The Shows Keep Going On at Mac-Haydn And Theater Barn
"Saturday Night Fever," at Mac-Haydn, 2017
"The Cocktail Hour," at The Theater Barn, 2016
Two Columbia County theaters with milestone anniversaries this year are proof that summer stock is alive and kicking up its heels. They both have seasons that will appeal whether you’re drawn to musical theater, comedy or drama. We love that their spirit has not flagged one whit over their combined 85 years of show after show. Here’s how they’ve kept it going, and what’s on their stages this summer.
“Saturday Night Fever,” 2017
Half a century after actress Lynne Haydn and the late writer Linda MacNish said “let’s put a show on right here,” the hot pink sign of the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY marks a classic summer stock company — 7 different productions plus 3 kids’ shows between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, all of them musicals, from “Damn Yankees” to “Cabaret.”
It’s hard to imagine how these powerhouse plays can work on such a tiny stage, with seating on four sides — theater in the square, so to speak. But they do, in big-voiced productions filled with costume and color, with a tight band and cast that gives their all.
The actors who stage a new show every two weeks are mostly college aged and young professionals building resumes, with “jobbers” completing the roster. New talent emerges from regional tryouts and classic city casting calls. Some may be destined for greatness — after all, this is where Nathan Lane cut his teeth.
“Kids nowadays are focused, they want to do the work,” said Monica Wemitt, company manager and former Broadway actress who toured with Liza Minnelli and subbed for Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly.” In 1973, she crossed the street to see what was happening at her neighborhood Chatham theater. Today she anchors the production team and will play Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”
Haydn and MacNish met at the storied Barbizon Hotel for Women in NYC, and in 1969 decided to produce musical theater near MacNish’s hometown.
“They said, we’ve got a barn, let’s give our friends work,” Wemitt said.
Back then, they staged 8 shows in 8 weeks at a local fairground’s sheep barn, before moving in 1978 to the present 350-seat location.
Artistic Director John Saunders arrived in 2000, first acting, then directing. Recognizing his talents, Haydn handed him the reins in 2012.
Saunders has seen audiences evolve to include more baby boomers.
“It’s unpretentious and fun,” he said. “On any night you’ll see from a 9 year old to 85 year old.”
He is taking more risks, staging new work like ABBA-fest “Mamma Mia!” alongside standards. They draw new faces, he finds, “and they come out loving it!”
These audiences keep coming back. For 50 years and counting…
In New Lebanon, New York, Joan Phelps is celebrating 35 years staging summer plays at The Theater Barn, and 60 years married to husband and helpmate Abe.
When the last of three kids left home in 1984, Phelps wondered what to do next. Always an arts fan, she told Abe, “The house is paid for, let’s mortgage it and build a theater.”
Together they turned an old barn on the town’s main drag into a 95-seat stage.
Phelps sought guidance from every theater professional she knew; her child-actor son Allen’s director thought she was crazy. A lover of musicals, she opened with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Late Berkshire reviewer Milton Bass liked the show, but hated the heat. So Phelps bought two big air conditioners. She knew if the audience wasn’t comfortable, they wouldn’t come back. Her strategy worked.
In 1989 they built a bigger theater with 136 seats just down the road, where they remain today. With low risers overlooking an up-close-and-personal stage mere inches high, she finds the intimacy attracts second homeowners, tourists and also locals.
“The Cocktail Hour,” 2016
It’s a family affair. Son Allen handles the technical side and directs a show, while Abe is set designer, builder, handyman and janitor.
Some 50 actors and crew cycle through each season, mostly from NYC where auditions draw hundreds. They also hire local crew and talent including John Trainor, company veteran since 1989, and area favorite Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon.
Phelps sticks to her proven formula. She opens with a farce, then an Agatha Christie murder mystery. “People love them, she was an amazing writer,” Phelps said.
Three musicals follow, small to large. Phelps likes to mix it up, this year teaming the charming “She Loves Me” based on “The Shop Around the Corner” with Bill Finn’s deliciously barbed “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee” and the country western “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” The season ends with a comedy for the post-Labor Day crowd.
“Summer is a time to have fun,” Phelps explained.
Summer stock makes that easy. (And, happy anniversaries, Mac-Haydn and Theater Barn!)
1925 NY-203, Chatham, NY
The Theater Barn
654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY
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