New Kid on the Block -Fall 2016

by: Jim Sulzer

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

On a hot, breezy day in late July, president and artistic director Lynne Bolton and executive director Michael Kopko stood behind a wide red ribbon just outside the doors to their new theater and held up a huge pair of scissors.

“I never dreamed that one day I would be dedicating a theater building in the heart of historic Nantucket,” Bolton said. She then quoted a famous line from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest:” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” and explained its many meanings as it relates to the theater that she and Kopko have created.

“No one who knows me would ever expect me to be speechless. But here I am, speechless,” Kopko said, turning his head and blinking back tears. Behind him, large black letters boldly proclaimed White Heron Theatre Company.

It indeed has been a long time coming and a huge amount of work, and much work still lies ahead for the theater company. But what the young company has already managed to accomplish is remarkable.

The completion of its new theater building behind the Nantucket Whaling Museum is not just unique for Nantucket, it is unique for Massachusetts and the entire Northeast. New theater buildings, if they happen at all, tend to be built by universities for their drama schools. It is almost unheard of in today’s cultural climate for a local theater to manage to construct a building of this size and quality.

It is also rare for such a small community as Nantucket to boast a fully professional, Equity-only theater with its own stable of 60-plus repertory actors who come to the island for productions. Other Equity-only theaters in the region include the Huntington Theatre in Boston, the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. – and closest geographically – The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, which is open only in summer. Since 1913 the Actors’ Equity Association has been the union for professional actors and stage managers and now represents more than 50,000 members.

Finally, White Heron is already known as a theater with a uniquely-formulated collaborative process of creation and performance, dependent on “drilling down deep” into the text, or, as Bolton puts it, “to find clues that go to the heart of creating believable and actionable characters.”

Bolton co-founded White Heron Theatre Company with Paul Gister, the associate dean of the Yale School of Drama, in 2004. From the beginning the company focused on plays by Anton Chekhov (Gister’s area of expertise) as well as mid-20th century existentialism. The company performed at Second Stage Theatre in New York City and found a rehearsal space and many of their actors at The Actors Center in New York, which had been formed around a group of highly-skilled professional actors with backgrounds in “the big three” of drama schools: Juilliard, New York University and Yale.

The company entered a dormant stage with Gister’s long illness from 2006 until 2012, when he passed away.

That same year, on Nantucket to direct a play for Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, Bolton met Kopko while directing his daughter Alexandra. The two of them soon discovered they shared similar backgrounds and approaches to drama. Bolton had trained at Yale School of Drama and is a member of its advisory board. Kopko, a former innkeeper and past member of the Board of Selectmen on Nantucket, was accepted at the Juilliard School of Acting.

Bolton invited Kopko to attend a Chekhov workshop she was giving for actor friends from New York, and afterward they decided together that they would restart White Heron Theatre Company in a new, actor-friendly location: Nantucket.

Renting theater space from Dreamland Theater for the 2013 summer season, they were able to purchase one of the few unbuilt pieces of land in the historic district, the former site of Denby Real Estate, from the Ranney family. For the next few years, as they initiated a $4 million fundraising campaign and planned the construction of their new theater, they performed in a tent on the property. Scrambling to set up their temporary quarters, they purchased the tent in Connecticut and outfitted it with theater chairs from New Orleans they located on eBay. Kopko and White Heron board member Grant Sanders flew to New Orleans, rented a truck, and returned to Nantucket with the chairs and tent, where they were greeted by a surprise delegation of a dozen volunteers who helped them unload the stuff.

Construction of the building began in 2015 and was completed just this summer, with a temporary certificate of occupancy being granted on July 25, mere hours before White Heron’s big summer fundraiser with Olympia Dukakis.

“We wanted to create a sense of open space,” Kopko said as he stopped at a landing partway up the stairs to the balcony section of the performance area. The design of the building is modeled after a maritime warehouse, in a kind of architectural reference to the nearby Whaling Museum, he added.

The stunning new building is a performance space and much more.

