The House that Mac Built -Fall 2016
Remembering the early years of the Theatre Workshop
by: Marianne R. Stanton
photography by: John W. McCalley and Frederick G.S. Clow
Try to imagine the small community of Nantucket Island 60 years ago.
In 1956 the year-round population of 2,500 souls was largely concentrated within a mile of Main Street, which was the center of commerce for the island. Two grocery stores, a hardware store, barber shop, dress shop and men’s clothing store, insurance company and two pharmacies with soda fountains provided everything residents of Nantucket needed. Good thing. It was a rare occurrence for islanders to leave Nantucket – maybe once a year, if they were lucky.
The Nantucket of 60 years ago was a tight community with little influence from the outside world. TV reception was fuzzy with only two channels. The movie theater was only open in the summer. Social life revolved around family, church and community.
But down on Straight Wharf, there was a steady hum of activity inside an old shingled building that was Straight Wharf Theatre. This building was the incubator, and home in the early years, of Theatre Workshop of Nantucket.
Margaret Fawcett Barnes, a summer resident and aspiring playwright, had owned the building for some years and staged plays there, many of which she had written. The two-story windowless building featured an ample stage with worn green seating, an orchestra pit, a large backstage dressing room on two levels, balcony seating with a lighting booth, and a narrow lobby. Old Oriental rugs hung on the walls to improve acoustics and add a touch of elegance to this former warehouse.
Mac Dixon’s arrival in 1956 imbued life into the theater as he began to pull people in from all walks of community life to act on stage or help out behind the scenes. If people had talent and the desire to be part of the company, they were in. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, all were welcome and participated.
Elizabeth and John Gilbert, who arrived on-island from England in 1957 as newlyweds, found themselves pulled into the magnetic field of the theater’s warm embrace. Elizabeth had grown up in the theater in London, dancing as well as acting
after World War II.
“Theatre Workshop was the only gig in town. There was no
TV, and Straight Wharf Theatre was an open door for anyone who wanted to participate,” said Gilbert, then just 22. She found in Mac Dixon not only a mentor but also a surrogate father.
“He was such a gentleman in every way. He was forceful in what he wanted, but also very gentle and tolerant,” said Gilbert, who acted with the company in more than 40 productions, including “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Wait Until Dark.” Gilbert was a member of the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket board for 19 years, serving as president for eight.
Dixon was an actor, an educator and a World War II veteran. He’d been on Broadway and had been immersed in the New York theater scene before teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. He arrived on-island to take care of his aunt Jane Wallach, who lived on Orange Street. She was the financial benefactress of Theatre Workshop.
For nearly 25 years Dixon put on a wide range of plays using community talent: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” “Separate Tables,” “Our Town,” “Brigadoon,” “Mousetrap,” “Androcles and the Lion,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Lion in Winter,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Barefoot in the Park” and many more.
He built a cast of loyal troupe members who stayed with the company off and on for decades, some of them splitting off to form their own splinter theater groups.
Reggie Levine, Roger Young, Gwen Gaillard, Lillian Waine, Bob and Yvette Clarke, Tom and Marie Giffin, Joan Curtis, Rose and Sonny Ryder, RuthAnn and Charlie Flanagan, Fritz Warren, Maggie (Lee) Conroy, Zip Dunham, Bobby VanArsdale, Pam and Louis Davidson, Priscilla and Irving Stanley, Normie Wil-
son, Danny Morgan and John Morgan are just some of the people who were regularly involved in Theatre Workshop plays and who were part of the island community, working by day and acting at night.
Eric Schultz appeared on stage in the 1970s but transitioned into becoming the technical director, designing and building many of the memorable sets for TWN productions through the 2015 season.
Anne Breeding, who grew up summers on the island, remembered Dixon as a warm and generous spirit who could always coax the best out of his actors, connecting with them in the theater as well as off-stage at his Orange Street home with tea and cucumber sandwiches.
Breeding directed, acted and served as wardrobe mistress, costumer, stage manager and general jack of all trades for TWN through last year.
