Entertainment » Theatre

Curtain Call :: Zeitgeist's David Miller on Season 18... and Why It Will Be the Last

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 31, 2018
David Miller
David Miller  

Over the past seventeen seasons, the Zeitgeist Stage Company, headed by David Miller, has offered Boston timely, relevant, thought-provoking, ambitious theater - and, not infrequently, that theater has had an LGBTQ slant.

The company's upcoming 18th season is set to offer more of the same with two productions, one of them a newly-commissioned work. First up is Jon Robin Baitz's parody of Trump -era politics, "Vicuña," which starts Sept. 14 and runs through Oct. 6th at the BCA's longtime home, the Boston Center for the Arts. In the spring, a new work commissioned by Zeitgeist, Jacques Lamarre's "Trigger Warning," will play from April 12 - May 4th.

Then, sadly, when the curtain comes down on the season's second offering, it will also bring the end of Zeitgeist's long run of acclaimed productions. Zeitgeist's 18th season will be its last - a loss that's sure to be as deeply felt, and keenly mourned, as the end of fringe companies Bad Habit and, before that, Whistler in the Dark; or, for that matter, the closure of the much-missed Factory Theatre.

EDGE caught up with David Miller recently to find out why Zeitgeist is set to take its final bows, and hear about what its closing season will bring.


EDGE: The upcoming season will be Zeitgeist's 18th and final season. Why are you closing shop after such a long run of acclaimed work?

David Miller: It's financial. We haven't really been able to sell tickets over the last two seasons, despite quality work, and tickets are the major source of our income. It's been a painful decision, but we're not in a financial condition to continue any longer.

EDGE: So when you give your signature phrase "Micro-donations sometimes keep us going," you're not exaggerating.

David Miller: Yes, indeed. We don't get a lot of grants [or] foundation support. That traditionally goes to larger theaters, despite applications. And we have had a rough time selling tickets. "Faceless," which started off last season, was a pretty powerful show but it coincided with the Globe's new condition that they won't send second stringers out to review a show.... so we never got a review, and that really hurt us on that show. I mean, that show won two IRNE Awards [but] it was playing to single-digit houses for most of the run, and that's not really sustainable for us.

EDGE: Zeitgeist has often brought Boston plays with an LGBTQ focus - everything from "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Steve." Was this part of the overall mission for the company? Or was it more a matter of LGBTQ-themes fitting in with the socially relevant material toward which that Zeitgeist has gravitated?

David Miller: I think it's a combination of both - being of the zeitgeist, and also a lot of great theater with gay themes is out there, and that ties into our artistic mission.

I mean, I'm gay and Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights. I had a life-changing experience when I saw "Love! Valour! Compassion!" on Broadway, so it tied in with the spirit of the zeitgeist. Even though "Love! Valour! Compassion!" was 25 years old, there was still relevance in it. Also, a sense of not forgetting where we came from. I remembered some younger folks, when we did "The Normal Heart," [asking] "It wasn't really like that, was it?" And we had to say, "No, it was worse." Maureen Adduci, who played the doctor in the wheelchair [Emma Brookner] in that show, was a nurse in a hospital during the AIDS epidemic, and she brought a lot of insight to it. I think even though, you know, with PrEP, people are less concerned about it, the statistics we had on the wall showed that AIDS was still a global problem and hadn't gone away.

EDGE: Looking back eighteen years ago, when you were deciding what your theater company would be and the kinds of work it would stage, what was the factor that made you decide you wanted to present material that speaks to the zeitgeist - that is to say, is culturally and politically relevant to things happening at the moment?

David Miller: Because that's the theater that kind of stays with me when I go to the theater, and that's the kind of experience I wanted to give our audience. I mean, if two or three days later I'm still thinking about a play I saw, then I know it had resonance for me. I'm grateful for that kind of experience and wanted to impart that to our audience in hopes they would come back for more.

EDGE: The upcoming season will see two productions, both of them very much of the moment. Let me note, as an aside, your first season consisted of two productions, and you've produced three plays each season since then - and now you are bookending with two productions for your last season.

David Miller: Well, it was before we decided this would be out last season we knew two years ago we were having problems selling tickets at the box office, so we decided to go to a two-show season this year. Traditionally, the February show is one of the harder shows to sell because it's so weather dependent. Then, after we had planned on two shows and gotten the space at the BCA, it became apparent that we needed to make this our final season.

