College Light Opera Company sets the stage for the next generation of performance artists
It’s been 50 years since the College Light Opera Company was opened by a group of theater lovers, dedicated to putting the struggles, delights, madness, humor, folly and passion of life onstage for all to experience. Every year, emerging young artists have the unique opportunity to learn from talented professionals and contribute to the rich tradition built by the musicians, directors, designers and performers that have come before them—and the community of the Cape and Islands has the unique opportunity to be entertained, perhaps even informed, by these gifted individuals.
Previously home to Oberlin College’s Gilbert and Sullivan Players, Highfield Theatre, located in a section of the sprawling Beebe Woods, became the training ground for the College Light Opera Company (CLOC) in 1969 when Oberlin College ceased their operations. In 1974, the company moved housing from the condemned Tanglewood Estate, also located on the Beebe property, to the old West Falmouth Inn on Chapoquoit Road, where it has remained to this day. “Falmouth is a very interesting community in that it’s well-situated to support something like this program. This program could not exist in just any town in America,” says Mark Pearson, producer and artistic director for CLOC. “When you’re trying to train young performers, you have to have an audience. The community provides an essential training opportunity.”
Pearson and his partner, CLOC Executive Director E. Mark Murphy, took over as producers of CLOC four years ago. The previous producers ran the company for 47 years, and if Pearson and Murphy’s dedication to theater, and to CLOC itself, is any indication, they may one day challenge that record. “It’s a really special place, and I think, going through it, you realize how life changing it can be and how important an institution it is,” says Pearson, who spent many of his own summers as a student with CLOC.
CLOC puts on nine shows a season at Highfield Theatre. That means company members have just 11 weeks to perfect nine different productions, and that includes auditioning for roles in each of these performances. “It’s like watching a juggler,” jokes Pearson, but the rigor of the program is truly to the benefit of the students. “We are primarily an educational institution,” he says. “The theater that we produce is obviously a very important part of what we do, but it’s almost a by-product of what our mission is—to provide a training ground for young artists.”
The application process for the summer season is equally as competitive as the program itself, and the result is a talented company of young theater lovers, eager to refine their craft and excited to entertain their audiences. “Students should use the summer to really think about this career. Is this the career that they want?” says Pearson. “It’s an important decision to be able to make early, and I think CLOC provides the opportunity, in a nurturing environment, to become more informed toward making that decision.”
For each person that comes through the doors of CLOC, the takeaway is going to be different. What’s special about the program is that, as Pearson explains, it gives company members the opportunity, in fact the responsibility, to have a variety of different takeaways, and no matter the experience one has, improvement is inevitable. “When you’re educating someone with anything, but especially with performance and with art, there has to be a point where the only way you’re going to learn it is to do it. That coupled with the intensity of the program, you cannot help but improve. Improve or die,” he says, laughing.
Students of the program aren’t the only ones with the opportunity for an enriching experience. “Cape Cod has a really rich history of summer stock,” says Pearson. “There is a certain connection to place here that makes a lot of sense and is very special.” In celebration of that connection, CLOC strives every summer to create an immersive and special experience for its dedicated audiences.
“The best experience that an audience can have is that they come and see a show and leave saying, ‘I know I’m going to see one of those people on Broadway,’” says Pearson, explaining that it’s special for an audience member to know that they contributed to the training and future career of the performers who inspire them. “Those audience members who are familiar with the mission of the company realize this is really important work that’s happening here. It’s entertaining and fun, but it’s work, and it’s an important aspect that Falmouth provides a place for this work to happen.”
Set on an expansive six and a half acres, protected and shaded by grandiose pines, sits the CLOC campus. In the winter, the rehearsal spaces and surrounding cottages stand stoically, waiting for enthusiastic artists. In the summer, the babble of the estuary in back of the property is overshadowed by the lively chatter of young college students heading to rehearsal or to do their daily chores. But, no matter the time of year, there is a certain vibrancy that has settled onto the property; even in the absence of performers, it’s clear this is a place of creativity.
As CLOC enters its 50th year, the enriching atmosphere that it has provided to students and audiences alike will be on display with an exciting lineup of performances and celebrations, and as CLOC continues into future years, the commitment to entertainment can only grow, along with the talent and passion of the students. In a media-driven world, CLOC’s continuous dedication to putting life’s many experiences on stage is an undertaking that would make William Shakespeare himself proud. As Pearson puts it, “Live theater by definition cannot be digital. It has to be experienced in a dark room with strangers watching another stranger telling you something true about the human experience through story and music, and that’s something that you can’t experience with a device. You have to be in the room. It’s the ultimate ‘you had to be there.’”