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University to Sell BU Theatre

Will end long partnership with Huntington Theatre Company

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In a move that will end a mutually rewarding 33-year partnership with the highly regarded Huntington Theatre Company, the University has decided to sell the 890-seat theater at 264 Huntington Avenue and move College of Fine Arts production, design, and black box facilities to the Charles River Campus. The decision to sell the theater, along with adjoining buildings at 252 and 258 Huntington Avenue, comes after a yearlong assessment of the future needs of the University’s theater arts students.

Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, says the decision to sell the buildings came down to determining the best way to serve BU’s theater students, who are currently separated from their acting, fine arts, and music colleagues on the Charles River Campus whenever they are working at the theater.

“While our partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company has certainly enriched the Boston arts scene for many years, our first responsibility—by far our most important responsibility—is to our students,” Morrison says. “We must focus our attention on providing the very best possible academic programs and professional experiences to our students, and I believe the time is right to do so on our Charles River Campus.”

Boston University has owned the theater for 62 years, and has worked in partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company since 1982, providing space and financial support valued at more than $40 million. The adjoining buildings have given BU theater students a place to work with Huntington staff to create scenery, props, and costumes.

Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations, says that while there was a clear need to consolidate theater arts education on the Charles River Campus, the University was also mindful that the theater company would need additional support as it searched for a new partnership or stage.

According to Nicksa, both the University and the theater company acknowledged that within the context of the existing agreement, neither had the resources to create the kind of first-class main stage and patron function space that the company requires, and both parties agreed that it was time to end their partnership. In an effort to ease the transition process, he says, the University took three steps.

First, BU affirmed its intention to honor the current agreement, which provides the theater company with rent-free use of the theater and adjoining facilities through June 2016 and a $200,000 contribution; BU would also continue to pay the cost of maintenance during that period.

Second, the University explored the possibility of selling the complex to the Huntington Theatre Company. Nicksa says the theater company was interested in buying the properties, but its offer was so far below market value that accepting it would not meet the University’s fiduciary obligations.

Third, to give the theater group more time for its transition, BU offered to require whoever buys the properties to guarantee that the Huntington could use the facilities through June 2017, a full year beyond the date guaranteed by the current agreement. During the additional year, the company would continue to have rent-free use of the theater.

The Huntington has accepted this offer.

Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, says the group is grateful for BU’s many years of support. “Having come to this conclusion between BU and the Huntington, the first thing I want to say is that I have only the deepest appreciation and respect for 33 years—and it’s going to be 35 years—of enormous support that BU has provided,” says Maso, who is also a CFA associate professor of theater. “The Huntington would never have existed without the generosity and original vision of Boston University.

“We understand that the University needs to get the best value for its Huntington Avenue properties,” Maso says, “and we believe that the Huntington Theatre Company will prove to be the best partner for any developers interested in purchasing the property. We intend to work very hard to bring every asset we have to bear to enhance the value of the property both for a potential developer and for the University.”

A statement issued jointly by the University and the Huntington Theatre Company notes that both institutions have agreed to be thoughtful and supportive of each other as they go their separate ways.

“We will continue to be supportive of the Huntington Theatre Company,” says Morrison. “We appreciate what our institutions have meant to each other over three decades, and we respect the way we both came to acknowledge our divergent needs.”

Completed in 1925, the Huntington Avenue building was home to the Repertory Theatre of Boston, America’s first civic playhouse and its first tax-exempt theater. It was deliberately sited far from the commercial theaters of Tremont Street and close to venerable cultural institutions such as Symphony Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the old Boston Opera House. During the 1930s and 1940s, the theater, then known as the Esquire Theatre, was the place to see art films in Boston. BU bought the building in 1953, and its theater arts program produced its first play at the venue in 1954.

22 Comments
Art Jahnke

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

22 Comments on University to Sell BU Theatre

  • Annmarie Valenti on 10.07.2015 at 1:50 pm

    Boston University is always attentive to the students needs and it sounds like an exciting move.

    • Emily Bearce on 10.08.2015 at 12:10 am

      Not really when it comes to SoT’s design students. Prime example in the shooting that happened last week across the street from the theater BU alert saw no reason to y’know… let anyone in the building know. We had to fight to get the BU bus to stop there, we had to fight to get it to run later because of the hours we spent at the theater. And now BU Today breaks this before the faculty can tell the students?

      Also, when I was a student there I had absolutely no wish to spend more time with school of music and school of visual art students outside of any classes we might have together. What really helps your career, what is a large part of choosing BU over other schools is that your in residence with a Tony Award winning theatre company.

      This article also doesn’t talk about what’s being built in its place. Do the students get a large proscenium to take the place of the BUT’s so they can understand how to design on that scale? Are they prepared to buy a whole new inventory for every department, as most of ours is shared/merged with the Huntington’s? Will faculty and students be involved in the decisions of what gets bought for the theaters?

