A Catskill Catalog: May 14, 2008

Community theater thrives in the Catskills these days. Margaretville’s Open Eye Theater is auditioning for a couple of summer productions in their new theater building, a converted church, first converted, years back, into a thermometer factory. For a couple of decades, the Shandaken Theatrical Society has provided an active theater program at their wonderful little Phoenicia Theater. Seems odd that 30 years ago, we went to the movies in that same building.

Where once the movies flourished, live theater now is found. Not too many years ago, Margaretville, Fleischmanns, Phoenicia, Walton all had movie theaters, and up near Maplecrest, between Hunter and Windham, was a drive-in. I saw “The Exorcist” there. Last time I’ve been to a drive-in, I think.

Woodstock’s Tinker Street Theater survives, and The Catskill Mountain Foundation underwrites the movies in Hunter, but generally we must drive to the Multi-plex at the mall, or the art house on the river, to see a movie, while we can fill our summer dance card with local theatrical productions at a variety of venues – not just theaters, but barns, community centers, and church halls. I’ve seen Shakespeare come alive as local actors played against the Tudor architectural lines of Lake Delaware’s St. James Church parish house, and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” become ours in the Dry Brook Community Hall.

Live theater only

In the decades after World War II, live theater was pretty much found only on Broadway, or downtown off-Broadway, but within a pretty limited geographic area called New York City. Sometime in the 1960s, resident professional theaters arose in the provinces: the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Hartford Stage and The Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut and the Indiana Repertory. In Manhattan, the Roundabout Theatre Company, which flourishes in the former Studio 54 as a Broadway house today, was established in a vacant supermarket.

(Okay, here’s the spelling lesson: “t-h-e-a-t-e-r” is the general American spelling of the word. The British spell it “t-h-e-a-t-r-e.” That’s the way I spell it when I want to put on the dog, you know, appear, I don’t know, sophisticated. Notice how different theaters use one or the other spelling. Draw your own conclusions.)

These regional theaters are professional companies, not local community groups, and their productions are directed and choreographed, designed, lit, and acted by professionals under collective bargaining contracts negotiated with Actors Equity and other unions by the League of Resident Theatres, or LORT, the professional association of resident theater companies.

The closest LORT professional theater to us is Capital Repertory in Albany, an organization celebrating its 27th year as the resident professional theater of the state capital, and one with decidedly Catskill Mountain roots.

In the 1970s, the best theater in the country was produced each summer in Lexington. The Lexington Conservatory Theater was the brain child of a group of young professionally trained actors and directors, trained in places like the Yale Drama School and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. They pooled their money and leased an abandoned resort in Lexington, a collection of ramshackle buildings on Route 42 that had previously served as a kids’ theater camp. It’s right where the road crosses the Schoharie Creek. Later an organization called Art Awareness operated there.

The central figure in the group was a young playwright and director named Oakley Hall III, son of the author of “Downhill Racer,” a child prodigy who started college at 16 after not fitting in at Andover, the California wild child in a nest of New England conformity. Young Oakley graduated from the Theater Department at the University of California at Irvine, did graduate work in Creative Writing at Boston University under John Cheever, master of the post-war short story. Called a genius by many and described by a colleague as “The most magnetic person you ever met,” Oakley Hall III teamed up with Michael Van Landingham and Bruce Bouchard and an incredibly talented bunch of young, hip people to turn the property into a complex of two theaters and a café, with a leaning old hotel as actors’ dorm.

Opening night 1976 is legendary. Oakley Hall had adapted Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” into a particularly gory and eerie production. The coincidental timing of an old-fashioned Catskill Mountain lightening storm with the planned pyrotechnics of Hall’s production led to such frightening realism that children ran in fright from the theater. I wish I could say I was there.

I was there for the magnificent production of Oakley Hall’s play “Grinder’s Stand,” a play written in Shakespearean blank verse about the latter days of explorer Meriwether Lewis. Albany critic Dan DiNicola called it “A richly significant piece of American drama,” and it was. I also saw the best production I’ve ever seen of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire,” set on an abandoned New Orleans houseboat, on a stage open to the Schoharie Creek.

A tragic accident led to the end of the Lexington Conservatory Theater’s run in the Catskills. After five years here, they pulled up stakes and moved to Albany where they became Capital Rep, right on Pearl Street, our nearest professional resident theater, 75 miles and 27 years from Lexington.