Bolton and Kopko estimate that the total cost of the building is about $5.5 million. The costs were inflated not only by the ambitious design, but also by the strict safety codes in Massachusetts for theaters and by the high level of groundwater at the site, which necessitated a sophisticated engineering system utilizing “as much cement as Giants Stadium,” Kopko said drily.

Designed by Andrew Kotchen of Workshop/APD, the 160-seat theater is small enough for an intimate feel yet large enough to satisfy all the many technical needs of a production: many rows of bars for stage lighting, a graceful crossover space behind the stage, video monitors for actors who are offstage, a control booth behind the balcony, and one hidden gem: Directly below the stage, in the basement, is a rehearsal space that exactly matches the performance space above it.

The building is equipped to handle the huge amounts of electricity needed to produce plays: 1,000 amps of three-phase power.

Theater-goers enter the building from the attractive, sheltered courtyard off North Water Street and step into a spacious, airy lobby. An elevator (to be completed this November) will eventually shuttle from the cellar up to the balcony. For now, a graceful set of stairs is the main entry to the seating area.

Above one corner of the lobby is an office area where the behind-the-scenes work will be carried out: planning and running a season, fundraising for capital expenses and operating expenses, and the many other daily tasks of keeping a theater afloat. Finish details – built-in work spaces and cabinets – still await completion. By late July, Kopko estimated that the building was 80 percent complete.

As they began work with a group of similarly-minded actors at The Actors Center in 2004, Gister and Bolton forged a common approach to acting based partly on the ideas of Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who was friends with Chekhov. Bolton pointed out that Chekhov first decided to write his plays to give Stanislavski’s students an opportunity to hone their acting techniques in such a way as to reveal and explore the drama that can be found in everyday life. This was a major change of focus in theater, which until that time had dealt largely with the lives of the great and/or famous. (Think of Shakespeare and all those kings).

Actors trained in this system build a tool kit, a strategic approach to creating what Bolton calls “character-driven drama, the only type of drama that is compelling.”

It is a holistic approach. Actors are trained in many aspects of their craft: physical, vocal, even in clown work. The idea is to develop a heightened awareness of the specificity and meaning of each action. For instance, one whole day of training for actors might involve exploring the many different ways that a simple action – say, putting a glass of water on a table – can be done. The ultimate goal of all this training is for actors to be able to create believable characters, to achieve what Bolton calls “enhanced believability.”

The work at White Heron Theatre is intensely collaborative and is driven by textual study. For the first week of preparing for a production, actors sit at a table and tear up the text, looking for the all-important clues that great authors give about their characters. Bolton and Kopko say that as they audition new actors to add to their stable, they can tell right away if an actor has the potential for collaboration that is central to their approach.

“The ability to create characters that people care about is at the heart of what we do. Our theater is transformational in the sense that it creates characters we can all care about, and allows us to think about our own lives and stories and choices – and how we then shall live,” Bolton said.

White Heron, which is organized as a nonprofit, also includes an educational arm, its Nantucket Theatre Institute. Working with outside organizations such as Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. and Sundance Institute in Utah on the development of new plays, the institute will welcome not only playwrights, but also scene designers and other professionals who will come to Nantucket to hone their own craft and teach fellow professionals. There are plans to

offer scholarships to island residents so they can share in the artistic wealth of these sessions.

Many questions await the company as it begins to inhabit its gorgeous new home. Is professional theater sustainable in a small town on an island in the middle of the Atlantic? Will the demands for development and fundraising intrude on the artistic purity of the project? How will White Heron coexist with the much-loved local community theater, Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year?

Those questions will sort themselves out over time. Meanwhile, the work at White Heron continues, as actors, directors and set designers stream into the building where “dreams are made on.” ///

Jim Sulzer recently retired after 29 years of teaching on the island. His novel for children, “The Card People,” is being published this fall by Fuze Publishing Company. He is also the author of “The Voice at the Door,” a novel about Emily Dickinson. He writes theater reviews for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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