwright Kirsten Greenidge won a prestigious Obie Award for the off-Broadway production of her play “Milk Like Sugar,” which she developed in part at Company One. The theater made her its Playwright-in-Residence, and she says the trend toward more institutional support like that is invaluable.

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Jasmine Carmichael in Kirsten Greenidge's "Milk Like Sugar," which played Jan. 29–Feb. 27, 2016, at the Calderwood Pavilion

“It gives you a home, so you’re able to develop your work and know it will be read,” she says. “I definitely think the culture is changing in terms of looking at playwriting as a collaborative art.”

Closer to the fringe, Fresh Ink Theatre, Boston Public Works, Happy Medium Theatre and Bad Habit Productions are among the troupes that have sprung up with a focus on new work. Some local playwrights perform a juggling act among theaters. Ginger Lazarus premiered her new play “The Housekeeper” at Fresh Ink in early 2016, immediately before the off-Broadway run of another of her plays, “Burning.” And “Burning” first took the stage at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which—you guessed it—exclusively produces the work of Boston-based writers.

Even with so many theaters catching on, local playwrights are also taking matters into their own hands.

“I think a lot of these theaters are tribes of playwrights who have come together and decided to produce for themselves,” says Ronan Noone, also part of that inaugural group of Huntington playwriting fellows, “rather than relying on going to well-established theater companies.

That is how they are now finding their niche. The playwright is more entrepreneurial than ever.”

Ginger Lazarus' "The Housekeeper"

One of those playwright-entrepreneurs is John Greiner-Ferris, co-founder of Boston Public Works, which is run entirely by playwrights. “Somewhere along the line,” he says, “playwrights in the American theater were relegated to this place on the edge. All I’m asking is that we get our place at the table back.”

It’s working.

There’s no city in the world where it’s easy to make a living as a playwright. But Boston’s famed constellation of colleges and universities provides another vital support system. Beyond offering intellectually nutritious day jobs for playwrights—no small thing—academia plays an active role in the theater community.

Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, founded by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott in 1981, is an extension of the playwriting MFA program at Boston University. The highly competitive program includes alumni (like Walt McGough) who stick around after graduation and advocate for their peers. McGough spearheads the new Boston Project at SpeakEasy Stage Company, developing new plays about life here.

Boston is often described, with a whiff of irony, as a “small town.” Part of its charm is the way it offers so much, but on a manageable scale. In geographic terms, this means you can walk from Fenway Park to Chinatown without necessarily breaking a sweat. But in the theater world, opportunities for cross-pollination are also more accessible.

Kuntz is among the many playwrights who were recruited into that Boston University MFA program by Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. He has his own collection of awards as a playwright and actor, and he teaches at the Boston Conservatory.

“What’s really nice about Boston is that everyone knows each other, and all the actors and directors usually teach, so you bump into them that way, too,” he says. “I don’t think I would have any of the opportunities that I’ve had if I lived in New York.”

He personally writes plays every year for his acting students to perform. He says SpeakEasy’s 2014 production of his “Necessary Monsters” came about because that company’s producing artistic director, Paul Daigneault, is also on faculty at the Conservatory. Daigneault came to see his students in Kuntz’s play and liked the material.

Snodgrass, herself, is a playwright and also founded the Boston Theater Marathon—an annual, gluttonous delight for those with a taste for new plays. She says recent years have indeed seen a marked increase in the opportunities available for local playwrights to shine. “There’s many more chances now,” she says. “It’s rife with possibilities.”

And that place at the table is waiting.

Gallery: The Players and Their Props