The Little Theatre That Could
Theatre Workshop turns 50
by: Sandy MacDonald
photography by: Studio 13 and courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association
The care and feeding of a community theater is such a tricky proposition, it probably shouldn’t be entrusted to mere amateurs. But that’s the very nature of the beast: an ad hoc organization dedicated to producing plays by, for, and of the people.
Without the contributions of the hundreds of nonprofessionals who gave of their time, talent, and discretionary income to Theatre Workshop of Nantucket over the past five decades, it would never have survived to see 50. And without the periodic input of pros, it might not have sustained sufficient quality to keep audiences coming back.
In the theater world, which is to say the world of lovingly recreated fantasy, it takes real bricks and mortar to build castles in the air. Theatre Workshop’s history has been a tale of close calls as it struggled to find funding and keep a solid roof over its head.
Theatre Workshop’s early phase actually experienced fairly smooth sailing. It was begun by a cabal of theater enthusiasts who gathered in 1956 and begged Joseph M. “Mac” Dixon – a Broadway and World War II veteran who had headed the theater department at Bennington College – to help form a new company.
Seventeen years earlier, Margaret Fawcett Barnes, a scion of the Sconset actors’ colony, had bought a warehouse on Straight Wharf for $500 down and begun staging her own works depicting Nantucket history. She was willing to share the space in the off-season, so with $2,000 in seed money – raised by Dixon’s aunt, Jane Wallach, who as assistant to Antoinette Perry (namesake of the Tonys) had ample connections in New York – Theatre Workshop of Nantucket was launched.
At the outset, you could literally sees stars at the Straight Wharf Theatre: through the cracks in the roof, said Marie Giffin, who, before and after she began running The Inquirer and Mirror, trod the boards in many a soubrette role.
“My mom was in a ton of stuff. She had a flair for comedy and a great voice,” recalls current I&M editor and publisher Marianne Stanton, who also appeared in several TWN productions (“Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Brigadoon” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”).
Giffin debuted as Pitti-Sing in “The Mikado” (1957) and made a memorable Meg Brockie in 1961’s “Brigadoon.” “Saucy and comical,” read a photo caption at the time. The cast for the latter show numbered a staggering 38 (remember, this was a tiny, shallow stage) – and that’s not counting the 21 members of the orchestra.
“TWN was very inclusive then,” Stanton said. “Really, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker were all involved – even the pressmen from the newspaper were often on stage.” She still retains fond childhood memories of being “carted along” and falling asleep in the balcony during rehearsals while both of her parents were either in plays or working backstage.
“The Mikado” also marked the debut of British transplants John and Elizabeth Gilbert. They’d only been on-island three days when Dixon pounced. “He was an eagle,” Elizabeth said with a laugh. John was instantly accorded the title role and recalled practicing his songs while on construction jobs, to his co-workers’ great amusement.
For Elizabeth it was the beginning of 30 years with TWN. Her background demonstrating ballroom dancing in London’s West End, where her family had been involved with theater for three generations, also qualified her as a choreographer. Their involvement was all-encompassing.
“The theater in those days was just home,” said Elizabeth. “Doors always open, coffee brewing, music playing...”
Another young lady who got roped into the theater was Jane Silva, back in 1963, long before she took over The Galley restaurant from her mother. Her first role was in “The Pleasure of his Company.”
“The way I got in was that somebody called me and said, ‘You’re perfect for this part, and you’re going to do it.’ I was in my 20s, so I was the ingénue. I always got to be in the plays, even when the leads were sometimes replaced.”
The way TWN worked in the late 1960s was that the plays that ran in winter were remounted in repertory in the summer: two ran per week, so that even short-term visitors could attend more than one. The island residents who’d played the roles in winter got first dibs, but if they were too busy working, “jobbers” – often college students – were hired to take over.
The melding of casts went off without a hitch, Silva said. “They blended right in.” And everyone, she remembered, “actually got a little salary: $15 a week, which was not bad in those days.”
Hers was a glamorous era: the aprés-theater scene usually drifted over to The Opera House, where restaurateur Harold Gaillard (“such a character,” Silva recalled) would don his hat from “The Fantasticks” and reprise his 1962 role. Silva remembers Liz Taylor in attendance, and Judy Garland singing at the bar.
Silva, who currently sits on TWN’s board and has hosted fundraising events at her restaurant, said with some regret that she “dropped out after having children: it was too difficult.” But she credits that early training with preparing her to run a restaurant.
Being on stage, she said, “definitely gives you confidence to meet people and to be front and center.”
A golden era
Under Dixon’s benevolent dictatorship, Theatre Workshop prospered. He alone chose the plays and cast them, and made no bones about his absolute power, reasoning that volunteerism had its rewards.
In 1962, TWN acquired an exclusive long-term lease for the Straight Wharf Theatre in winter. With his Broadway connections, Dixon was often able to score first regional rights. Producers didn’t see the small, under-populated island as competition.
Thus, in 1964-65, Nantucketers got to put on Peter Shaffer’s duo of comic one-acts, “The Private Ear and the Public Eye,” within months of its Broadway run.
