By Douglas Karlson
Earlier this year, as they had three nights a week from 6 to 9 p.m., and every Sunday afternoon from noon until 5 p.m. since mid-January, actors took the stage at Cotuit Center for the Arts to rehearse the upcoming “Jesus Christ Superstar” under the watchful eye of co-director Rebecca Riley.
“What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happening?” the chorus asks, as they block Act 1 in the versatile and highly professional theater, which is both barnlike and intimate.
Despite the great drama that generally accompanies the production of any play or musical, the buzz is that the Cape Cod theater scene – nourished by thousands of dedicated actors, directors, stagehands, and audience members – is thriving.
There are more than 26 theaters on the Cape and Islands, and several more in Plymouth. All total, they produce hundreds of plays and musicals every year. According to the Cape and Islands Theatre Coalition, which helps keep the public informed of the region’s diverse dramatic offerings, more than 600,000 people attend performances on the Cape and Islands every year.
Theaters range from small amateur community theaters like Chatham Drama Guild, to professional theaters such as Cape Cod Repertory Theatre in Brewster and summer stock theaters like the Cape Playhouse. Some theaters draw on highly seasonal audiences, like Payomet Performing Arts Center, located on the old Air Force station in Truro, while others tap a larger year-round audience, like Cotuit Center for the Arts.
This diversity allows theaters to stage meaty plays, says David Kuehn, executive director of Cotuit Center for the Arts. “It allows you to push the boundaries. As broad as the theater scene is, it’s not all Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe,” though he is quick to add that he is not disparaging those great musical geniuses.
The Chatham Drama Guild, which puts on three or four shows every year, is probably most similar to what Cape Cod theaters used to be like. Pam Banas, who directs musicals and serves on the board of directors, describes the Guild as a true community theater that relies almost exclusively on volunteers.
“We have such a great tourist environment on the Cape, and people expect good theater from what is essentially an artist colony,” Banas says. The Guild opened in May with “The Miracle Worker,” followed by its summer musicals, “Seussical” and “George M,” the musical version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
“We’re hoping that will draw well,” she says, noting that tap dancing tends to draw a crowd.
Banas notes that number of theaters has grown dramatically on the Cape. “There’s certainly a lot of us. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there were just 10 theaters. Now there are 26.” Each, she says, has a different flavor.
“I think it’s a summer phenomenon,” says Kevin Rice, playwright and managing artistic director at Payomet Performing Arts Center. The summer audience, he says, “is relaxed for a week or two. They say, ‘My brain can handle a play or two’.”
“There’s such a welcoming community,” says Kuehn at a recent Wednesday evening open house in the gallery space at the center (held on the third Wednesday of every month). “I mean, look at this!” he exclaims, gesturing to the roughly 200 people who have gathered in the gallery to sip wine and nibble hors d’oeuvres.
While you can also find a thriving theater scene in other locales, such as the Berkshires, the concentration of theaters in Barnstable County is remarkable.
Kuehn says the size of Cape theater community is “kind of an anomaly. There are a lot of people who live here who are interested in the visual and creative arts.”
“It’s a mecca for the arts. People move here for that,” says Peter Earle, executive/artistic director at the Academy of Performing Arts in Orleans, which puts on 10 shows a year, including a recent run of “Kiss Me Kate.” Despite competition from Netflix and other digital entertainment, and a drop in attendance following the 2008 recession from which his theater has never fully recovered, he says, “There’s nothing like live theater and being blessed with a communion of spirit.”
Many of those involved in the Cape theater scene began performing careers off-Cape. According to Elin Hersch, a yoga teacher from Centerville who plays Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” (she wanted the role since childhood, when her father worked in the crew of the London production), theater professionals often spend the bulk of their careers in big cities, and then move to the Cape, where there’s plenty of work.
“That really opens up the ideas and the perspective,” she says. “You get a lot of artists who have settled here.”
That outside influence is important to Janine Perry, producing artistic director at Cape Rep Theatre, a professional non-equity theater in Brewster. (In other words, it’s a professional theater, but the actors don’t have to be in the union.)
The theater makes a point of bringing in professional actors and directors from off-Cape to augment local actors, directors, and playwrights. “Bringing in outside talent keeps us from becoming myopic,” she explains. “We don’t want to lose that connection to the outside world.”
Cotuit puts on six plays a year on the main stage, and 12 in the Black Box, a smaller, experimental theater with a reputation for edgy new work. Kuehn says his goal is to provide a mix of main stage productions: something classic, and something new, one play where children and parents can be on stage together, one play that pushes the envelope, and one summer blockbuster.
