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August 04, 2010

In the Barn

In the Barn

by Nancy Martin Barn

One of my favorite August pastimes is going to see summer theater performed not in a big auditorium with velvet curtains, body microphones and plaster cherubs on the ceiling, but in a dilapidated barn on somebody's farm--a barn that's been "fixed up" by an eccentric band of locals who in the best spirit of Andy Hardy, just want to put on a show. The sets might be wobbly, and the high notes, too, but there's a lot of heart and enthusiasm on the stage that the audience can't help but find contagious.

Have you ever gone to summer stock theater?  They're often little country companies that somehow manage to lure one "star" player to the hinterlands for a couple of months, where they work him like a dog.  That star might be a character actor from old movies whose career is on the wane or a handsome young soap stud who's trying to make himself "legit" in the stage world. (Right now, Christopher Plummer is playing Prospero in Stratford, Ontario.) Or maybe you were lucky enough to see a famous Hollywood actress from the 60's who has come to swan around the boards in brocade costumes one last time.

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The star plays the lead in three productions--all in constant rotation--while the rest of the company picks up the secondary parts.  One night you might see an actor singing Officer Krupke, the next he's The Inspector solving a mystery, and on another night he's in a wig playing Juliet's nurse to big laughs.

Theater-in-a-barn has its drawbacks, of course.  Sometimes the ladies room is a port-o-john out back by the old chicken coop. The chain-smoking lady who sells you a ticket is also going to give you a paper cup of 7-Up poured from a plastic bottle at intermission, and chances are good she locks up after everyone's gone home. If you're prone to allergies, you sniffle all night during the show because it's really impossible to get all the straw swept out of the corners.  And if the heat bothers you, be sure to keep your program handy, because you'll need to use it as a fan until the sun stops beating on the old tin roof.

But there's nothing like the moment when you're sitting in your folding chair, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbors when the lights go down, the actors whisk into their places, the audience holds its breath and . . . a cow in a nearby pasture lets out a big mooooooo.


The on-stage fare isn't exactly going to be the latest thought-provoking, stomach-churning drama straight from New York, either.  No, theater-in-a-barn is always about entertainment for the small town masses.  It's plays like The Mousetrap--still the longest running play of all time (at least I think so, unless Cats or A Chorus Line have beaten the record)--an Agatha Christie fave about a group of stock characters trapped in a country house where a murder takes place and everybody is a suspect.  (Do I remember correctly?  They're trapped by a snowstorm?  Or is that wishful thinking on a hot August day?) The surprise ending is pure Christie--and audiences fall for it every time. 

Or it's a laugh-a-minute musical.  (My favorite barn musical might be Kiss Me Kate--what fun!) Or a Neil Simon comedy that never fails to bring the laughs. Or it's a door-slaming farce.  Have you ever seen Noises Off?


I did a little summer theater, back in the day, although not in a barn, but a big, un-air-conditioned community theater where one intrepid director decided that his production of The Wizard of Oz needed big wind machines for the tornado, so he borrowed a couple of those huge barn fans that farmers use to keep pigs cool in the worst summer heat.  When Mr. Director turned on the fans the first time, they sucked up every iota of dust and mold and creeping crud that had been building in that theater for 90 years and blew it up the sinuses of 50 kids who were playing the munchkins.  50 children weeping in the parking lot while wearing neon polka-dotted satin bloomers--that's a summer memory, let me tell you. We had to shut the theater for two days to let the dust settle, and the clean-up crew worked for eight hours. What we really needed was a haz-mat team.

But summer theater is all about having fun--onstage and in the audience--and I think it's a great American tradition.

String quartets by the lake under the stars, a bunch of barbershoppers singing in a bandshell on a hot afternoon while somebody serves up ice cream, or--in my case--it's a jazz concert in the neighborhood park on Sunday evenings with a herd of little kids playing tag on the grass behind us. When our family was younger, we used to pack a picnic and take our daughters to hear The Battle of the High School Bands at our local fairgrounds every August--surely a summer standard in many small towns.

Grab your folding chair and your picnic basket with a bottle of wine and go! And if you're going to a barn to see a play, be sure to pet the cow for me.


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For us, it's a yearly tradition at the Barnstormer's Theater in Tamworth, NH. We always go with friends who are visiting from New York and have a cabin down the road from ours. This week we're seeing Room Service, a farce, I believe. The truth is, we never really care what the play is is or who's in it. It's always a wonderful experience.