In 1966, Barnes, unable to fund the necessary upkeep on her barn of a theater, sold it to Walter Beinecke. But again, TWN lucked out. Beinecke offered to let TWN stay on for 10 years, rent-free, if they covered repairs and taxes on the building.
It was then, despite the distractions of the flower-power era, that Theatre Workshop really kicked into gear. With a year-round lease, TWN was now able to mount shows in the summer, when there was real money to be made: a subgroup called the Summer Operating Board (aka SOBs) oversaw this initiative. In 1968 TWN launched a membership program which offered subscription discounts, while fostering audience loyalty.
It was also in 1968 that a young man named John Shea happened to wander into the theater late one April evening. The Bates College sophomore had only been in town a few hours when, having secured a boarding-house room and two jobs (as a dishwasher at Cy’s Green Coffee Pot and as a plumber’s assistant), he happened upon “this little jewel box of a theater,” where a rehearsal of O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” was taking place.
An elderly couple motioned him to sit and observe, then, during the break, offered to introduce him to the director. “Oh, so you’re Irish,” said Dixon, upon hearing his last name. “Can you do an Irish accent?”
“I said, ‘I can fake one’,” said Shea today. “Mac said, ‘Go backstage. You’re the second Furniture Removal Man, and you’re about to enter’.”
“It was like heaven,” Shea said. “Suddenly I was in this play.” And the fact that he would actually get paid – “ten bucks a performance” – made him feel like a pro, as did Dixon.
“Mac harnessed the best in people and gave them a chance. He encouraged me, and never made me feel that I was any less qualified than the professionals who were working there at the time.”
Dixon accorded Shea ever-larger roles that summer and during several that followed. After attending the Yale School of Drama, Shea soon ascended to Broadway with a role in “Yentl” in 1975, and broke into TV and film. His role opposite Sissy Spacek in “Missing” in 1982 made him an internationally recognized star.
“When I think back to my roots,” he acknowledged, “Theatre Workshop is where I learned all the basic skills.”
Shea wasn’t the only one learning and earning at TWN. In 1971, the company began offering formal classes, both performing and technical. Current Arts Council president Reggie Levine taught scenic design. In 1973, the schedule was expanded into the shoulder seasons for a full 12 months a year, and Dixon negotiated with the Actors Equity Association to mount a fully professional summer stock season.
Laudable as the effort was, the experiment was a financial bust, leaving the company $20,000 in the red, and it was never repeated. Supporters spent the next year working to repay the debt. They auctioned off props and costumes, and one member went door to door, visiting merchants, some of whom wrote off the shortfall as paid in full.
TWN always had rivals to contend with, and come 1975, still burdened with debt, it had no choice but to cede the summer season to the foremost of those: the Nantucket Stage Company, led by John Wulp, who was associated with the O’Neill Theatre Institute. Shea signed on as assistant director.
The NSC planned a $30,000 renovation for the century-old building. On April 19, 1975, after the last performance of a senior-class play, the keys were handed over: renovations were to commence the next morning. That evening, between 8:30 p.m. and midnight, the old Straight Wharf Theatre burned to the ground.
Eerily, during the senior play break-down, someone on the crew had painted words from the “Book of Daniel,” alluding to the destruction of King Belteshazzar’s palace, on the back wall. Creepy, yes, but inconclusive. Investigators pronounced the cause of the fire “undetermined.”
Still rebuilding after all these years
To talk with those who stood by, helpless, as their “home” disappeared in flames that shot hundreds of feet into the night sky, you would think this disaster happened yesterday.
“We all went into mourning,” said actor/director/playwright Maggie Lee Conroy, whose sojourn with TWN spanned the conflagration by a couple of years in either direction. A newly-graduated theater major, she’d been New York-bound when she was blown away by a 1972 performance of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and got derailed.
“Someone said, ‘We’re always looking for actors,’ and I thought, maybe I’ll stay here one winter,” she said. She stayed six years, before heading off to Boston, Washington, D.C., and the University of Iowa with her late husband, the writer Frank Conroy.
“The fire was totally devastating,” said Elizabeth Gilbert. “For us who were totally embroiled, it was a tragedy, a trauma. We had to pick Mac up from the pits.”
To this day, Marie Giffin seems loathe to talk about the event, instead referring to an article she wrote at the time in The Inquirer and Mirror, which still has the power to touch:
“It was in the confines of the walls of Straight Wharf Theatre that lasting friendships were made. It was here that memories were born. It was here that the shy learned they had something to contribute. It was here that new talents were found…” she wrote.
Dixon may have been crushed, but he found the right words to restore the faith: “A theater is not a building; it is the people who make a theater,” he said.
Resolving to rebuild, and embarking on a fundraising drive toward that end (a donor provided land, which ultimately proved too swampy), TWN turned its sights to the 1975-76 winter season – in which a young Tom Scott appeared in “Charley’s Aunt,” and Conroy branched into writing and directing with an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s “Working.” These productions were mounted in the Congregational Church’s Bennett Hall, which technical director Eric Schultz transformed from a community gym into a theater space with raked seating: the risers had to be laboriously assembled and disassembled for each production.
