Member Spotlight: Emma Watt
Welcome to our Member Spotlight series, where we highlight some of the amazing work being done by ArtsBoston Member Organizations all over the Greater Boston area. Once a month, we choose a staff member from one of our Member Orgs and chat with them about why they do what they do and what being a part of the Boston arts and culture community means to them. If you would like to nominate someone you know (or perhaps yourself) to be considered for a Member Spotlight, please email me at email@example.com.
This month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Emma Watt, theatre artist, and Programming Manager at OBERON, the American Repertory Theater‘s second stage.
How did you end up getting involved in arts administration? Were you involved in the arts growing up?
I did community theater growing up. I was acting and stage managing when I was a kid. In high school and college, I started directing and producing — though I wasn’t working as a producer full-time until I came to OBERON about two and a half years ago. But I was always the person who solved the random problem that came up on the show, and the more I got into the professional world, the more I realized that that was my strong suit: problem-solving and supporting, rather than always leading and generating the project — even though I love directing, and new play development, and I love being in the room with artists.
What does your job entail? What does an average day look like for you?
As the Programming Manager, I’m in charge of the calendar and arranging all the bookings with visiting artists. Once the shows are booked, I facilitate communication and project management. I oversee the vast majority of our local programming, and I also work in a producing capacity on our curated series, OBERON Presents, which is a three-pronged series of programming that brings in artists from all over the country, as well as local work like Company One‘s production of We’re Gonna Die and Wig Out! (coming in April).
The work leads. And the artists you choose to invest in and how you choose to invest in them leads.
The work leads. And the artists you choose to invest in and how you choose to invest in them leads.
My days vary widely, but most days I get up in the morning, go to class. I’m also a student in the arts education program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. So I go to my non-profit finance class, head over to OBERON, do some work in the office, and check in with production staff about preparations for upcoming shows. I usually have a meeting or a phone call with an artist or two about future projects and possibilities. I might give someone a tour of the space so they can start imagining what they might do in it. About mid-afternoon, the artists for that evening’s show will arrive. They set up, start tech. I’m not super involved in the tech process, but I’m there to supervise and answer questions folks might have.
When tech time is over, we have a quick meeting between everyone on our tech staff, the outside producer, our front of house & venue management staff, and me, and we go through everything that’s going to happen so we’re all on the same page. Then we set up the house – usually, at that point, I’m helping manage comps and seating concerns. I usually stay to see the show start. If it’s a show I’m not familiar with or something we haven’t done before, I usually stay and watch at least part of the performance. Just so I know what it is and how it’s playing in the space, see what the audience is like. And then I go home!
Company One’s production of We’re Gonna Die at OBERON. Photo: Evengia Evelon.
What kind of work do you program at OBERON? And how do you collaborate with the artists you bring in?
We present a really wide range of things actually. Which is awesome! I love that. This fall we had everything from high school students doing a devised piece to the Silkroad ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma to Boston Circus Guild’s Halloween show Cirque of the Dead. It’s a whole range of things. In addition to our curated series, OBERON Presents, and our local programming we also have a new series called Live @ OBERON, which builds on some of the work we’ve been doing with live music over the last several years. Giving bands the opportunity to work with a theater tech staff, which I don’t think they often get. We’ve been doing a lot of album release parties and things like that.
For instance, last year we did a night with Lake Street Dive where they all performed their side projects. They all perform in smaller duos and trios as well as the main band. So our amazing production team created three mini-stages around the space for each of the ensembles, so the audience had this 360-degree experience of their music.
We basically have a presenting model where we provide a little more hands-on support than a typical rental house. It works on a bar guarantee to cover our direct expenses and we provide the technical staff. Our staff is all designers as well so they are able to respond to each producers’ vision and help develop the look and sound for each show so it fits the space. We do all the front of house and ticketing stuff through ART’s website. We’re bringing in a little bit of that infrastructure and trying to create some economies of scale for local artists, most folks who are doing one-off club night types of events. And we’re lucky to have the subsidy and support of the ART so we can make space financially accessible to artists, and still provide a high level of support.
How do you choose which artists to present at OBERON?
What kind of spaces of celebration do we need? Lately, I’ve really noticed people wanting to make shows in spaces that hold their values, where they can just own who they are. That’s something that I think about as very OBERON. It’s a space where we can be together and honor each other’s identities.
Pretty much all decisions are made in consultation with my boss, Mark Lunsford, the Artistic Producer at ART. On the local side, I’m in communication with the artists. The curated series, OBERON Presents, represents the core of the institution a little bit more, so Mark and I are really looking at that together in consultation with the ART artistic leadership, Diane Paulus, Diane Borger, Ryan McKittrick, and many of our other staff.