In the Black Box, a small building that sits in front of the main building on Route 28, Kuehn says “there are no holds barred.” Recent productions in Cotuit have included “Quills,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Red,” a play about modern artist Mark Rothko.
The existence of so many local theaters increases the competition for audience members. Despite the intense competition, Hersch thinks the theater scene is growing. Compared to when she was a child, she says, “There are more theaters, more productions.” More theaters also offer performances year-round, not just in the summer. At the same time, it puts pressure on theaters to deliver high-quality drama.
“You keep each other on your toes, and strive to be better,” says Kuehn.
Despite the popularity of Cape drama, running a successful theater is not without its challenges. “Support fluctuates,” admits Earle, “it’s a little fallow in the fall.” That may be particularly true the further out you go on the Cape, where the population declines. “It’s very difficult to attract an audience in the winter, but in summer you get people coming out of the woodwork. You want to bring out your big guns in the summer,” says Earle, whose Academy Playhouse has been in existence for 44 years, but only went year-round in the mid-1990s. He notes that as snowbirds go south, he sees the audience fall off. “Once people head to Florida, things get dicey.”
“It’s tough when you do very edgy work,” says Rice. “You need a mix.”
Payomet puts on two plays every year, often original with a political or philosophical slant, as well as short pieces focused on local history, like “Two Rivers Rising,” a series of short productions. Other plays have included Sartre’s “No Exit,” and Rice’s own “Hoppers Ghost.”
That puts pressure on staging successful summer shows. “If you have two productions that don’t do well, you’re running on fumes,” says Earle.
Nevertheless, the show goes on. The Academy recently launched a capital campaign aimed at raising $5 million to improve its 162-seat building.
One way that theaters have offset those challenges is by hosting fundraisers and gala events, and by partnering with other venues. “There’s a lot of partnering going on,” observes Earle.
The Academy of Performing Arts hosts musical events with Nauset Regional Middle School, and Payomet Performing Arts Center stages musical events at Wellfleet Preservation Hall in the shoulder season, at Provincetown Town Hall, and at the Elks Lodge in Eastham. “We move around – we’re the nomads of the nonprofit world,” says Rice, who notes that Payomet also hosts circus shows.
In 2008, with the recession, theaters were hit hard, with critical dollars being diverted to more pressing needs. “If you’re involved in the arts in this country, you’re always living on the edge,” says Perry. Her theater, Cape Rep, gets by largely due to a loyal 900-person subscriber base, who reliably make up 30 percent of ticket sales. That allows the theater to fulfill its mission to commission contemporary new and groundbreaking plays, often by local playwrights.
Last year the theater staged “Boundless” a play about the fishing industry, written by Alison Weller.
Critical financial support also comes from charitable organizations like the Melody Tent, Kelley Foundation, the Palmer and Jane D. Davenport Foundation, the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank Charitable Foundation Trust, and the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod.
It’s a challenge supporting so many difference theaters. Enter the Cape Cod Theatre Coalition. Founded in 1995, its mission is to facilitate collaboration among Cape Cod theaters to help promote live performances. While financial support is obviously essential, so too is a passion for the theater by the people who put on the performances.
Back at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, Riley breaks away from the rehearsal and recalls how she first got the idea for “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It happened just a few months earlier, while she was performing in Cotuit’s production of “Scrooge, the Musical.” She played the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“After Act One I was done, and so I chilled in the wings,” she says. Striking up a conversation with Stephen Colella, she discovered a shared interest in the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit. They decided to co-direct it, and drafted a proposal which Kuehn accepted.
She says she’s drawn to the strong creativity and passion found in the local theater community.
“The really important thing about Cape theater as opposed to say, Boston theater, is family,” says Riley. “In Boston, the play ends and you don’t see the cast again. Here, it’s a true theater family.”
Banas couldn’t agree more. The Chatham Drama Guild is very much a family affair, she says. For last summer’s “Mary Poppins” (which was mostly sold out) there were six families in the show. “I think that’s what makes the Guild significantly different – it’s a family affair. A child will be in the show and mom will help in the box office.”
Sean Potter, who landed the role of Jesus of Nazareth after a lengthy series of auditions where many actors turned out, exemplifies the members of that theater family. A graduate of Barnstable High School, which has a renowned theater department, he’s worked at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre and performed in plays at The Provincetown Theatre and says he’s committed to his craft.
“I think I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life, one way or the other.”