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An ambitious opening number

17 shows on tap for ArtsEmerson

Robert Orchard, Emerson’s arts chief, calls ArtsEmerson “the most significant initiative in Boston theater in 30 years.’’ Robert Orchard, Emerson’s arts chief, calls ArtsEmerson “the most significant initiative in Boston theater in 30 years.’’ (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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With the first season of Arts-Emerson: The World on Stage, Robert Orchard aims to change the landscape of Boston’s theater scene dramatically.

Established by Emerson College, ArtsEmerson will present offerings from around the world at the Cutler Majestic Theatre and Emerson’s recently renovated Paramount Center on Washington Street. The complex, which opened in March after a $92 million renovation, includes the 590-seat Paramount Theatre; the flexible Black Box Theatre, which can hold up to 150 seats; and the 170-seat Bright Family Screening Room.

ArtsEmerson’s inaugural season, which kicks off in September, features an ambitious slate of 17 productions, including the world premiere of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,’’ a celebration of director Peter Brook, an Irish festival featuring the world premiere of a play about Rose Kennedy, and Boston premieres from Elevator Repair Service, puppeteer Basil Twist, the Civilians, and choreographer Doug Elkins and Friends, whose “Fraulein Maria’’ is a playfully skewed version of “The Sound of Music’’ complete with cross-dressing nuns and hip-hop dancers.

“I think this is the most significant initiative in Boston theater in 30 years, since the founding of the American Repertory Theater,’’ said Orchard, Emerson’s executive director of the arts. Orchard formerly served as the longtime executive director of Harvard’s ART.

Orchard’s $5 million annual operating budget won’t approach those of the Huntington Theatre Company ($11 million) and ART (nearly $10 million). But what makes the Emerson program special, he says, is that it will not merely present performances. Companies from around the world will be brought in to develop projects for the future, working with Emerson students and the Paramount’s scene shop.

For example, Elevator Repair Service (which recently presented “Gatz,’’ a version of “The Great Gatsby,’’ at the ART), will rehearse an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises’’ at the Paramount this year. The play will premiere at the Edinburgh Festival this summer before coming to the Paramount Theatre next March 9-20.

The residency approach is designed to build a stronger bond between the college, Boston’s theater community, and the visiting companies.

“Usually, when we take a play on tour, we come down for the week and maybe we do a few lectures,’’ said Moisés Kaufman, artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project, whose residency Sept. 24-Oct. 2 will include a revival of the company’s “The Laramie Project’’ and the world-premiere staging of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,’’ which returns to Laramie, Wyo., to explore what happened in the decade after Matthew Shepard’s death.

Kaufman hails Orchard for offering a very different experience. “I’m having a hard time thinking of other people who are thinking that broadly and expansively,’’ he said.

Other highlights of the ArtsEmerson season include F. Murray Abraham starring as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice’’ with Theatre for a New Audience (March 29-April 10); the Boston premiere of the Iraq war-themed “Aftermath’’ by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (“The Exonerated’’), presented by New York Theatre Workshop (Oct. 27-31); Twist’s “Petrushka,’’ with Stravinsky’s music performed by identical-twin pianists (Nov. 11-21); the musical “Paris Commune’’ from the Civilians (Jan. 19-23); an Irish festival (Jan. 19-Feb. 13) featuring Katherine Bates’s “The Color of Rose,’’ a Druid Theatre production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ and an Abbey Theatre staging of Mark O’Rowe’s “Terminus’’; and two Boston premieres directed by the legendary Brook: a Dostoyevsky adaptation called “The Grand Inquisitor’’ (March 22-April 3), and “Fragments’’ (March 29-April 2), based on texts by Samuel Beckett.

Emerson is not ready to announce the schedule for the Paramount Center’s state-of-the-art movie screening room. But Orchard says he hopes it will include student-programmed lineups Thursday nights and family fare Saturday mornings.

Jeffrey Poulos, executive director of StageSource, a Boston-area theater service organization, said he’s impressed by the size of the Emerson program’s budget.

Of the $5 million annual budget, Orchard said he expects to raise $3 million from box-office sales and to do fund-raising to make up a proportion of the rest. ArtsEmerson annual memberships will be sold for $60, which gets the member one free ticket among other benefits.

“I can’t think in recent history of any one theater company that has launched at this level,’’ said Poulos. “It’s an ambitious program and they certainly have their work cut out for them in terms of fund-raising and audience building. But with Rob Orchard at the helm, they’ve got somebody of significance leading them through that effort.’’

For complete season and ticket information, visit www.artsemerson.org.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.