There’s only one problem with new plays that are set in Boston: There aren’t any.
“There’s lots of theater that gets produced in Boston, but very rarely do we see plays by Boston playwrights who are writing about Boston,” says Pascale Florestal. “This is a chance to incubate stories about the city and what it means to live here.”
She’s talking about The Boston Project, an effort by SpeakEasy Stage Company to grow new Boston-based plays by commissioning local playwrights to write about life in the city they call home. Paul Daigneault, producing artistic director of SpeakEasy, got tired of seeing and staging plays that were “set in a New York City apartment,” so he decided to do something about it. He launched The Boston Project four years ago.
Chosen from a pool of 40 applicants, the 2019 Boston Project playwrights are Phaedra Michelle Scott, MJ Halberstadt and Laura Neill. They have nine months to complete their plays, which will be presented by SpeakEasy in June.
“Too many plays are set in New York and that creates just one narrative,” says Florestal, coordinator of The Boston Project. “Being in Boston is different than living in New York. We’re creating opportunities for artists and audiences to see themselves on stage.”
It’s easy for a playwright to type the words “set in a Boston apartment,” or “set on the Boston Common,” or “set in an alley in the shadow of Fenway Park.” But it’s a lot harder to actually capture a sense of the city on stage. (Note to aspiring Boston playwrights: Having a character describe everything as “wicked pissah” simply isn’t sufficient.)
MJ Halberstadt, who lives in Brookline, uses his play to explore an issue that’s relevant to the city: the loss of gay venues. His play, “The Usual Unusual,” focuses on one of the last remaining gay bookstores in the city. Charlie, an employee who’s now running the store, realizes that in order to survive, the bookshop may need to expand or change its focus.
Not only does the play address the issue of cultural life for gay people in Boston (“I don’t think there’s a single lesbian space in the city,” says Halberstadt), it also tackles the problem of young people who flood the city to go to college and then flee soon after graduating.
“There are no native Bostonians in the play, and I think that’s authentic to Boston,” says Halberstadt. “In the play, there’s an Asian actor who’s moving to L.A. because he’s not getting roles that are satisfying to him in Boston. That’s my understanding of the experience of many actors of color: They have to leave the city to get good roles.”
Laura Neill, who lives in Brighton, mixes laughs and gasps in her play “Just Cause,” a “horror-comedy” about gentrification. The rediscovery of an abandoned subway tunnel at Government Center in Boston prompts a plan to build underground luxury condos. Developers, security guards and protesters converge at the site, “and that’s when people start dying,” says Neill, adding, with a laugh, “I promise, it’s funny.”
But she doesn’t think gentrification is a laughing matter.
“Our parents could live in Kenmore Square with no money,” she says. “Now the idea of an affordable apartment in Brookline is laughable. Gentrification is part of Boston’s identity, but not in a positive way.”
In Phaedra Michelle Scott’s play “Diaspora!” a 25-year-old black woman named Sunny is researching her family history and discovers a white grandfather that no one in the family ever discussed. Sunny imagines troubling scenarios about how he became part of her family tree, but Sunny eventually learns that the past and the present are more complicated than she assumed.
“Like many black people, I have white people randomly dispersed in my family tree,” says Scott. “Often people ignore this part of their past, but I’m interested in the things people don’t talk about, secret histories. I’m interested in this notion of white lineage in a black family.”
The most “Boston” thing about Scott’s play may be the setting – an old Roxbury apartment, built around 1900. It’s familiar to anyone who’s sought an affordable way to live in the city – the architecture is old, nothing works and it’s easy to imagine the past generations of people who have migrated through the building: from German immigrants to black families to the college students who are now discovering this part of the city.
The idea of past tenants sharing the same space has allowed Scott to add a ghostly element to the play, as we meet the grandfather who Sunny never knew.
Scott has found The Boston Project to be “immensely helpful,” she says. “It’s provided the time, space and resources I needed to write the play. And,” she adds with a laugh, “like many other writers, I find a deadline to be helpful.”
Florestal, who lives in Malden, believes the writers also benefit from their muse. She sees Boston as a dynamic city that allows playwrights to explore countless topics.
“What’s great about Boston is there’s such a desire for change,” she says. “In the arts, theater is trying to become more diverse, with lots of people pushing for gender parity. I see playwrights exploring the issues that bring Bostonians together, and the issues that keep us apart.”
But for Halberstadt, winner of an Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script, the changes may not be coming quickly enough. He’s appalled by resident theater companies that make no effort to stage the work of Boston playwrights.
“Theater companies are too content to stick to a problematic status quo,” he says. “I get really frustrated with the mentality that the best Boston can put forth is to stage New York’s best leftovers. On one hand, I’m really proud of the number of collaborations I’ve been able to enjoy in Boston, but I’m also not tremendously hopeful about how things will change.”
Maybe that makes this playwriting initiative even more important.
“I give SpeakEasy a lot of credit for The Boston Project,” says Halberstadt. “I think it’s a sincere and successful vote of confidence in Boston playwriting. I see SpeakEasy evolving in really exciting directions.”
But perhaps The Boston Project itself has revealed part of the problem in cultivating Boston-based plays. Playwright Scott is currently completing her Boston Project play from her new home. In New York.