When Brian Boruta was tap dancing on stage in The Umbrella Arts Center, singing “Moses supposes his toeses are roses…” as one of the leads in “Singin’ in the Rain,” he had no idea that he would in two years assume the role as the organization’s director of performing arts.
Appointed in 2012, Boruta recently logged his 46th production at The Umbrella. He has garnered six best production nominations and several EMACs (Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters) nominations and awards for best play, best musical, best director of a musicall, and for his on-stage work.
An animated Boruta sat in the Stow Street theater recently to talk about the many productions he has overseen, his favorite roles, and his delight that the 2022-2023 season was the first full one since the start of the pandemic which included the theater’s best-selling musical ever, “Rent.”
Boruta is passionate about live theater because “It’s happening right in front of you,” he said. “It’s a shared experience between the artists on stage and the audience.”
“The Color Purple” marked the end of this year’s full season, with critics praising the show. The Umbrella, home to an array of studios and gallery spaces, became a professional theater company in 2019 when renovations to the former middle school to create a state-of-the-art performance hall with stadium seating for 344 and a black box performance space that accommodates 100 were completed.
In March 2020, on the opening night of “Bent,” a play about courage and survival in the face of extreme hate in Nazi era Germany, the pandemic shut down production. In disbelief, the crew left the sets and the props in place; days later the dressing tables still held bouquets of roses for the actors. “The monolithic set loomed on stage all summer,” Boruta said, until he had to face the fact that the rest of the season had to be canceled.
The plug was also pulled on the following season, but The Umbrella team worked hard to provide virtual events and performances. Last season they had “to hit the pause button” when the Omicron variant hit and rescheduled the productions.
Boruta’s path to The Umbrella began when he was a freshman on a science track at Northeastern. He had always been fascinated by that subject and did well in it. But while “looking for outlets,” he gravitated to the school’s theater club, where he met actor, playwright, and director Leslie Pasternack, who was “a phenomenal teacher.” It was then, he said, that “something lit up inside me.”
After transferring to Framingham State and entering a television and film production program, Boruta graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in visual media and communications. Drawn into backstage production aspects such as lighting, design, and video engineering, he earned a Master of Fine Arts at Goddard College and then began working extensively on both coasts as a performer, director, producer and designer.
Boruta has played roles ranging from Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” to Bert in “Mary Poppins.” He isn’t performing these days, but if the right role came around, or if he could play Bert again, “I would definitely consider it.”
The Umbrella’s mission is to offer “bold, daring, and innovative work,” Boruta said. “We want to ask big questions and challenge and engage audiences,” but trying “to stay true to our brand yet attract an audience” is a constant pressure. “We want to provide entertainment that is for its own sake, as we all need joy in our lives, but we also want to mine a deeper place that has a perspective, a point of view, and a story to tell.”
Boruta is keen “to tell underrepresented stories and to revisit classics,” ones that “have something to say today.” Past productions of more serious works include “Parade,” which just won a Tony for Best Revival, and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
This season included an adaptation of “Dracula” billed as “a feminist revenge fantasy” and a work that Boruta called “a risk that was a surprise success”: The theater commissioned a new play, “Middleton Heights,” that had its world premiere in Concord. The story of a Filipino family as it assimilates to life in a fictional Midwestern suburb, the production featured an all-Filipino cast and a predominately Filipino creative team.
The theater has offered cultural events to further engage audiences. For “The Color Purple,” Boruta and his team “decided to celebrate our Black artists, audiences, and their allies,” inviting a primarily Black audience one afternoon to the back patio for a cookout and conversation. A concert series, most recently featuring John Mayer, as well as ticket income, grants, and fundraising, help underwrite the theater’s costs.
Though he will spend the summer working on the 2023-2024 season that will include a production of “Lizzie,” a rock band retelling of the Lizzie Borden story, Boruta said the pace will slow and he can travel a bit and take in some regional and Broadway shows. When in full production mode, he figures that he and the cast and crew work 100 hours a week.
Boruta’s hope is that The Umbrella becomes “a destination” and “the region will take notice of the work we’re doing here. And I want the work we’re doing to go further,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be great to see a piece transfer from The Umbrella to a larger theater in New York?”
When he arrived as the new performing arts director, “I saw so much potential. Now I’ve got the best team in the business.” Despite the arduous season behind him, he is energized, he said, “because I believe so much in what we’re doing here.”