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Joy is the president and lead curator of the Friends of Herter Park, whose mission is to reactivate the public spaces and Amphitheatre at the Charles A. Herter Park in Allston, MA along the Charles. Joy is a voice catalyst, theatre teaching artist, and voice over actor. She is an assistant professor on the dance and theater faculties at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and is a founding emeritus chair of Continuing the Conversation, an alumni-led series of summits of the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has acted, taught, or directed with nearly every Boston area theatre in addition to her time as a founding company member at Saratoga Shakespeare, Inc and as a company member at Shakespeare & Company. She is an Alexander Teacher Trainee and keynote speaker.
This week’s Change Maker interview took place in front of a live audience in November 2019 at Open Doors: Allston, presented by BNY Mellon.
Kait Ziskin Levesque: I understand you just took over as President of the board for Friends of Herter Park a few months ago, congratulations! I would love to hear about your background and how you became involved with Friends of Herter Park.
Joy Lamberton Arcolano: I’m a theatre teaching artist and performer here in the area. I’m a classically trained Shakespearean actor, primarily. About 14 years ago, I performed with the Publick Theatre. It was just this incredible space hidden on the river in Allston, and I had just been at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts for several years doing Shakespeare outside. There was just something so incredibly magical about the actor-audience-space relationship, being outdoors and sharing a story.
My now-husband got accepted to a PhD program, so we came out to Boston, and I was so astounded to find this incredible outdoor theater in the heart of Allston. Then, all of a sudden, we had the stock market crash, and all of the public money went towards essential services (why the arts are not an essential service is a good question) and it was a space that was no longer being cared for. All the people that had loved it for so many years no longer had access to it. But there were many great grassroots organizations that were hanging out in the space and keeping the flame alive. There were also some guerilla theater programs happening there on occasion.
Things went on like this for almost ten years. It came to be that when I was having a conversation with another colleague of mine, they said in passing, “I’m going to this meeting tomorrow. I’ve joined this board, and I guess there’s some sort of outdoor amphitheatre.” And I said, “Stop. Whatever you need to do to get me into this meeting, do it.” So I got invited to this meeting and met some incredible folks who had fallen in love with the Herter Park Amphitheater through various interactions with it and wanted to see it as an arts venue and place for communities to gather.
I was the person who had the most expertise in programming, having friends who were musicians and knowing theater and dance companies, so I started programming the space. With our partnership with the Commonwealth and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, we said, “Let us do three or four events as proof of concept, and we’ll see what you think.” They told us OK, and we had these three lovely multi-art days. This was in 2017. Through conversations with the Department of Conservation and Rec. and local foundations like the Solomon Foundation and the Ciccolo Family Foundation, we were able to get enough going that we could try a full season. We thought we would do 15-18 events, but I got excited, and I planned 42. This year, we had 50 events.
So for proof of concept, we get to check that box. We definitely proved that folks are interested in coming to the space. One of the big things we’re trying to do now is open up who feels comfortable coming to the Amp and what programming we’re offering.
KL: I definitely want to come back to how programming increases inclusive community. Before we get there, I wanted to ask: the idea of a public-private partnership comes up a lot, especially in the parks space. I’d love to hear how it’s being approached from Herter Park, and where you’re seeing great traction with it, and where you can possibly grow it better?
JLA: That’s a difficult question. One of the unfortunate things is that this space was originally conceptualized for a very specific group of folks in the Boston area. I don’t know if many of you know, but the building right there was an early home of the Institute of Contemporary Art. For the Amphitheater, they were hoping the BSO would come play here in addition to Tanglewood. There was opera, dance, and ballet there, so it’s a very specific group of folks they hoped would come and then the Publick Theatre was formulated for 30 years on mostly classical theater. It’s on an island, and unless you know it’s there, you can walk right by it. In the last two years of me walking out over the island, grabbing people as they’re walking by on the bike path, chatting with people, it was so striking how many folks I’ve met who’ve said they had no idea there was an island there, let alone a full-on amphitheater. We have a gigantic stage and 350 seats, plus all the lawn space. It’s huge.