We don't have a barn (too many semi-pro "little theatres" in the area), so our similar summer experience is visiting one of those tacky little mom-and-pop carnivals. Same level of amateurism which is endearing.

I remember going to hear The Emperor Concerto in the giant Chautauqua barn in Boulder, years ago. So beautiful, and when the music got very quiet, you could hear birds outside, instead of just people coughing.

In high school, I did summer theater at IUP. No light comedies that year- one play was "the Visit". They played pink Floyd before the show. Yikes.

The only role I covet in theater is in The Visit. The town slut is condemned for sleeping with the big man in town, but she returns years later, a wealthy woman prepared to give away a fortune...if the town will put to death the man who wronged her. The townsfolk refuse . . . at first. Love it.

OH, I love sumemr theater. We visit the Berkshires every sumer, and the theater there is amazing. Last year we was Richard Chamberlain (swoon. although it was momre about nostalgia than reality) in something.. And those wonderful plays at Edith Wharton's home, The Mount. They used to perform her one-acts in her drawing room!

And yes, Cornelia, at Tanglewood, the sparrows twittering really competes with the smpyhony--it's hilarious. Probably, unless you are a musician.

ANd remember Marjorie Morningstar? I sneaked it from my parents' bookshelves at age 13 or so..and that might have been my introduction to summer stock!

What great memories, and thanks for the Noises Off clip. What a romp of a play it is!

We have two lovely old barns on the farm. Now I'm trying to figure out a way we could stage productions there. The cows live next-door, but we do have horses in the pasture for petting. And even though I don't chain-smoke I could pour 7-Up with the best of them.

Marjorie Morningstar was my favorite book for years, Hank! Herman Wouk's best, in my opinion.

My best friend and her son are on their annual pilgrimage to Tanglewood next week. They've gone for close to 10 years now.

Karen, we'd all show up for opening night!

The only summer stock production I've been to was in the 1980's somewhere on Cape Cod. It was in a very small meetinghouse or church. I think the production was Deathtrap, and I don't remember who the leads were, but I do remember enjoying it.

A few years ago my hubby and I saw Garrison Keiller's Prairie Home Companion at the covered outdoor Wolf Trap theater (they have the Barns of Wolf Trap too) in the DC area. It was when we had that invasion of oodles and oodles of locust, so between the show's doings and the locust noises, it was quite a fun evening. And luckily it wasn't too hot.

When our kids were young, on summer evenings we'd go listen to one of the Naval Academy bands (jazz, marching, pop, etc.) perform at City Dock. They still perform, but we haven't been in years. Other groups, from reggae to country to pop, perform there too and in the small band shell at the local park.

I would love, love, love to go to Tanglewood. Someday I'll make it happen.

The Elitch Theatre in Denver was a fabulous place for summer theater and I was lucky enough to go a few times when I was a child, but not to children's theatre, to real theater. Sadly, it closed after developers moved the famous Elitch gardens and amusement park. There are plans afoot to restore the theatre, but who knows.
But more unusual, when I was very young, free musicals were produced at the pavillion in Cheesman Park in the summer. Mom would pack a picnic and off we'd go. Like so many other things, those days are long gone.

I have attended Concerts in the Park which are so much fun and exhilarating.
As a kid I used to put on plays in our backyard.
We would hang blankets on a clothesline and wait for the imaginary cue to perform.
Later my girls would put on their own little productions.
My daughter and her friend took two pairs of shoes..one girls' style and one boys and produced a video featuring talking shoes..things like boy-girl date style. It was cute for their age.
Imagination is needed more and more since so much is spoon-fed to us now. That is why town productions are so satisfying.. it takes us out of ourselves and proves that we can contribute also.

The closest I've been to outdoor theatre has been in two distinctly different places in our state...Ravinia where I've seen symphony, Peter Paul and Mary, and Shakespeare's As You Like It. Down in my neck of the state, we have a local theater group who did Comedy of Errors in the largest local park (complete with lightning bugs and mosquito repellent) AND it's a short drive to New Salem, where I saw one of the best plays on Lincoln in an outdoor theatre nestled in the woods. It is an adventure :o) whether you're bringing wine and cheese Ravinia or chips and dip to the park. Nothing beats it. That said, we have some great local theatre here, and the summer season is always good. A good friend of mine has just directed a production of And The Little Dog Laughed- by Beane. Funny and tragic at the same time, and the total audience space is 85 or so. Intimate theatre.And also an adventure. :o)

Shakespeare in the park--what a great tradition, right?

