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    Updated March 26, 2014

Women Have Led the Way at Two Boston Theatres

By Donna Sorbello

Two women, who have been powerful forces in the Boston theatre community, are stepping down. Fortunately, the duo is leaving behind two healthy and thriving award-winning organizations.

Both Jane Staab, business manager, casting director and then co-artistic director of Wheelock Family Theatre, and Mary C. Huntington, artistic director of the Nora Theatre Company, have influenced Boston theatre for a little more than three decades. Both theatres started, as many successful enterprises do, with a vision. And, both women have seen their ideas come to fruition in greater ways than they had originally dreamed.

Jane Staab in Happy Days

Photo: Andrea Genser

Staab, who is leaving her post in June, began her AEA life as an apprentice at the Harwich Junior Theatre. Along with Harwich vets Susan Kosoff and Tony Hancock, she soon was running a winter theatre in the Harwich Theatre space. The trio immediately began to do what they did best: everything. Staab was responsible for writing scripts, directing and acting, as well as coaching the young actors within shows. From the start, the group was determined to have an all-inclusive theatre — a term that was meant to apply to both sides of the proscenium. The troupe adhered to this mission so strongly that in 2000, the theatre, which is on an Equity Letter of Agreement referenced to LORT, received Equity’s Rosetta LeNoire Award for its color-blind casting and the casting of physically-challenged actors.  

The impact of the Wheelock within the Boston community has been enormous. Aside from the thousands of children who have seen their first show at the Harwich, many physically and learning-impaired youngsters have been able, for the first time, to experience theatre they could relate to (via the actors and characters, sign language performances, printed words for the hearing impaired and, more often than not, through the message of the show).

Another goal of Staab and the Wheelock has always been to “tell a good story with a significant message imbedded within it, whether it’s friendship, or tolerance or sacrifice,” Staab said. This, too, has been realized. The Wheelock, Staab noted, has always been about people, each working with their strengths.
“It’s been about making work that is beautiful, meaningful, thoughtful and exciting,” she said.

Mary Huntington, former artistic director of The Nora Theatre.

Photo: Kippy Goldfarb

Mary C. (Mimi) Huntington was a theatre graduate student at Brandeis University when she came across Eric Engel, a Brandeis directing major, and Francine Ferraro, who was interested in the business side of things. The theatre name was inspired by the iconic Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (Nora is a woman who refuses to have her life choices dictated to her), by actor Eleanora Duse and an inspiring teacher named Nola. An AEA member, from the start Huntington wanted her theatre to offer Equity contracts. And, it does, as a signatory to AEA’s New England Area Theatre (NEAT) agreement.

The Nora was born in a loft on Charles Street in Boston and then spent seven years in a dance space in the Harvard Freshman Union before Huntington realized her need of a more permanent home. A serendipitous meeting with Debra Wise, founder of the Underground Railway Theater, revealed that she was also looking for a theatrical home. The two found property owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Central Square and combined forces to get a new venue. 

Over the 26 years of the Nora Theatre’s existence, Huntington has drawn from the New England AEA community when staffing actors and technicians. She has also aimed to shed light on new or rarely produced works — with an eye to “revealing our common humanity.”

Though, along with the new pieces and science-themed plays (which have proved popular with MIT subscribers), she was not afraid to take on the modern classics, like Anton Chekhov and Harold Pinter, and other works that speak with a feminine voice on human concerns and endeavors. Huntington said that being an artistic director has been rewarding and exciting, and that she has always looked for work in which the audience can become a “thoughtful and emotional” partner. Though she retired in February, Huntington remains on the Nora board.

One legacy that both Staab and Huntington will pass on is having a strong female at the helm of the theatre each is leaving behind. Wendy Lement, a playwright, instructor, director and founder of her own theatre group, is the new producer at the Wheelock Family Theatre. Lee Mikeska-Gardner, an actor and director with management skills honed at several other theatre companies, is the new artistic director at the Nora.

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