Helmers’ exits shake up Boston

Martin ankles; Woodruff contract expiring

The departure of a pair of veteran artistic directors at leading Boston-area theaters has shaken the local legit landscape, leaving insiders unsure which direction the Beantown theater scene is headed.

Huntington Theater Company harrumphs at industry rumors that a.d. Nicholas Martin’s downed curtain at the end of the 2007-08 season is anything other than what the outgoing chief wished.

“Nicky’s leaving is about Nicky’s schedule,” says Michael Maso, the theater’s longtime managing director, who will continue in that role. “We want to build on what he has done. We’re not looking for a new direction.”

Martin, 68, declines to go into detail about contractual specifics surrounding his exit. Instead, he shifts to a big-picture perspective of what his eventual departure — along with a more imminent one for Robert Woodruff, a.d. at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge — mean for the local legit scene.

“If a city loses two significant artistic directors, perhaps we have to take a look at the city,” says Martin.

Woodruff, 59, who succeeded founder-a.d. Robert Brustein as top helmer at the Harvard U.-supported ART five years ago, was given a vote of no confidence when in December the board did not renew his contract, expiring this spring.

Woodruff’s tenure effectively ended with the opening of his production of Racine’s “Britannicus” several weeks ago. The exiting a.d. was expected to helm several shows in his planned new season, which is now being revised by associate artistic director Gideon Lester and managing director Rob Orchard, acting as interim heads.

Martin and Woodruff’s theater aesthetic couldn’t be more different. Martin embraced classics and stars (including marquee pals like Nathan Lane, Kate Burton and Victor Garber) as well as new works by emerging and established artists, from Theresa Rebeck and Stephen Belber to newbies such as Melinda Lopez (“Sonia Flew”) and Noah Haidle (“Persephone”).

Woodruff never met a classic he couldn’t deconstruct with vivid visuals and psychologically rooted dramaturgy.He also sought to make ART’s Loeb stage a home for distinguished international artists. 

Both chiefs were driven out, say industry insiders, by increasingly empowered board bottom-liners, who seized the natural ends of contracts and slumping B.O. receipts to make their move — a characterization the Huntington denies.

The announcement of Martin’s eventual exit came in December when the 25-year-old theater had a show on Broadway — the profitable, Martin-helmed revival of “Butley” with Lane, which originated at the Huntington three years earlier. At the same time, Martin was in rehearsals for “The Cherry Orchard” starring Burton, which went on to become one of the theater’s biggest hits.

PR spins on both theaters’ announcements took an upbeat approach.

The Huntington boasted Martin had extended his contract for two seasons (even though it was deep into one of those seasons already, and Martin had pretty much settled on much of the lineup for the second.) 

It also announced that Martin would become “a.d. emeritus,” a vague status sometimes used at regionals in transitional periods to indicate continuity or as some kind of incentive.

“It will be what we all make of it,” says Maso on the new post-a.d. role for Martin. 

In ART’s case, it was just time for a change at the end of an expiring contract.

Interviews since the announcement confirmed that the reason for Woodruff’s non-renewal centered on how his programming was affecting the theater’s grosses and funder donations. 

Though the fiscal fortunes of the Huntington — which runs on $12 million in operating expenses — fluctuated year to year with modest deficits and surpluses, says Maso, it also just completed a $10 million endowment drive, building and paying for a new community theater complex in Boston’s South End.

“We’re in the best financial shape of our lives,” Maso says. 

ART’s fiscal health took a more dramatically downward path. Orchard and Woodruff were already preparing a $500,000 reduction in next season’s $9 million budget when the a.d. ax fell. 

Orchard anticipates an artistic head of ART will be named by the end of the year in order to plan for the 2008-09 season. Ditto the Huntington, which will seek professional help for its search.

“Though it’s not a fundamentally threatening time, it is an unsettling one,” says Maso of the new Beantown dynamic. “Clearly we’re all having to adjust to change in how we communicate to an audience and how audiences respond (to what we do).”

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