EDGE: Let's talk a bit about those two upcoming productions. "Vicuña" takes on the political processes and failings that resulted in the Trump presidency; "Trigger Warning" takes on the subject of school shootings. Though you might not have intended it when you were planning the season, it feels like you are going out in a blaze of to-the-minute relevance.

David Miller: Yes, and I'm pleased with the programming we have because it's very much true to the spirit of our name. The one thing, though, that I kind of commented on is I do think part of our programming has suffered in box office sales due to "Trump Fatigue." "Exit Strategy," about the closing of an inner-city school, started with a tape of Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing; and then "Faceless," about the girl who [gets involved with] ISIS, and other shows, have had a strong political component to them. What I've been kind of experiencing is, it's been hard for us to sell them. I have a lot of friends who have gone off social media and stopped watching the news just because of this constant assault of the Trump presidency and all the issues [that have arisen around that]. A lot of people in my experience are kind of looking for more comedy, more humor to battle that "Trump Fatigue," and I'm afraid our shows kind of contribute to it. I think that's been a factor. In the last two years, it's been very tough for us to, as the saying goes, put asses in seats.

EDGE: I do get the sense, though, that "Vicuña" has the potential to offer some comedy.

David Miller: Yes, it does, actually. It's a very witty comedy. I love Jon Robin Baitz as a playwright because he does a great job of mixing the personal and political into a moving story, and this one I was attracted to once I read it. But it's dense writing. We talked among the cast: Are people going to laugh at this, or just go, "Hmmm," and nod and laugh to themselves? God bless Neil Simon, may he rest in peace; "Vicuña" doesn't have Neil Simon kind of laugh lines. It [functions at] a more intellectual level. It's based on a Trump-like character, but the character in the play is a lot more... not intelligent, but eloquent. He's not written in a waterfall of unfinished sentences, the way Trump speaks. He's written with complete sentences, and it's a relatively balanced argument, given that Baitz is very much anti-Trump. The playwright was a victim of an assault on the night of Trump's inauguration. He was in Washington for the Women's March and was assaulted by drunken Trump supporters in what the police have categorized as a "hate crime."

EDGE: Zeitgeist commissioned the season's second play, "Trigger Warning." Am I correct that this the first play Zeitgeist has commissioned?

David Miller: Yes, it is.

EDGE: So, eighteen seasons in, you've commissioned your first play - what led to this?

David Miller: Actually, The Boston Foundation has a grant supporting new work. We applied for a grant and I had talked to [playwright] Jacques Lamarre, who is a friend of mine, about a number of topics, and this is the one he focused on. Then we did not get The Boston Foundation grant, and I didn't have the money to pay him a commission, and he agreed to not take anything and just get the royalties when we actually put the show up. So that's how that came about, but it is a topic that is very timely and, again, of the zeitgeist. I mean, just yesterday there was another shooting [at the Madden video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida]. It wasn't at a school, but it does raise the subject of gun control and what needs to be done to stop this constant "Our thoughts and prayers are with them," and then nothing gets done.

EDGE: Zeitgeist is no stranger to hot political and social topics, having produced plays like "Enron" and "The Submission." Are you satisfied with things working out in a way such that your swan song is a new play about a school shooting?

David Miller: Yes, I am. Between "Vicuña" and "Trigger Warning," if you'll pardon the expression, we're going to go out with a bang, with what I hope is culturally relevant and timely [work], which really is being true to our name as a company. I'm saddened that we have to shut down, but I'm pleased with the productions we have planned, and hopefully, the audiences will find them that way, too.

EDGE There are always new fringe and small theater groups starting up in Boston, but - I'm going to speak personally, here - Zeitgeist's departure is going to leave a huge hole in the city's theatrical landscape. Does it feel that way to you, also?

David Miller: I think that's up to the Boston theater-goers to decide. It's not really my place to decide what our legacy will be. I mean, my hope is when people think of Zeitgeist they'll think, "They put on a good show," and that's the highest compliment to have.


Zeitgeist's 18th and final season begins with "Vicuña," which will play Sept. 14 - Oct. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.zeitgeiststage.com.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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