I had a grand plan to stage West Side Story in a parking garage. Maybe I'd seen too many Michael Jackson videos?

It sounds like such fun, Nancy.
Around here, in August,the roar of the locusts would drown out the actors.

I used to go to Shakespeare in the park here in Cincinnati. I wonder if they still have it? It was so much fun to take a bottle of wine and some snacks and a blanket with friends on a warm evening and hear the Bard's immortal works.

One of my daughters went to acting camp for six summers at our wonderful Playhouse in the Park. The best part for me was to see the performance the kids put on at the end of a week of learning and rehearsing. Such fun memories. At one performance, a visiting Shirlee Fonda took my daughter aside and told her she was very talented. Too bad the theater director at the high school didn't think so!

I worked community theatre one summer (and a bit the following year) - what a blast! No big stars; the summer work involved bringing in a bunch of hormonal teens and early-20's from all over central California to work as actors, singers, dancers, and stage crew (I was a lighting and set techie, courtesy of a friend who was the lighting designer). We did 3 shows (Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and Pippin) and traveled them in rotation between 2 theatres. One of the best, craziest experiences of my life.

We have a bunch of community theatre in our area, but none of it close by. I envy my sister, who lives in a small town in the Bay Area (Benicia, for any locals) that features a small central park with a bandstand my father's company built way back when. They do "First on First" - a movie on the first Sunday of the month, along with a variety of band concerts. It's real home-town stuff, and perfect for kids.

So, how old does grandson need to be before we start casting him? :)

In Laguna Beach, California a production, Pageant of the Masters is held every year.
Famous paintings are recreated in which live actors wear costumes and makeup and literally pose for a couple of hours in the mode of the painting.
This year "Eat, Drink and Be Merry" is the chosen production.
My family attended a production and the players are so dedicated to the theme..especially considering the summer weather.

Oh, Marie, I've heard of those pageants! I would love to see one! I should figure out if there's one on the east coast . . . .

Nancy, the total body makeup alone is fascinating,
Hours are spent by makeup artists applying the exact shades used in the paintings. The participants are either volunteers or taking a very low stipend for the production.
A once in a lifetime experience. It would be interesting to explore whether other productions exist throughout the country.

What lovely pictures you paint, Nancy. My first experience with summer stock was in a huge tent in King of Prussia, PA (near Valley Forge). I saw John Raitt in Pajama Game-it was a very long time ago. My then husband got into community Theater, and we all pitched in to make this old wood and stone barn some how transform into these magical places for so many people to enjoy.

I recently met a man who was involved in early set construction on the stages of The Pasadena Playhouse in California.
Formed in 1916 the Playhouse has had its financial ups and downs.
Many notable names have passed through the Pasadena Playouse such as Gene Hackman, Rue McClanahan and so many others.
It's heartening to know benefactors in the community have supported such a worthwhile venue for so many years.

We have Bard on the Beach here. Not so much barn theatre but big tent, expensive ticket productions. I went once, the sun sets behind the stage so it was squint theatre for the first act . . .

In 1972 I spent summer nights at a barn theatre about 80 miles northwest of Chicago in East Dundee. I worked in 'The Fantasticks' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' In between was a production of Jones & Schmidt's other hit, 'I Do, I Do.'

It was hot, it was sweaty, it was dirty, it was tough, it was perfect: the stuff of dreams and memory.

Those pageants, isn't that what they refer to as "tableaus" in Jane Austen-type novels?

Gaylin, I can picture that squint theater exactly! By the way, hope you're feeling more like yourself these days.

We have a Shakespeare Festival that is in Boise every summer. It's a great experience. Each year they do 4 or 5 different plays. When I was getting my Technical Writing degree, I had to take an advanced literature class. Most tech writing majors could care less about literature. For the summer semester, a group of us decided to take a Shakespeare class in 6 days to fulfill the requirement. The play that year was Julius Cesear. We attended lectures during the day and every night we were at the Festival. We could drink and party as much as we wanted as long as we showed up in class the next day. It was worth it not to have to do a whole semester of advance lit.

You forgot to mention the bugs who attack the actors and audience in equal measure. Loved many of these following my early visit to St Vincents-----like 30 or so yrs ago--------and I was captured by the magic of Tartuffe!!!!!!

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