      No one can claim this is what’s best for the students. This is a decision motivated purely by monetary choices.

  • Jackson Miller on 10.07.2015 at 2:34 pm

    “While our partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company has certainly enriched the Boston arts scene for many years, our first responsibility—by far our most important responsibility—is to our students,”

    I’m having a very hard time understanding the mental gymnastics that went into the decision that this is somehow best for the students. Sharing a space with an active, respected, professional theatre company is one of the greatest assets that the Design and Production department has as an educational tool for its students.

    This article also glosses over a few big questions. “Where is D&P going to go?” “What is going to happen to the over half of SOT’s productions, which happen in those buildings?” No one can deny that BU has a top-notch faculty, which is a big part of what makes BU such a great theatre school, but you simply cannot take away all of BU’s quality theatre spaces and expect a top-notch faculty to fill in the space left by having no facilities to properly educate in.

    The CFA building has some spaces, yes, but it’s largest space seats 100 people and is full of obsolete, dying equipment. I am sure that everybody realizes this, and I sincerely hope that this article is missing a lot of what BU plans to do with losing these facilities, but I don’t understand how anyone can look at this decision and claim with a straight face that it is “best for the students.”

    • Olivia Haller '14 on 10.07.2015 at 3:43 pm

      These were my questions exactly. What is the mainstage facility that will replace the BUT? The Calderwood, which we sometimes use, is even further away from the Charles River campus, which makes me believe that that is not the long-term solution.
      I have nothing but love and respect for the CFA, and I believe they do have the students’ best interests at heart. And it’s true that large facilities don’t always equal better education. However, I would like some more information on the long-term plan and hope that this sale doesn’t mean fewer production opportunities for students.

    • Graham Edmondson '13 on 10.07.2015 at 6:03 pm

      I agree with you Jackson. This move makes absolutely no sense for the betterment of the students in a technical sense, however if you look at the long term trajectory of where Design and Production has been headed, there has been a severe lack of emphasis or interest in developing the technical side of the work, and a strong focus on a “collaborative design environment”. This is yet another step in the demise of BU D&P as a technical powerhouse and its fade into liberal art theatre school mediocracy. They will continue to turn out students who will expect to walk into design gigs that include a full technical staff to support them and artistic directors who find “magic money” beyond the budget to do whatever they want to do.

      I want so badly for them to have a plan that includes new and improved facilities, to convince me, and judging from Facebook many of the alumni, that they’re not abandoning the technical theatre program, and I hope that they do. I think it will be interesting to see they quantity and quality of students who choose to enter as freshman next year with the prospect of their largest venue a 100 seat decrepit blackbox thrust.

      On the other hand I think that this will be an excellent opportunity for the Huntington, anyone who buys the theatre won’t leave it in the state that BU has let it get to, and hopefully will put the funds in to restore it to its previous grandeur.

      All of that being said, it’s a sad day in the history of the BU theatre, maybe we should all get together on the last day and say goodnight to Girlfriend one last time.

    • BU College of Fine Arts on 10.07.2015 at 8:45 pm

      More details will be forthcoming as to the plans on the Charles River Campus to accommodate Design and Production programs and black box performance space. The student experience is the top priority, and this decision moves us closer to bringing the theatre program and theatre students together on one campus. The proximity will increase synergies between the performance and D&P programs which haven’t been fully realized due to distance. With this decision comes much opportunity for the programs and the students.

    • Tasia on 10.08.2015 at 2:02 am

      The plan is to build a new theatre space across the street from the CFA. BU owns that entire block. My concern is that it won’t be done within one year and the students will suffer in the interim.

  • Tammy Kliger '86 on 10.07.2015 at 3:13 pm

    I am also troubled by the lack of information about better fulfilling the educational needs of SOT students. The largely inadequate and poorly maintained space that is CFA can not fill that void, and while there are many great faculty members heavily involved and employed at New Rep in Watertown, its location is hugely problematic for students (there isn’t even a T bus route from the CFA).
    I hope there will be encouraging news; this sale seems premature.

  • Tom on 10.07.2015 at 4:25 pm

    Coming Soon! The Northeastern University Theater! It would make geographic sense and by hosting the Huntington it would bolster Northeastern’s presence in the arts. The other two buildings could be demolished for additional Northeastern housing and academic buildings.

    • Brian on 10.08.2015 at 9:05 am

      It would make geographic sense, and since Northeastern is really nothing but a real estate developer, I have no doubt they will seize the opportunity to scoop up the theatre and build more terrible pre-cast student housing around it.

      • Tom on 10.08.2015 at 1:10 pm

        So you were rejected by Northeastern. Sour grapes!