Part of it has been letting more folks know that this secret jewel is for everyone to behold and not just for people in the know. We should all be in the know.
We have some incredible partnerships with philanthropic, community, conservancy, and arts organizations as well as wonderful relationships with our local reps and state partners, like Mike Moran, and the DCR which allow us to fufill our mission to reinvigorate the Herter Park Ampitheater and ensure that our events are free and open to the public.
We have this wonderful support of the two core foundations, our founding partners that I mentioned before, Solomon and Ciccolo Family Foundations. We’ve gotten generous support from the Harvard Flex Fund, Greater Greener Boston, and Bose. We have long term partnerships with Revels, Climable, and several local performance groups and bands. In June, Brown Box Theatre Project will return with a premeire of a new play by a Boston Playwright that brings together the worlds of magic and theater called MOX NOX (or Soon Comes the Night), followed by their August Free Shakespeare production, Much Ado About Nothing, which honestly is my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies.
We also have this incredible relationship with the Charles River Conservancy. We’ve got close to 3,000 hours of cleaning, redoing the benches, painting, and more. There’s actually spaces in the park that even when I was there 14 years ago, the Publick Theatre was not using that were part of the original design. There’s terraced seating up on the back knoll that we were able to reveal thanks to the CRC. They have the knowledge, capacity, and community connections to make something like that happen. And most importantly, we have a memorandum of use agreement with the Department of Conservation and Recreation which is what allows us to do all this capital improvement work and programming.
I want to be really clear that it’s not our space – it is a community space. Our goal is to revitalize and fix the space, make everything safe. There had been no electricity there for several years, as it had been turned off since it was unsafe. We spent over a hundred-thousand dollars putting in new electricity, fixing the seats, and making sure all the lights work.
Through our friends at CommonWheels, we’re working on getting some bike racks installed. Right now, folks just bring their bikes and lean them against the hill. We want it to feel more welcoming for folks who are coming on bikes.
We’ve been working with a lot of different community organizations to build all these partnerships and with the government so this space doesn’t sit unused. There’s a gate on it, and basically after the Publick Theatre and Orfeo Group went in, they did two seasons of The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged, which was really great, before the space shut down. The DCR had to close the gate and say this space is no longer a maintained space for folks to be in. Our community spaces are so precious and so limited here, so the fact that our partnership with community groups and artists pushed that gate open made it safe and useful for folks, I think that’s been worth it.
KL: I have one final question for you. What do you see happening 10 years from now in the park, and how can people in the community get involved in that?
JLA: We are looking for volunteers and donors. Now that we’re in our third full production year, and we’ve shown how much we can increase folks coming in — we served just shy of 9,000 people this year, and last year was just shy of five, so there was big growth while keeping our number of events pretty much the same — what we’re really hoping for is to start to build even more inroads in the community. A lot of our volunteers have lived here in Allston their entire lives and they know a lot of folks, but I also know that when we have some events (music or dance or comedy), we’ve been having the performers actually walk around and do little bits and pieces of a play, or puppet shows, because there are so many people out in the park either who don’t know about the space or don’t feel like they’re invited. I think in 10 years, my hope is that some of those families and parkgoers have been lured in by the programs and are helping actually program events. I want them to feel like it’s their space.
I say it a million times, but I want people to know that they are involved in this, that they have a place not just in the seats, but on the stage. It’s for all of us. It’s a community space. And we can do lots of different things in a community space, as opposed to say something strictly considered a music venue, because there’s a lot of ways we can come together to create in this magical environment so we can learn to be better stewards of our space and of each other. It doesn’t have to just be one thing. That’s very much what I’m working for: the depth and breadth of our community reflected both in our seats and on our stage.
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