The Footlight Club was originally opened in 1877, and has been running ever since. A community theater in Jamaica Plain operated mostly by volunteers, the club has been a pillar of Boston for decades.
Its building, Eliot Hall, will see six shows this season, which began last September with “Pippin”. A smaller theater downstairs from the main space also hosts the more experimental 7A series; the most recent show was “Marion Bridge”, which ran for three shows at the beginning of March. The 7A shows are directed by members, and the theater can only fit around 60 people. The shows themselves are intimate, black box-type performances, with sparse setting, no stage, and limited lighting. The method is meant to induce audience participation and a flexible stage. The shows chosen may not have the largest commercial potential, being obscure or overly new plays.
“The thing I like most about working and volunteering at a theater is working with large groups of people who are collectively working towards a common goal,” said president Kristin MacDougall. “That’s the beauty of it. Everyone can contribute in their own way and at the end you have a play.”
Other than the directors, stage managers, and music directors, everyone else at the Footlight Club is a volunteer. “We’re really trying hard to pick shows that will have meaningful roles for a diverse group of performers,” MacDougall said.
Last November, the club ran its first sensory-friendly performances for the 1993 show “Honk!”, an adaptation of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. Research was put in that paid off, with volunteers who had previous experience with sensory issues assisting the production. MacDougall said families especially came to see the show, citing it as a great experience.
A surprising hit was Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”, put on last season. Considering the content and title (for example, actors simulate orgasms on stage), MacDougall expected people to shy away, but it was “one of the biggest hits we’ve ever had,” she said.
Currently, the Footlight Club is picking directors for its next season, and is planning to include the shows “Harvey”, “The Drowsy Chaperone”, and the musical version of “Legally Blonde”, among others.
Renovations for Eliot Hall have been in-progress since 2014, when Boston tightened its rules and inspections for safety in public spaces. The renovation plan has 10 phases, many of which are still ongoing. The club needed to replace Eliot Hall’s sprinkler system and seats, since they were not in compliance. “I would recommend to anyone who wants to start up their own theater to keep in mind that you do have to answer to the local and state officials for things and you need to keep safety in mind,” MacDougall said.
“We’ve wanted to make the building handicapped-accessible for a long time. I’ve been at the Footlight Club in some capacity for a little bit more than 15 years and we’ve been raising money to do that for a long time,” she said, adding that it would take around $100,000 for a lift and ramp, as well as other renovations. Their funds come entirely from donations and grants.
Eliot Hall is also used by other Jamaica Plain organizations. Once a year, the Jamaica Plain Artists’ Association arranges an exhibit there. More frequently, a children’s theater class meets once a week. The Freelance Players, a theater group for children, uses the hall twice a year, as does the Neighborhood Rocks Community Chorus. Fringe theater groups pop in when time and space are available.
Eliot Hall will host their first Pop-Up Paint Night in April. The Friday night session will be for adults and there will be a Saturday matinee version for children. MacDougall said she hopes this event repeats to occur several times a year or even monthly.
Hugo Lindsay (CFA ‘19) is currently rehearsing for the roles of Hans and the Sailor in the club’s upcoming run of the 1966 musical “Cabaret”, based on the 1951 play “I am a Camera” by John Van Druten. Lindsay was previously in a BU on Broadway run of “Cabaret”.
Lindsay explained that the first few rehearsals were focused on exploring the overview of the show. “Day to day, rehearsal and production activities vary,” he said. “Like any musical production, early rehearsals involved blocking and choreography and music rehearsals.”
Lindsay added that this experience has easily been his best in terms of theater. “In comparison to my experiences in student theatre, the Footlight Club is vastly higher caliber theater—a few members of the cast act in professional shows and the others are equal in dedication to their craft,” he said.
“Cabaret” will run March 30 through April 13, with 8 p.m. shows on the Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. The last show of the season, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, will run throughout the first half of June.