When Emerson College alumnus MJ Halberstadt was 9 or 10, the house across the street from his was struck by lightning. The family that lived there was unharmed, but they couldn’t stay in a burned-out house, so they left the neighborhood. And they left Halberstadt with the seeds of what would one day become a play.
That Time the House Burned Down is the second of two plays Halberstadt ’10 is seeing produced this spring in Boston.
It’s the story of a dysfunctional family narrated by a series of household pets inhabited by the same soul after they die one by one, who try to repair some of the damage caused by the family’s chronic miscommunication. Also, there’s a “misshapen American Girl doll” who is the pets’ unwilling accomplice in trying to help the family. Also, the house burns down.
You should probably just see it.
Halberstadt’s childhood neighbors on Long Island were not guided by the recycled soul of a family pet, or a battered doll, to his knowledge, but they did get him thinking.
“I just remember their house was basically an empty shell the rest of the time we lived there,” Halberstadt said. “It just sort of stuck in my head, what happens to a family if their home is destroyed. I guess I started meditating on the difference between a house and a home, because their house was totally destroyed; but who am I to say that they’re not still a unit?”
That Time the House Burned Down is being presented by Fresh Ink Theatre April 8–23, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, but before that, another of Halberstadt’s plays, The Launch Prize, will run March 3–20, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Bridge Repertory Theater, of which Halberstadt is a founding artistic associate, is producing.
The Launch Prize is an entirely different kind of play, and one likely to provoke questions, if not debate.
In it, four graduate students in visual arts learn that one of them has been selected for a career-making national art prize, but they don’t immediately know which one. One of the students speculates that they will be judged more on their race and gender identity than their artistic talent. The implications of that speculation are what drives the story.
“What is this play trying to say?” Halberstadt asked himself. “I don’t know that the play is trying to answer questions, as much as ask them.
“My own feelings are complicated, because I feel there needs to be equity, but that looks very different than treating people equally,” Halberstadt said.
The play was first staged two or three years ago in an amateur production with a white director, who was a friend. The friend did a good job, Halberstadt said, but he told the artistic director at Bridge Rep that the director for this production needed to be a person of color.
For the March run, Tiffany Nichole Greene, who is black, is directing. Halberstadt said he appreciates that she is not afraid to challenge the text and suggest revisions.
The dramaturg on That Time the House Burned Down is another Emerson alumna, Jessie Baxter ’09, literary director at Fresh Ink.
Halberstadt’s ties to Emerson are long and strong. He started out as a tour guide his first year. Today, after graduating with an undergraduate degree in Theatre Education (he has an MFA in playwriting from Boston University), he is senior assistant director of undergraduate admission, where he recruits future Emersonians in his territory (Maine, Long Island, Illinois, Michigan, and parts of Connecticut) and oversees various alumni projects back in Boston.
As if his day job doesn’t keep him busy enough, Halberstadt said he’s staged two full-length plays a year for the last two years, which he credits to his “relatively strong work ethic.”
Last August “was ridiculous,” Halberstadt admitted. He got married, moved, and was working at full tilt getting ready for the fall semester. And he had a play, i don’t know where we’re going but i promise we’re lost, going on.
“It’s insanity,” he said. “But that’s what having a life in theater is.”