Member Profile: Central Square Theater in Cambridge

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Antony and Cleopatra. Louis and Prior. George and Martha. Porgy and Bess. Rena and Youngblood. Nina and Benny. Elphaba and Fiyero.

The history of the theater is rife with iconic couples who alternately live happily ever after, are torn apart by death, live and make each other miserable, or are simply fated to fall apart. Fortunately for theater lovers and the city of Cambridge, the coupling that gave rise to Central Square Theater (CST) falls into the first category.

CST was created in 2002 when two long-running theater companies, The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater (URT), joined forces in a strategic partnership that enabled them to construct a state-of-the-art facility, share administrative staff, split operating costs, and of course, collaborate artistically while maintaining their distinct but complementary identities. Its vision, “Artists & Audiences Creating Theater Vital to our Communities” announces CST’s mission to do more than merely entertain audiences. Rather, the organization aims to engage with people and strengthen the fabric of the city through the medium of theater.

Founded in 1987, the Nora produces modern works “that speak with a feminine voice on human concerns and endeavors” and “jostle our hearts and minds, and reveal our common humanity.” In a similar vein, URT, founded in 1978, “creates accessible theater of great beauty and social content—theater that challenges and delights, informs and celebrates.” Clearly, this couple is built to last.

Together, these two companies provide the foundation for CST’s array of educational programming—from a Summer Stage Program for kids aged 6-13 to Youth Underground, tailored for aspiring actors aged 13-25—to partnerships like the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a collaboration that explores the intersection of science and theater. They also host community events like Working Titles (URT) and That’s What She Said (The Nora), which are opportunities for community partners, audience members, artists and staff members to attend readings of scripts being considered for production to discuss whether and why the play should be staged by considering such factors as its relevance to the community in the current moment.

CST is also the current home of The Front Porch Arts Collective, a group of black and brown artists that explore the intersection of race, economics, culture, gender and sexuality from the perspective of people of color.

Given its commitment to engaging and strengthening the community, CST’s membership in MASSCreative was also a natural fit. The theater joined the coalition in 2013.

“Our partnership with MASSCreative is a logical extension of our mission to serve as a cultural anchor for the Cambridge community, which we take very seriously,” says Catherine Carr Kelly. “So in addition to staging top-notch productions that are affordable and accessible, collaborating with neighboring groups and institutions, running arts education and other cultural enrichment programs, we have to engage political and civic leaders as well as average Cantabrigians. We participate in broader discussions about how the arts benefit our economy, public safety, community cohesiveness, and overall quality of life—and what resources we’re willing to invest in maintaining and growing our arts infrastructure. MASSCreative has been an important partner in helping create and bring people into this dialogue.”

For example, as part of Create the Vote Cambridge, an advocacy campaign to inject arts and culture issues into the 2017 Cambridge City Council election, CST hosted “Arts Activism with MASSCreative” in October. The event, one of CST’s “Central Conversations,” brought MASSCreative’s Executive Director Matt Wilson and Deputy Director Betsy Groban to the Nora after a performance of “The Revolutionists” for a talk on arts advocacy and activism and what audience members could do to make a difference. The play, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Courtney O’Connor, examines how one goes about making political and social change, and the role of art in achieving such goals.

“Central Conversations” is CST’s signature series of pre- and post-performance events that give audiences a deeper look into the subject matter and themes of the play. As Carr Kelly explains: “They’re one way we keep in touch with our audiences and build community around arts and culture. Usually, the curtain goes down and audience members head out into the night to reflect on and process what they’ve seen on their own. By creating space for them to do that with others, they get much more out of the experience.”

Pairing “The Revolutionists” with MASSCreative’s arts activism event spurred conversation around “arts advocacy opportunities and the tangible difference” audience members could make by speaking up, Carr Kelly adds.

Create the Vote Cambridge also collected and published candidate questionnaires from a majority of the candidates expressing their views on arts and culture issues and hosted an October candidate forum that drew a large crowd to the Multicultural Arts Center to hear many of the 27 candidates’ views on arts, culture, and creativity in Cambridge. Carr Kelly and Wilson also published a letter in the Cambridge Chronicle & TAB emphasizing the need to elect strong arts and culture advocates to the city council.

The campaign, said Carr Kelly, was both an important show of political strength and a critical opportunity to highlight the positive contributions that Cambridge’s robust arts and cultural community has on the city.

“As Matt and I wrote in our letter to the Chronicle, the city is home to roughly 800 creative enterprises that support over 6,000 jobs and generate more than $7 million in local tax revenue. The city and the state need us—just as we need them. And MASSCreative is the vehicle through which the creative community in—Cambridge and across the state—is effectively making the case for a strong arts infrastructure that is adequately funded.”

More March News

MASSCreative 15 Channel Center Street  |  Suite 103  |  Boston MA 02210
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