  • ann robinson on 10.07.2015 at 8:33 pm

    I must say that I am not too disappointed. The last few productions there have not been all that I would have hoped for. Maybe they may produce better shows.

  • Leila Joy Rosenthal on 10.08.2015 at 9:44 am

    I am heart-broken! As a long-time patron from the days when it was the Hartman Theatre group that produced plays there to the current Huntington Theatre group, I have loved the intimacy of the theatre building and marveled at the behind scenes juggling that goes on between the repertory company and the BU student productions. What a rich collaboration from which students benefitted. I bemoan the loss of that interaction as well as the loss of such a rich cultural offering in the environment of Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and even the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. Short-sightedness destroyed the old Boston Opera House years ago to be replaced, by of all things, by dormitories for Northeastern University! I fear the same will happen here! I am a BU alum with BFA 1964 and MFA 1965 and additional majors under the MFA in 1975 (CFA) and ’79 and am ashamed of this decision.

  • Leila Joy Rosenthal on 10.08.2015 at 9:59 am

    I am heart-broken! As a long-time patron first of the Hartmann Theatre and now of the Huntington Theatre I value the intimacy of the theatre building, its offerings, and the opportunity it gives the BU students to work alongside professionals in the industry. That collaboration is invaluable! I always marveled at that behind scenes interaction! I fear that the short-sightedness of this decision will diminish greatly the rich cultural offerings in the neighborhood provided by Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, Brown Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and even the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. Years ago, that same short-sightedness saw the Boston Opera House demolished with Northeastern dormitories taking its place. Will this same fate befall the BU Theatre – a decision that we will come to regret similarly? As a BU alum from CFA with a BFA in 1964, an MFA in 1965, a second major under my MFA a few years later and a CDT in 1979 from GSDM, I am ashamed, disappointed, dismayed, and generally VERY unhappy about this decision!

  • gcollins on 10.08.2015 at 6:01 pm

    It would bence to have a new BU theatre on Comm ave before Kenmore square.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2015 at 6:53 pm

    This is so upsetting. The message is embarrassing and transparent, BU; on what planet would this move be characterized as the “best way to serve” the students? The best way to serve BU’s already thick wallet. Good luck getting students to apply to the theater program until the supposed CRC facilities are developed. Best wishes to the Huntington Theatre Company! May you not have to perform in a Northeastern dorm room.

  • John Gates on 10.09.2015 at 9:41 am

    How “best to serve the students” by moving to an imaginary theatre space with imaginary support facilities.
    You have my imaginary support for this decision.

  • Susan Surman on 10.10.2015 at 11:11 am

    All that history will just disappear. Change for the sake of change…not always the best decisions and usually made by outsiders; in other words, the people in the trenches never get a say. Walked those boards many times as an alumnus, SFAA 1960 – only the memories remain and what memories!

  • Susan Surman on 10.10.2015 at 11:14 am

    Change…often made by outsiders; in other words, the people in the trenches never get a say. As an SFAA 1960 alumnus walked those boards many times. Only the memories remain and what memories!

  • Holly on 10.20.2015 at 4:08 am

    Wow. This is huge and I feel very sad for the students loosing such a marvelous connection to the proximity to something other than the BU campus. The only thing that made me happy, personally and selfishly, is that it will be easier for me to attend BU plays, it was too difficult for me to get to the Huntington and I haven’t been in a long long time. But that truly is a selfish concern and i’m a bit ashamed to admit it. The big picture is for the students and upon my initial read, it felt like a punch in the solar plexus. I truly hope something good comes of it for the students and staff. Sorry folks, my heart goes out to you.

  • Kim on 01.28.2016 at 10:52 pm

    As someone who for the past decade has studied America’s various theater programs great and small, I am sad that this move relegates Boston University’s fine drama program to the small. When I’m working with parents and students interested in acting degrees (if they’re interested in MT, then of course they hope for BoCo), I fear there will be nothing in this announcement that will not raise alarums in the minds of those high-school thespians graduating in 2016, 2017 and 2018 at the thought of attending what is, really, the mainstage-less institution that BU is becoming…especially when so many college theater programs across the nation are expanding in the hope of being able to compete with their fellow BFA/BA theater programs, which are also expanding. What a tragic mistake.

  • Marti Ramsey SFA 1964 on 03.29.2016 at 11:07 pm

    So, in effect, BU is dropping the permanent large proscenium stage and is going to lease stages “around Boston” for productions? And the theater students will be paying $30,000 a year for the privilege of NOT having a home theater that partners with a professional theater group? And this will “solidify and energize” the theater school and help it partner with the other Fine Arts programs? Are you out of your minds? Trying to discreetly dump the theater program? So many words, so empty of value. If y’all buy this one, I got a bridge I wanna sell ya, cheap!

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