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Globe Editorial

Theater District needs shows to go with newly vital venues

August 14, 2011

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STANDING OUTSIDE the refurbished Opera House, Modern, or Paramount theaters, the revitalization of Boston’s theater row is dazzlingly apparent. Twinkling marquees light streets once punctuated by the XXX signs of the Combat Zone. A dying neighborhood now pulses with the energy of lively performance venues, restaurants, stores, and residences.

The revitalization of so many theaters has left Boston with an enviable problem - lots of grand facilities in search of worthwhile productions. That became apparent earlier this year when contract negotiations failed between Emerson College, which owns the Colonial, and Broadway Across America, the company that leases it to bring popular Broadway shows to Boston. The negotiations left the Colonial, the city’s oldest continually operating theater, in the dark for the immediate future. The eagerness of other theaters to attract Broadway Across America revealed that they, too, had underused capacity.

But rather than worry about whether there are too many theaters along Washington, Tremont, and Boylston Streets, the city’s arts community should celebrate their potential, and take steps toward the day when each world-class venue is filled with a world-class production.

The arts community faces some obvious obstacles, starting with the slow economy. In addition, Broadway has stopped treating Boston as a testing ground. Some theaters have responded by turning to safe crowd-pleasers such as the Blue Man Group, stand-up comedians, and musicians. Those productions have a place on theater row, but venues should also follow the lead of the innovative ArtsEmerson, which operates the Paramount and Cutler Majestic theaters, and explore more powerful, idiosyncratic productions. That’s the type of innovative programming Boston audiences are already flocking to see in mid-sized theaters, including the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and the Huntington Theater near Symphony Hall.

Robert Orchard, executive director of the year-old ArtsEmerson, has lured many acclaimed international artists to perform on Boston stages for the first time. His efforts have led many observers to proclaim that there has never been a better time to be a theatergoer in Boston.

Indeed, with thousands of housing units opening in downtown neighborhoods, and thousands more on the drawing board, it’s easy to envision a day when Boston develops a youthful, vibrant theater-going community to rival that of much larger cities like Chicago, if not New York.

Growing such an audience would require more creative thinking on the parts of theater owners and companies like Broadway Across America, which this year will stage productions at the Shubert Theatre and the Opera House. In seeking a new direction for the Colonial, Emerson should look to establish new relationships with companies that offer shows that appeal to diverse crowds. The theaters should also strengthen their already productive partnerships with universities that have strong performing-arts programs. That would require altering some current union contracts that frown on certain smaller-scale productions. Unions should be willing to make changes if they help attract productions that otherwise wouldn’t happen at all - shows as ambitious and energetic as the revitalization effort itself.