Penury meant that, once again, summer seasons were beyond TWN’s capabilities. Visiting companies swooped in to fill the void and crowd the field. In 1980, after 25 years on the job (most of them unpaid; he was known to funnel his small stipend back into TWN’s coffers), Dixon retired, handing the reins to his “dear friend and long-time co-worker” Richard Cary, who’d attended the prestigious drama school at Carnegie-Mellon University and worked in professional theater.
Cary initially seemed a perfect fit. In four short years, while struggling to get the company “back on its feet,” he used his carpenter’s skills to reconfigure Bennett Hall as a permanent, 150-seat theater. He helped introduce such innovations as the Armchair Theatre, a combo potluck/play-reading series that’s still going strong.
In 1983, TWN got a summer season up and running again. There was just one snag: Cary needed to make a living, and not even an extravagant one at that. His salary was reported to be $15,000 per year, in contrast with the $1,800 or so per show that directors had been getting.
Cary’s expectation was reasonable, as Elizabeth Gilbert concedes, still marveling at Cary’s “24/7” commitment. But the wherewithal just wasn’t there. In the summer of 1984, Cary resigned and started his own theater company, Actors Theatre of Nantucket, which continued for 20 years.
Two companies vying for the same finite audience inevitably took a toll on TWN, and you’ll still hear stories about one’s posters plastered over with the other’s fliers. It didn’t help that Cary chose to promote his endeavor as “the island’s only professional theater.” The truth is, the same cadre of island actors flipped back and forth between the two, depending on the casting opportunities.
Cary did succeed in importing professionals from the city for a number of years, until he, like his predecessors, found the cost prohibitive.
Meanwhile, at TWN, Warren Krebs, a painter and part-time actor, stepped up to the plate: he would serve as artistic director for 18 years, rivaling Dixon for longevity – and, to hear his admirers tell it, gentle authority and grace under pressure. Dixon, advancing in years, still directed from time to time. The last show he directed, at age 86 in 1992, was “Butterflies Are Free.” He’d wanted to do “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but the board denied him, deeming the Tennessee Williams classic insufficiently commercial.
Dixon’s status as absolute ruler, alas, had ended. Still, his loyalty to the company he’d helped found was unwavering. As he lay dying in 1996, his last words to Gilbert, for whom he had become “a virtual member of the family,” were “Please don’t let this theater die.”
The Fabulous invalid bounces back
After Krebs resigned in 1997, TWN muddled on without a director for four years. A reduced slate of plays was mounted and benefits held, but Theatre Workshop appeared to be in a tenuous holding pattern. Playwright Kate Stout’s brief reign (2001-2004) introduced mystery dinner theater, the appeal of which prompted rival productions but eventually palled while proving insufficiently remunerative, a by-now familiar story.
The first sit-up-and-take-notice production in some time was 2004’s “Born Yesterday,” which – locally underwritten, at the behest of an evolving board – boasted lavish production values and well-channeled star power in the form of Amy Stiller’s Billie Dawn.
This was followed by a lively production of Yasmin Reza’s “Art,” directed by TWN veteran Ginny Irwin, and, under current artistic director Jane Karakula’s aegis in 2005, Susan McGinnis acing Teresa Rebeck’s one-woman tour de force “Bad Dates.”
McGinnis, an Equity member who finds herself drawn to Nantucket despite the professional opportunities beckoning elsewhere, is perhaps emblematic of the best hope for TWN’s future. She returned in the recently completed run of the dark comedy “The Smell of the Kill,” TWN’s first 100 percent Equity-cast show since that ill-fated venture of 1973. Thanks to local sponsorship, by Johnston’s Cashmere, co-owned by current TWN board president Pam Murphy, this production, unlike its predecessor, didn’t break the bank.
There’s no call, as yet, to see Theatre Workshop go all-pro (where would we channel all our local talent?), but as its founders discovered decades ago, periodic infusions of skill and experience raise the bar all around and inspire fresh visions of what can be achieved.
And while it’s no longer in Bennett Hall, TWN has found a new home, at least a temporary one. When Cary shut down Actors Theatre in 2004, Theatre Workshop picked up his lease on the performance spaces at the Methodist Church at 2 Centre St.
TWN’s mandate remains clear. As board member Judy Seinfeld, who recovered her college acting chops in “Born Yesterday,” put it, “You have to have a place where people can congregate to hear words written by great people. It’s vital: it gives us food for thought. And without it, the island loses a piece of its heart.”
Conroy, whose first chance encounter with Theatre Workshop over 30 years ago led to a career dedicated to theater (not to mention, as she realized looking back, a marriage, a child, an entire life…), seconded that emotion.
Though she thinks that companies ought to be grateful for whatever shelter they can muster, she points out that “People get confused when you keep moving.” In her extensive experience around the country, she has found the consensus to be that “If you have a permanent space, it actually builds an identity.”
Like others who share her passion, she fervently hopes that Theatre Workshop, having survived this far, will one day once again have a home of its own. “It needs an enormous angel,” she conceded. Or, possibly, a great many small angels?