The Next level
Jason Southerland hopes to make a big boom in Evanston.
“Senior year of college, I saw an out-of-town tryout of a new musical that Hal Prince was directing. It was interesting but flawed, and I wrote him a letter and told him how to fix it.”
Jason Southerland, 42, has been served well by that “luck and…whatever else you want to call it, chutzpah—it’s been called a lot of things over the years,” as he tells it. Prince, the legendary producer-director, invited Southerland, then a poli-sci major at the University of California, Berkeley, to New York to meet him. That led to apprentice-level jobs at San Diego’s Old Globe and L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. During our hour-long conversation, Prince is the first of several influential theater makers whom Southerland cites as mentors.
Evanston’s Next Theatre Company hopes Southerland’s luck, or chutzpah, will serve it well, too, as he embarks on his first full season as the three-decade-old theater’s artistic director.
During his early-’90s stint at the Old Globe, Southerland was impressed by then–artistic director Jack O’Brien’s efforts to balance professionalism and community. “I wanted to live in a community, not necessarily be part of the Broadway scene.” To that end, he hopes to expand Next’s community-outreach programs, making the company integral to Evanston’s identity. “I see the way Writers has embedded itself in Glencoe and both responds to and leads its community—that’s what Next needs to be doing in Evanston.”
Southerland did theater as a kid but focused on sports and other activities as a teen. “I knew it was something I would come back to,” he says. After attending grad school at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Southerland was persuaded by his partner to stay in Boston; he founded Boston Theatre Works and ran the company for ten years. He describes its aesthetic as quite similar to that of Next under his predecessor Jason Loewith: a focus on new works and regional premieres of provocative, socially engaged plays. (Boston Theatre Works went on a now-permanent hiatus last year after a critically acclaimed but financially crippling revival of Angels in America.)
The California native had been among the candidates for About Face’s new artistic director last year, but when Loewith decided to move on, Southerland says, “the head of the search committee passed my name to Jason.” Southerland started on the job in November, but Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom begins the first season under his programming.
“A season isn’t five plays; it’s a dialogue,” he says. “One reason to subscribe to a theater is to have a whole dialogue, instead of just parts of it.” He considers his inaugural season an assessment of what it means to be a citizen in the world today—which is why it kicks off with an end-of-the-world comedy.
“I went to see District 9 the other day. All right; interesting. But what was even more interesting is there were probably 10 or 12 previews, and almost all of them were about either the end of the world or vampires, which is its own kind of postapocalyptic mythology,” he notes. “This is on people’s minds. When the financial system collapses, almost, you start to think, What if everything I think I can count on, I can’t?”
boom traps a young marine biologist and a journalism student in an underground bunker to repopulate the world after a disaster; complications ensue. The director notes that, in boom, as in his season closer, Loewith and Justin Palmer’s War with the Newts, individuals in situations beyond their control “start documenting everything in hopes of finding a way to get through it.” Not a bad metaphor for theater.
boom explodes Friday 11.