With the local programming, I’m not curating for whether or not I like it. It’s totally different. I have to consider – is this a show that OBERON can support to the best of its ability? Is this a show that’s going to take advantage of the space, and need this space in a particular way? Is this a show where there’s passion for it among the artists and their audience? So the work is curated through the mission of OBERON, instead of through my own personal preferences. It’s not “Emma Watt’s Theater”, it’s this club theatre experiment, that’s trying to be open to a whole range of aesthetics and types of events and goals.
How does OBERON’s mission differ from ART’s mission?
It’s a focused subset of ART’s mission. I think of an OBERON show as “expanding the boundaries of theatre”—which Diane Paulus always talks about at ART. And I think the way Oberon is meant to do that is by thinking about the social experience: what are we looking for when we go out? I think of that as both playing with club forms like burlesque, and drag, and music and that kind of stuff and bringing a theatrical sensibility to those forms. But also, what kind of spaces of celebration do we need? Lately, I’ve really noticed people wanting to make shows in spaces that hold their values, where they can just own who they are. That’s something that I think about as very OBERON. It’s a space where we can be together and honor each other’s identities, stories, truths. The immersive experience of the bar and the informalities of the space facilitates that in a different way than a proscenium house could.
In exploring the increased theatricality of those club art forms, what moments at OBERON stick out to you as times where you hit the mark, where you got that “space of celebration” feeling right?
Oh, man. That’s so hard. I can think of a couple examples. This past weekend we had a piece back for the second year by an artist named Kit Yan, who’s a trans-Asian-American theatre artist and poet. The show is called Queer Heartache, and it’s inspired by spoken word, but directed and shaped in a more theatrical way. It’s just an incredibly beautiful, warm, inspirational piece that draws on the way slam poetry connects with an audience. In presenting that work, because it’s a shorter piece, we put together an opening act of three local trans poets for each show. (They were all amazing – Justice Ameer, Chrysanthemum Tran, Kaleigh O’Keefe, Black Venus, Eddie Maisonet, and Zenaida Peterson – see their shows, Boston!). Kit went to school in Boston, so it was about connecting back to those local performers and it was just a really special night, a real high point of this year for us. The community response to it, the way the audience was in the space was just beautiful. I think that’s a good example of playing with club form, while also celebrating artistic expression —especially that deep listening to each other that can happen with a really wonderful performance.
Especially in this time when equal, diverse, and inclusive representation in the arts is finally being openly pursued, OBERON is often commended for it’s “non-traditional” audiences that skew younger and more racially and socio-economically diverse than the average arts patron base. What lessons do you think other arts institutions could learn from OBERON’s productions and the crowds they attract?
It’s so tricky, right? We obviously haven’t “solved” the problem at OBERON. But we do see a wide range of audience I suspect because we do such a wide-range of work – by lots of different young and diverse artists who are making space for their friends and families and communities to come be a part of their work.
I think it’s about who’s leading the work. I try really hard to not be a gatekeeper. I try really hard to foster the long-term relationships we’ve had, but also be open and welcoming to new people, especially to producers of color and artists of color. I know that the institutional-ness [of our Harvard affiliation] and our location, in some ways, can be intimidating, and might give off an “oh, they don’t want to work with us” vibe, but that’s really the opposite of how we approach our partnerships.
The work leads. And the artists you choose to invest in and how you choose to invest in them leads. That’s not to ignore the crucial work of diversifying staff and boards, but it’s a place to start. And I think that sometimes one of the advantages we have at OBERON is that our curatorial relationship is informal in a different way than it is in some theater spaces. The decision making is a little less top-down and there are fewer people to convince and sign off on things, so there’s space for more opinions about what is artistically successful, or valuable, or necessary. And it’s also small scale! If you can sell 150 tickets, you can do well at OBERON. That’s the scope of the audience and once you accept that, it’s kind of freeing. What would 150 people absolutely love? You don’t necessarily need to do a play by Shakespeare to get the audience to fill the house.
You also have to be patient. Our programming still sees the majority of its sales the week before. Every time. Because it’s a younger audience, and it’s an audience that’s not planning in the same way. That’s obviously scary from a producing side, but as an audience member, I totally get it. I know I’m the person scaring producers on the other end.
What’s one thing you want the ArtsBoston community to know about your job?
You will carry that glitter with you forever. It’s a very sparkly place.
People of ArtsBoston: if you’re producing arts events in the city of Boston, and you’re looking for a venue or interested in club performance, please come talk to me. We really are here to be a resource and here to support the visions that artists have. I’m always happy to talk people through the money piece because I know that can seem scary when working in small spaces. But we find a way. We really do try to make each event as successful as possible, while remaining financially sustainable in our own right. We want to support you, we want to help you, we want to know what you need.
That’s awesome! And I’m sure our member organizations looking for performance space will be happy to hear that. I feel like every artist in Boston does a stint at the OBERON at some point in their life. My first paying theater gig was at OBERON.
Really? Amazing! I think everyone definitely should do a show at OBERON. Or at least attend one. And you will carry that glitter with you forever. It’s a very sparkly place.