Community Theatre is Alive and Well in Central MA
By Jason W. Prokowiew
Tom Berry and David Fisher, Acme Theatre
Would you trade your last magic bean for a ticket to Into the Woods? Would you stay up all through the night to witness Reno Sweeney sing about an angel named Gabriel? Those would be some hefty ticket prices, but not to worry ~ around here, you can catch some great shows for the mere price of admission.
Seats at some of Broadway’s biggest shows-come-north are all around us, and not only seats, but leads in these spectacles ~ leads, chances to build fairy tale backdrops, and even tell Reno which way to kick her gams, as our area’s rich community theatre culture thrives.
From Fitchburg to Sturbridge and many places in between, theater lovers ~ novices to Broadway veterans ~ are keeping the stage arts alive.
Some have been doing so for a very long time.
Since 1925, the Stratton Players have been bringing theatre to Fitchburg. Initially called the Fitchburg Amateurs’ Workshop, the Players moved into their permanent residence on Wallace Avenue in 1932 and haven’t left the community in need of theatre since.
“Stratton has a unique heritage,” Chairman of the Board of Directors Victor DuPuis explained. “Because we own the space, we’re not dependent on ticket sales and can take chances that a lot of theatres can’t.”
Cast of Into the Woods, Stratton Players
Chances with show choice ~ yes. Chances in production value ~ no, even in the face of a challenge. For example: for the group’s 2006 production of Into the Woods, skeptics may have argued that a show demanding a forest, a giant and a cow might not be suitable for a 13 by 20 foot stage.
“We have to get creative with certain elements,” Dupuis said. “We don’t toss out a good play because it’s traditionally done on a larger stage. We ask, ‘Is there a way to solve this problem?’”
As the Stratton Players move through their 86th year and eye the future, it seems they will continue to tailor the shows to the Players rather than the other way around.
“We want to stay where we are,” Dupuis said. “It’s our home.”
Some 30 miles from Stratton, a theater group with nearly as long a history lives a slightly more nomadic life. The Westborough Players, rightfully proud of the 138 productions they’ve brought to life since 1936, create three shows each year: the yearly musical takes place at the Gibbons School; the two “straight” (the theatre world’s term for non-musicals) plays take place at the Willows Retirement complex and the high school.
Even through a World War, the Westborough Players kept creating, and even survived a desperate housewife ~ the popular television show’s Marcia Cross once performed on a Westborough Players’ stage.
“A good amount of children who come through the Players decide they want this for a career,” Player Club Co-President Jackie Hughes said.
Hughes, who’s been with the Players since 1984, is happy to list the former Players who’ve continued on in theatre after getting their first taste of the often wacky theater world through her organization. A former player on the road tour of Urban Cowboy comes to mind, as well as a technical production assistant now working in New York.
“We were their first touch of theatre,” Hughes said.
For Hughes, the experience of community theatre is bigger than the cast and the technicians. She points out that community theatre is full of crossover, with actors chasing the best parts and the cast of one show in one community becoming the audience for another.
So, applying Hughes’ theory, if you were taken with an actor in a Westborough Players production, you might be able to catch that thespian in Maynard, at Acme Theatre. A relative new kid on the block, Acme has been around since 1992. In a short amount of time, though, the theatre has gained a wall full of awards from the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters, and a more permanent place for its productions.
Originally, Acme’s Misfits (so called after the misfits from the Land of Misfit Toys in the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) lived a more nomadic life, performing in places such as an airplane hangar or in office space above a midget car manufacturing center, but since have established a more permanent home in the ArtSpace Maynard, a place that houses all forms of art.
“We had done enough years as gypsies, and we moved in here in 2001,” Acme Founder and Artistic Director Dave Sheppard said. We gutted, rewired, painted, and now we’re constantly doing shows.”
Acme keeps busy with shows throughout the year, only shutting down to take a breath during the summer. Otherwise, there are musicals, comedies, dramas, improvisation classes and folk music nights filling up this 73-seat theatre.
For Sheppard, the gratification of bringing theatre arts to the region follows him throughout the community.
“I was in the hardware store and one of the employees stopped me and told the whole crowd in the store about what she’d seen at Acme and asked me what we had next,” Sheppard said.
So it really does make sense to call this community theatre. The audience is all around these theatres; anyone is a potential viewer, a future thespian. The cast of one show is another theater’s audience. Dupuis, Hughes and Sheppard each recalled a time when an audience member spoke of his or her first experience of theatre being at their theatre. And three representatives are happy to say their doors are open to all ~ audience, seasoned thespian, newcomer alike. Come. Watch. Audition. It’s your theatre.
Acme Theater’s production of Pack of Lies runs through March 17. For more information visit www.acmetheater.com.
The Stratton Players’ production of Later Life also plays through March 17. For more information visit members.tripod.com/strattonplayers.
The Westborough Players’ production of Into the Woods runs March 16-25. For more information visit www.westbroughplayers.com.