Meredith Martin, one of the most talented actresses and directors to grace the Theatre Workshop stage, has gone on to produce some of the Shakespeare in the Garden series. She appeared in a Mac Dixon production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and remembers Dixon taking the company out to the Hidden Forest to pose, in costume, in the woodland setting. Martin has gone on to serve as a mentor to some of TWN’s burgeoning talents such as Vince Veilleux.
In 1975, Theatre Workshop received a crushing blow, what seemingly could have ended it once and for all. On the evening of April 19, a mysterious fire began in the theater and the building burned to the ground.
But Dixon was not one to see his dream die.
“A theater is not a building; it is the people who make it a theater. Any place can be a theater if you have the dedicated people to make it happen,” he said.
And so the search began for a new space. What was an old gymnasium at Bennett Hall next to the Congregational Church on Centre Street was transformed into a theater thanks to the carpentry and set-design skills of theater professionals Schultz, Dick Cary and John Gilbert. Bennett Hall has been home, off and on, to TWN for the last 40 years.
When Dixon retired in 1980, his disciples continued on. Each had their own set of skills and talents in contributing to and producing community theater.
Dick Cary served as artistic director for a brief period, before going on to start his own company, Actors Theatre, in the early 1980s. Warren Krebs took over for an 18-year run as director, until he died of a heart attack in 2005.
Then, for the next few years, Theatre Workshop struggled with leadership and staying in the black. The group had lost its Bennett Hall theater space and was performing out of the lower level of the Methodist Church.
Others filled in until in 2009 when John Shea, a longtime Sconset summer resident and actor of stage and screen, was named artistic director, a position he held for five years. At the same time, Gabrielle Gould, an island resident who had studied theater in New York and acted on stage, was named executive director of Theatre Work-
shop. Gould had worked in family-owned restaurants and had a proven track record in business and fundraising for the Small Friends preschool’s new building.
The duo proved to be just what the little theater needed to infuse it with new life and sound business practices.
Over the next five years Shea and Gould turned the money-losing theater around. For five seasons Shea chose plays that relied on community talent supplemented by professional actors and directors from New York. Gould had a combination of business acumen, knowledge of the theater and was skilled at building financial support from summer residents and members of the year-round business community. She also secured a 10-year lease at Bennett Hall and a three-year lease at Centre Stage in the Methodist Church for Theatre Workshop, as well as housing for all the visiting actors and technical help.
Gould and Shea also appeared on stage together in David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” a critically-acclaimed play that dealt with the powerful subject of a 27-year old woman coming face to face with the 50-year-old man who sexually abused her in an ongoing relationship 15 years earlier when she was 12. Powerful stuff, and a play Shea chose after witnessing a silent candlelight march on Nantucket organized by A Safe Place to remember victims of domestic violence.
At the end of the 2014 season Shea stepped down from the full-time job to become artistic director emeritus to return to a TV series he was filming with Sharon Stone. Gould also left, turning her attention to developing a successful new restaurant, Atlas, with her husband Brandt, a chef.
A new artistic director – Justin Cerne – was hired from New York, and Jonathan Jensen, from the Midwest, became the managing director to handle the business side. New technical staff was hired and the last ties to the Theatre Workshop that Dixon had built were gone.
In 2015, on the eve of its 60th anniversary, Theatre Workshop ended the season in the red. A 60th anniversary big-ticket gala in July featuring Meryl Streep, friends with Shea from their time together at Yale School of Drama and whose brother Harry was a connection to then TWN president Joe Hale, was an enormous success on all levels and pulled the theater out of a financial hole. The 2016 season was run out of Bennett Hall except for one play, "Venus and Fur,” and at the end of the 2016 season Theatre Workshop departed Centre Stage, moving all productions to Bennett Hall.
Meanwhile, rumors of a new community theater company forming from a splinter group of TWN were being heard around town, and some of the Theatre Workshop old-timers, led by Elizabeth Gilbert, 82, were planning a three-day celebration to honor Mac Dixon over Columbus Day weekend with a series of staged readings and a cocktail party at a private club.
And so it goes. The dog barks and the caravan rolls on. Mac Dixon’s spirit and memory live on. ///
Marianne Stanton is editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. As a child she appeared in three Theatre Workshop productions: “Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Brigadoon” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”