Interview with Elizabeth Hunter as told to Tori Weston
Please tell us about your background and how you came to Somerville.
Originally from Upstate NY, I have spent time living in Mexico, New York City, California, and London, each of which have influenced my life and my work, but Boston is the place that feels most like home for me, because of the rich and dense community that I find here. I have moved to Somerville three times since 1989--the vitality and creativity here keeps drawing me back. We bought our house in Davis Square in 2011 and continue to enjoy being in such a wonderfully friendly and walkable neighborhood.
What brought you to theatre?
As a preacher's daughter growing up in a small town I was part of holiday pageants and school plays from before I can remember. In 3rd grade I wrote my own modern adaptation of Twas the Night Before Christmas and corralled my entire class into performing it in the hall of our church. During a fairly peripatetic college career I worked with performance groups at five different schools and helped to found experimental theatre groups at three of them. I love the experience of collective creativity and the joy of sharing the results with a wider audience, and that's what brings me back to the theatre each time.
Who or what inspires your work?
The people I work with continually inspire me. When we founded Theatre@First, one of my main goals was to have a chance to work with my husband, Jason Merrill, who is a phenomenally talented actor. Through the years I have had the privilege of working with dozens of other incredible actors and many brilliant directors, designers, and technical staff whose work makes me want to find projects to bring us together again, to draw new people into the process, and to challenge ourselves to work through the obstacles and constraints that force us to get really creative.
Being the artistic director for Theatre@First, what would be your dream production?
Unlike a lot of theatre companies, we don't choose our shows centrally--instead we welcome proposals from directors and help them to bring those productions to the stage by providing our experience, contacts, and organizational infrastructure. In that sense, every project that we undertake is the dream of someone within our community. I've had the privilege of fulfilling several of my own dreams and every play I've directed has been its own enormous joy. The productions that bring me the most pride are the original, or lesser known works that we have introduced to our audiences, convincing them to come see what we're doing even if they've never heard of it before.
Theatre@First is celebrating 15 years, how has it grown?
We started with just four of us--myself, my husband, my sister, and one other friend--thinking that it would be neat to try community theatre in Somerville. We convinced a few other friends to be part of the production crew, and put out posters and a sandwich board on College Ave announcing auditions for our first show. Forty-eight people showed up to try out. Over four hundred people came to see our first show. By the end of the run, a lot of people were asking what the next show would be and we realized that we had a theatre company.
In 2004 we produced two full-length plays and an evening of one-acts. In 2020 we will produce three full-length plays, our 11th one-act festival, staged readings, our workshop program for new playwrights, a 24-hour play festival for charity, a Greek Theatre Slam, a night of improv games, a story-telling night, workshops for honing our skills, and quite possibly other special projects, if we can find open dates on the calendar. Each year we work with well over 100 individuals, and over time we've worked with more than 700 in total. At the same time, we've built a strong and active community where people return again and again, and not only find an outlet for their creative dreams, but also learn new skills and take on new responsibilities, while forging friendships and lasting relationships that allow us to support each other through some of life's toughest moments and celebrate the high points together.
What are you still looking to accomplish?
Building a community theatre is a combination of creative endeavors and organizational challenges. On the creative front, I hope to personally direct more contemporary works, having focused on classics and period pieces throughout most of my career. On the organizational front, I'm hoping to nurture a more diverse community of participants in the coming years, as we transition to a new generation of leaders.
How does one find out about your work?
Visit our website, www.theatreatfirst.org, to see details of all our current and past productions, and sign up to receive our monthly newsletter.