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June 8, 2010

The return of a catalyst

Rob Orchard.jpg

Rob Orchard stood on the stage of Boston's historic Paramount Theatre last week to announce the inaugural season of ArtsEmerson, a new initiative that will see him programming four venues -- three in the newly renovated Paramount complex and also the Cutler Majestic Theatre, all under the Emerson College umbrella. Last year, Orchard made a quieter announcement: that he was leaving his post as executive director of Harvard's American Repertory Theater in Cambridge after 30 years. He was retiring. I had visions of Orchard out on a sailboat off the coast of Maine basking in a career well done and a wind effortlessly ridden. But Boston had another plan for Orchard. Organizers at the Paramount, one of the last great movie palaces of the 1930s, took him on a tour of the $92 million renovation of the complex -- a 590-seat theater, a flexible black-box theater that can hold up to 150 seats, and a 170-seat screening room. That was the end of the sailboat fantasy. Orchard is now Emerson's executive director for the arts, and the lineup for the four spaces is a combination of new works, international groups and, eventually, a film series. Boston is experiencing an exciting stage in its arts identity, and ArtsEmerson is the newest cultural activation that combines academic mission with civic duty and a broad artistic vision. "This was not a career move on my part," Orchard told me. "There's something liberating about having a job you don't view as a stepping stone to something else. You can give yourself to it entirely." What follows is an edited version of the rest of our conversation.

This may seem like a crazy first question but what is the role of the performing arts in a city?

Whether it's a performing arts center or a facility, it's a crossroads. It's a place for people to get out there and experience great works and to be transported and to be better citizens. How idealistic do you want to get?

Well, how does art make someone a better citizen?

It's a democracy, and part of what art can do is communicate ideas and open up dialogue in a nonthreatening, non-ideological way. I don't think an artist should ever be burdened with the responsibility of changing society. The only thing you can ask artists to do is to tell the truth from their perspective. An audience knows when it's being told the truth -- whether or not it's a truth they want to hear. But they can sense sincerity and that gets the mind thinking in ways that are productive in a culture. Art does play that role of catalyst.

Did you have that depth of understanding 30 years ago when you first started in this industry?

Oh, I don't know! I've always lived around art, and I've always been around artists who were pushing boundaries. My mother was an abstract expressionist at a time when if you didn't have an image on a canvas there was a knee-jerk rejection. And yet the work was exquisite, as was the work of her colleagues who rallied round to support one another. I always admired that and wanted to be around and be supportive of artists who are on the fringe, who are pushing the form. The status quo is the enemy. That's what exciting: the unknown.

Speaking of the unknown, you were supposed to be out on a sailboat in retirement right now. Instead you have a whole new career. Why did you take this job?

I took the job because I was given a tour of the new facilities and asked: What would you like to do with them? I wasn't sure that question was really genuine. But it turned out to be real. They didn't want it to be programmed by committee. They wanted someone to articulate an idea or a vision for it. I started getting excited -- and I hadn't been that excited for a long time.

Something big is going on in Boston right now in the arts. What is it?

There is a lot of new leadership extending the tentacles of the arts into the community, breaking down some of the old-world-Boston institutional isolation. There's more collaboration. All this happening in a variety of places at the same time creates a critical mass of growth. There's an alchemy to it.

By the way, what does an art director do? How do you describe your job to people who are not in the arts? 

I think of myself not as an arts producer and not as an arts presenter, but as an arts facilitator, which is doing a little bit of both those things. I exist between those two traditional realms. When people ask me what I do, it's easy. I say I help great work see the light of day onstage. Not only do I put it on the stage and open the doors for audiences, but I spend a lot of time well in advance of that -- sometimes years in advance -- contributing to the evolution of these pieces.

The other industry that has changed a lot in the last 30 years is the media, and especially arts reporting. What do you think of those changes?

The biggest crisis in arts reporting is the lack of opportunity for arts reporting regardless of the media. The outlets are gone whether it's print or radio or whatever it might be. There is the opening of other outlets in terms of the internet, but they have not in any way come to a point of influence that can be described as replacing what we've lost. Maybe they will in time, but not yet.

Do you think arts organizations can team up with arts reporters? Can that work?

I don't think so. No. I think it has to be independent. A lot of groups are pretending to create commentary, which can be valuable on some level. But the public knows when it's an independent voice as opposed to an institutional voice. They can tell in a second. It has credibility on some level but ultimately those independent voices are important.

Is there anything you want to say to the arts reporting audience?

Courage, courage, courage. Stay together. What we're doing is really important in our culture. There's a moment of transition that's painful and difficult for everybody but we'll get through it. We all have common goals, which is to bring great works to the public. That's a noble mission, and we have to stick to it.

June 8, 2010 4:48 AM | | Comments (0)

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