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ArtsEmerson aspires to engage local community with new season

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • September 8, 2011

For its inaugural season, ArtsEmerson drew globe-spanning theater pieces, award-winning actors, and boundary-pushing productions to the campus. Now, at the start of its second year, the production group aims to strengthen its connection to Emerson and to Boston with a new roster of innovative entertainment.

The major goals for ArtsEmerson, which curates music, film, and theater productions in the Paramount Center and the Cutler Majestic Theatre, haven’t changed. The organization, according to executive director Rob Orchard, still seeks to “add to the cultural choices in the community” by focusing on international and new, cutting-edge work.

“The first year we were getting a feeling for the people, the culture, the way the place runs and how best to get in sync with that,” he said in a phone interview. “The second year, you’re trying to probe deeper; you’re trying to make the relationship between the work… and the community a more intimate and deeper one.”

ArtsEmerson’s eagerness to connect with its audience manifests itself literally with the debut production of the season, How Much is Enough: Our Values in Question. The show, which premieres Tuesday in the newly christened Jackie Liebergott Black Box, allows the crowd to direct the content of the production: players from the New York-based Foundry theater company present a series of questions to the audience on the different meanings of value in their lives. With their answers, actor Mia Katigbak described, participants determine the course of the dialogue.

“The audience is your scene partner,” Katigback, whose performance in How Much is Enough will be her first with the Foundry, said in a phone interview. “And you can’t do the same scene over and over again… You’re basically having a different scene partner each time.”

How Much Is Enough dismantles the traditional audience-performer barrier by seating the audience at tables instead of aligning everyone in front of a stage. As for scenery, a designated “Googler” will search in real time for images to be projected as accompaniment for the crowds’ answers.

A diverse audience, Orchard said, is crucial to getting the most out of the show and discovering how different someone else’s values can be.

“You realize that your answer isn’t necessarily the right answer…You appreciate the differences and the community that emerges at the end,” he said. “[The Foundry is] really looking at performance in a different way, trying to bring it to life in a way that takes it out of the formality of a standard theater and brings the work closer to people.”

The convention-bending theater piece showcases ArtsEmerson’s commitment to finding the different limits of the art form — especially when considered alongside previous season-closer Susurrus, in which participants took a walking tour while listening to a production on an MP3 player. The boundaries of theater, ArtsEmerson seems to assert, range from an insular meditation to an active conversation.

“Every new generation needs to invent theater for itself,” Orchard said. “Some of these projects really will define a new form. And that’s something I’d like to be a part of.”

With the new season, the organization is also expanding its efforts to engage Emersonians: next month, an ensemble of student actors will discuss the meaning of home in the second act of You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce. January offers the premiere of Sugar, Emerson Performing Arts professor Robbie McCauley’s confessional piece detailing her struggle with diabetes. Through the entire year, Emerson students can enjoy free admission to ArtsEmerson’s weekend film series, which already has slated screenings of silent classics, neo-noir thrillers, and experimental shorts from around the world.

Orchard hopes that ultimately, ArtsEmerson will foster an environment that will entice young ensemble groups to develop their early major works with the organization — and encourage rising Emersonians to think about doing the same.

Cities like New York and Chicago, Orchard said, have developed rich theater communities because local learning institutions feed them with fresh talent. “I want that to be the same in Boston,” Orchard said, “and I want Emerson to be the anchor for that.”

How Much Is Enough debuts September 13 in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box. Tickets are available at ArtsEmerson.org.

Doerfler can be reached at andrew_doerfler@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @adoerfler.