What is a ‘Boston Court’ play?

A Conversation with our Literary Managers

EMILIE: We are often asked what a “Boston Court” play is, and that’s both a difficult and easy question to answer. In some ways, it’s like any art: we know it when we see it. This is particularly true because we look for scripts that break known boundaries; if we could tell each other what those looked like, they would already be known entities. But we wanted to share some thoughts that could be helpful in identifying our brand.

We tend to respond to deep human themes; stories that are more investigative than they are clever; and perhaps most importantly, plays that make us talk more about ideas than about plot. In general, we like plays that ask more than answer. And, in all of that, a story told with a strong voice, a unique vision, that breaks boundaries not for the sake of breaking them, but because that’s the only way to tell that particular story.

And by the way, I offer none of this as an absolute prescription, simply as an articulation of what we’re often attracted to.

AARON: Our mission makes clear that we appreciate and celebrate work that is “inherently theatrical,” but what does that phrase mean? In the simplest sense, it means that the work could not exist in another form. For any variety of reasons, be they about style or thematic explorations, this piece of writing would not be at home on a television screen or in a movie theater. In addition, for us, “inherently theatrical” also means that the work does not always strictly adhere to the perceived rules of our world. Instead, it may create its own rules and ask us to participate in the endeavor.

Here’s what, stylistically, is up our alley. While we enjoy and program work in a wide variety of styles, I think it is safe to say that a Boston Court Play only truly lives when it is fully staged and realized. Any piece that can accomplish all, or even most, of its narrative goals in a reading, for example, would not be for us. Many of the plays we produce have fractured or non-linear narratives, poetic dialogue, and physical explorations that are non-naturalistic.

Many are also what some would call “expressionistic”, meaning that everything from monologues and movement to the structure of the pieces themselves are vehicles to allow the inner working of the characters, and the story, to be externalized.

As mentioned earlier in this conversation, these are not hard and fast rules–we have certainly programmed plays that do not meet every single one of these points of interest–but they are techniques and choices with which we often work.

EMILIE: Aaron, you speak about creating rules, and I want to riff on that a little. You have to know the rules to break them, and then you have to know what rules you’ve broken in order to create your own. The plays that pique our interest often have at least some of this in the way they’ve been mapped. An obvious way to make an example of this would be to look at Nancy Keystone’s Alcestis, which we produced last year. We can point to the original play, and then look at the ways Nancy busted it open. The story is the same, but it hasn’t been plotted in the same way. Nancy used the play as a way to explore grief, but then she circled back and conveyed the story of Alcestis using her own language. There was deep thought in the process in which it was created, in form as much as content. And I think this is an important piece to us: that structure is equal to content; one defines the other.

AARON: Absolutely. The idea that form and function are intertwined is integral to the work we produce. The stylistic choices cannot be separated from the content of the material. Nor can the style be separated from the metaphoric resonances with which the pieces are engaged. Additionally, the plays that we choose ask for a certain kind of focused attention in which there is no opportunity to detach from the experience. Instead, they require a high degree of investment, both intellectual and emotional, on the audience’s part.

Another example is Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, a modern-day adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. This piece utilizes the bones of The Seagull‘s narrative to create an exploration of art’s value, inherent and otherwise, to society. This is accomplished partially through meta-theatrical moments, in which characters/actors blatantly call out the artifice of this theatrical experience, while also honoring it fully and being inside the experience. It may sound like a trick or a device, but it is not. These moments get to the heart of what this new piece, as well as Chekhov’s original, is about.

EMILIE: Yes, SFB accomplishes in a different way what Michael Elyanow’s The Children–based on Medea–did a few seasons ago. Each remains loyal in certain ways to the original, and each also succeeds in becoming a new play of its own making. These versions are heightened if you’re familiar with the original plays, but that isn’t necessary for the emotional or intellectual experience of viewing the updated incarnation.

And we’ve now named several plays based on earlier plays, so let me open this up to say that what’s exciting is when we read a script – new or adapted – that is deeply exploring something. The kind of exploration that we’re drawn to can sometimes feel big enough to almost seem convoluted or unwieldy, but if we have a sense that the playwright is trying to drive toward a specific, powerful idea, we are excited by that diamond in the rough. We love plays that are messy but deep, as opposed to plays we read that are slick and shiny but thin. It’s difficult, as we’ve found, to flesh something out, and much more interesting to work with a playwright on paring something back.

And this goes back to your earlier point, Aaron, about the kind of work we do being different to what can be found on a screen. We aren’t doing kitchen-sink dramas, unless there’s maybe an actor playing a kitchen sink. (That sounds like a joke, but we did have actors playing objects in our most recent show: Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch. They played ashtrays and telephones and coat racks, among many other things, as a way of showing society’s objectification of women.)

AARON: We should also mention that we have some practical considerations as well. We do love world premieres, but we’re also interested in producing a play that would give the playwright a second production of the work. Playwrights find getting second and third productions as difficult or more difficult than getting an initial production. It’s really only after a play has found three or more productions that it tends to find its own momentum. But for us, it’s always about our excitement about what the play is up to, rather than the status of it as a world premiere.

Conversely, I will say that sometimes, we’ll find a script that has had five or six productions elsewhere in the country, and though none of them are in our backyard, we know that someone else in Los Angeles will likely produce that play. We would rather give our programming space to plays that other theaters tend to think of as too challenging, risky, or even too flawed. Dan Dietz’s American Misfit and David Wiener’s Cassiopeia were both scripts that had gathered dust in their respective playwrights’ drawers for a decade before we programmed them.

EMILIE: Yes, and we also understand that a play sometimes can’t find its voice without all the elements of a full production. Sometimes that means we take a risk by agreeing to give a production to a script that hasn’t yet fully come together on the page. But part of that risk is because we want to offer the playwright the opportunity to discover the alchemy of all the elements that are impossible to pursue on the single dimension of the page. We take a calculated risk that the play’s discovery of itself fully realized will be far richer than purely the text on the page.

And so, it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, that we’re very interested in working with playwrights who want to dig into their scripts. Not everyone is interested in this, and we respect that. But we’re always going to look for people who want to engage with us on the work.

AARON: Emilie, I think that’s a great place to leave us, with the idea that we, at Boston Court, are hoping to interact with writers who will find it exciting to be in an environment where the desire is to help the play become its best self–not to try to mold it into something else, but to have a collaboration that deepens the scope of the work and expands the possibilities of the ways in which their own voice and their own creation can most effectively communicate.

THE VISION STATEMENT: The Theatre @ Boston Court produces passionate, artist-driven theatre that challenges both artist and audience. The Theatre @ Boston Court urges its artists to fearlessly and passionately pursue their unique voice and vision. Play selection encompasses a wide variety of genres (classics, musicals and world premieres, with a special emphasis on nurturing playwrights and new play development) which are inherently theatrical, textually rich, and visually arresting.

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