A Theatre Revival -July 2013
Entertaining and engaging for over 50 years
by: Lindsay Pykosz
photography by: Jim Powers
Six years ago, Nantucket’s long-established theater company, Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, was in trouble. It was rudderless, without a strong artistic director, without a space to call its own and overseen by a board that had grown tired over the years. New blood was needed.
Five years ago, a few board members made the decision to ask one of the island’s own, who had made it as a professional actor on stage and screen, to help them out. John Shea, long-time Sconset summer resident and someone who’d gotten his first acting job on Nantucket from TWN’s founder, Mac Dixon, in Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock,” was asked to be the company’s artistic director. He said yes, and the rest is history.
The following year, the struggling company hired Gabrielle Gould as executive director. A young mother and accomplished actress, who had also been successful in fundraising for Small Friends on Nantucket’s new early-childhood facility, she had the energy and drive to put her business acumen to good use. Between them, Shea and Gould worked to revitalize the board and bring the theater back to life. The two immediately formed a bond and working relationship with the goal of making TWN the best theater group it could be.
“The first year I came on board was John’s second year,” Gould said. “His history with Nantucket theater is incredible. Mac (Dixon) was his first mentor in the theater world, and he went on to meet John Wulp, who won a Tony Award. He came, basically, when the theater was in really rough shape.”Shea’s history with Theatre Workshop began over 40 years ago in 1968, working with Dixon, TWN founder and former long-time artistic di- rector. Soon after meeting Shea, he handed him a script.
“I walked into rehearsal within an hour and a half of landing on Nantucket,” said Shea, a critically-acclaimed stage, screen and TV actor. “I did the play and at the end of the week he handed me a $10 bill. It made me feel so good, to be able to rise above what you thought you were to be something better. I fit in with all these other accomplished people I was working with. In that summer, what I discovered about Mac is he really cleverly wove the community-theater actors, some of whom had been working in New York in professional theaters and retired to the island, with other professional actors from New York. He made a hybrid company. At the core were professionals and community actors who were working hard at their other jobs to support themselves and others filled in. That was the way he ran the theater for 30 years.”
Shea and Gould follow that same philosophy today, blending a mixture of local and off-island professional actors who take to the stage during the TWN season. Productions are chosen for wide appeal to an audience of all ages.
As artistic director, Shea’s major role is pick- ing the productions for each season with a committee that reads nearly 100 scripts each year.
The first production of TWN’s 2013 season, John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” had a total of 17 actors, 15 of them from Nantucket.
“It’s almost a pure community production with a couple of actors we brought up from New York because we have 17 actors on stage and we needed a couple people to fill up the rest of the roles,” Shea said. “The acting, design and direct- ing community here has grown tremendously. People have come here to work with us, and we try to pick plays that will give everybody the op- portunity to express talent.”
This month, three productions are on tap: “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
Over the last five years or so, the duo has learned how to work efficiently and realistically together.
“Based on the ‘boots on the ground’ experience, we came to understand what we needed to do better,” Shea said. “With Gabrielle and her organizational abilities, drive, passion and experience, one and one make 10 when we joined forces because suddenly, our energies combined and combusted.”
Gould and Shea put together a season of seven plays their first year and the organization went from $75,000 in the red to $1,000 in the black. When the season was over, they knew they wanted to do it again – but better.
“We said, ‘Next season, let’s do eight full productions,’ and that’s when we started to bring in ancillary stuff,” Gould said. “We were dark two or three nights. And then we started talking about one-night shows and bringing in Kevin Flynn to do comedy night. The second year we did maybe eight additional things. Last year, it felt like we did 30 additional things plus eight full productions. We expanded many things.”
They chose a selection of plays that included deep – and sometimes dark – dramas like “Blackbird,” in which they both appeared; “The Seafarer;” and “The 39 Steps.” Then they lightened it up with musicals requiring large-cast ensembles, which called for many roles for children, involving and creating a community of young thespians. “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oliver!” and “Peter Pan” played to sold-out audiences over Thanksgiving and Christmas Stroll the past few years and were reprised the following year.
Shea acknowledged that he’s come a long way from that day when Dixon handed him $10, but the last five years have allowed him to give back to the organization that gave him his start 40 years ago.
“It’s extremely fulfilling because I feel like I’ve come full-circle. I can pay it forward,” he said. “The seeds we’re planting now will take root and continue flourishing after Gabrielle and I are gone. So 40 years from now there will be other people, some of these young actors giving that first opportunity to someone else.”
The past two seasons the theater company has oc- cupied two spaces: Bennett Hall, next to the Congre- gational Church; and Centre Stage, on the lower level of the Methodist Church. Theatre Workshop’s ulti- mate goal, however, is to own its own building, prefer- ably in town, and continue to build on the successes of the previous seasons for the enjoyment of the com- munity as a whole.
Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. Marianne Stanton contributed to this story.