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In The Spotlight

Harwich Junior Theatre celebrates 60 seasons of hard work and remarkable performances.

Harwich Junior Theatre celebrates 60 seasons

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a production put on by Harwich Junior Theatre, joins together in song.

Thirty years after entering his first acting class, Harwich native Nat McIntyre makes a living performing on stage and screen in New York City. Mostly working Off-Broadway, McIntyre has gone from memorizing lines from his first-ever part in Life with Father to gearing up for performing in Othello this summer in all five New York City boroughs. Looking back, McIntyre realizes something: in discovering Harwich Junior Theatre, he discovered his passion. “The theatre put me on the straight and narrow, if you can put a six-year-old on the straight and narrow,” he says, laughing. “It was so good for me.”

Each season since it was first founded 60 years ago by the late Betty Bobp, Harwich Junior Theatre has delighted audiences of all ages with dozens of plays and musicals. More than 20,000 folks attended performances last year. Just as important, the mix of actors has helped form a creative and nurturing institution on Division Street.

“It is my true belief that when people of all ages create theatre together, the energy and creative potential is boundless,” says Producing Artistic Director Nina Schuessler, who landed her first Harwich Junior Theatre role nearly 35 years ago. “It is truly intergenerational here.”

The post-performance scene outside the small clapboard theatre is also an energetic, friendly gathering of arts lovers of all ages. Festive teenage jesters who greet the crowd at performances and happy crowds gather around the farmer’s porch. Children, prodded by parents and gripping pens in their tiny fists, turn their faces up to the costumed actors. The actors sign their names and write upbeat messages onto every playbill passed into their hands, bantering with the patrons and accepting their good wishes.

These gestures validate the intense preparation for each production, which can total more than 15 hours a week for up to two months. But the rigors of rehearsals help the actors involved in each production form bonds—even if their ages are separated by a generation or two. Sturgis Public Charter School freshman Charlie Powicki felt that cohesion instantly when he landed his first role five years ago. “Everyone is working together to accomplish the same thing,” he says. “A lot of it is like a second family.”

Productions are all-hands-on-deck operations where actors might run lights or assist with props, and the “from page to stage” approach employed at the theatre means the journey to get the production ready for an audience is just as important as the performance itself. Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School junior Emily Blodgett spent last summer as a theatre intern and has been taking classes or performing at Harwich Junior Theatre since she was three years old. “I got to see the inner workings of what goes on,” she says. “I never appreciated how much effort goes into putting a show on.”

On a peninsula often mistakenly defined with one identity despite its many distinct villages, Harwich Junior Theatre’s classes and outreach programs bring the kids on Cape Cod together in a unique way. In 2010, roughly 400 students of all ages and backgrounds enrolled in the theatre’s workshops, cultivating their common passion for drama and theatre.

After years of shuttling his son (and later his daughter) to the theatre, Charles McIntyre—Nat’s father—cast an eye on the stage. “I had to take him to practice and to the shows and needed to get there an hour before the show,” says Charles, “and I thought, ‘I might as well just do the show.’” After his first part in Ah, Wilderness (“I don’t even know if I had three lines,” he said), Charles landed many roles in the following years—he especially enjoyed playing the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Charles enjoyed watching his son command the spotlight as Ichabod Crane, while he played a smaller role.

But rather than just finding time in the spotlight, the theatre became a place where father and son could find common ground and where the typical baggage that comes with being a teenager was set aside.

“I never went through a period when I thought my dad wasn’t awesome,” says McIntyre, who also teaches acting with the Epic Theatre Ensemble, an educational theatre program in New York City. “And I think that [his participation in the theatre] was a big part of it. It kept us on the same page.”

“Betty Bobp knew that intergenerational theatre was the truest and purest form of theatre,” says Schuessler. “It holds a mirror up to nature. Betty knew the discipline of theatre and knew how it could transform lives. We invite children into the world of theatre with high expectations,” she says. “They never let us down.”

The theatre’s decades as a Harwich mainstay are not lost on those who are still blossoming on its worn stage. “It is interesting to learn the history of the theatre and see people who come back,” Blodgett says. “It is cool how long people have cycled through and have been doing the same thing as I am doing. It is a changing thing, but a constant thing.”

The theatre also brings a variety of programs—bullying prevention, poetry, the art of listening—to schools throughout the Cape. “Education is one of our cornerstones,” says Tamara Harper, director of education and community outreach for Harwich Junior Theatre. “What the kids get isn’t just about acting; it is about communication, cooperation, and articulation.”

This summer, some favorite performances make return appearances. In a nod to nostalgia, Cinderella, the first play ever put on by Harwich Junior Theatre, opens on June 24. An all-time audience favorite, Always Patsy Cline, returns for weekend performances this summer. “Believe it or not,” said Schuessler, “for just about every play an audience member will come up to me and say, ‘That is the best play you have ever done!’”

The recent acquisition of the Harwich Recreation Building gives the organization more space for performing, rehearsals, and a continuing education center. “We want to keep it going for future generations,” Schuessler says. “And we want to play to a full house. I hope we created a place where people feel welcome when they walk through the door.”

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer from Bolton whose children saw their first plays at Harwich Junior Theatre.

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