By Debra Wise
The Standell’s had been singing Dirty Water for 13 years before Underground Railway Theater moved from Oberlin, Ohio to the Boston area in 1979. Our young company adopted the song’s lyrics immediately as both a comic anthem and a sincere pledge to sink deep roots into our new home:
Down by the River…
Down by the banks of the River Charles
(Oh, that’s what’s happenin’ baby)
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves.
(Ahh, but they’re cool people)
I love that dirty water
‘Oh oh, Boston, you’re my home
We had taken the nameUnderground Railway Theater to remind us of what we considered Oberlin’s most significant chapter – that historic moment when students, faculty and townies were united in a truly radical effort to change society. Our name would be a touchstone, we hoped, to help us pick projects that in some way would contributed toward crossing perceived boundaries – between people, issues, even between intellectual and artistic disciplines. Boston seemed a good place to explore such a mission: lots of turf divisions, beginning with that Dirty Water dividing our current Cambridge home from Boston proper. The centuries-old rich history of Boston and Cambridge is matched by its equally rich present, which finds expression in an amazing variety of cultural communities and a heritage of innovation – both social and scientific. Many rivers to cross.
We came to Boston to learn from a larger community of artists than we had been able to find in Cleveland. Since we arrived here three decades ago, the number of Boston area professional theater companies has expanded exponentially– and that is what feeds both Underground Railway Theater and what excites me as an actor and theater artist. There are so many colleagues here to learn from, so many young companies who, like ours, start out wanting to find a useful and unique voice. An increasing number of theater artists and companies are contributing important new plays and innovative productions to our field, nationally, while we serve an increasingly broader, more diverse, and more sophisticated Boston area theater audience. We are still finding our unique voice – there is still so much we have to learn from each other.
Artistic Director, Underground Railway Theater