Let’s Take It From the Top
For Falmouth’s College Light Opera Company, a new Broadway-worthy rehearsal space.
Imagine landing the role of eldest daughter Liesl in The Sound of Music but not being able to practice “16 Going on 17” in the rehearsal area—because if you did, you’d hit your head on the low ceiling every time you jumped onto the benches in the gazebo.
Or fancy yourself making it into the chorus of West Side Story only to find your legs getting more and more sore during dance rehearsals because the floor underneath has no give.
These were just a couple of problems with the rehearsal space of Cape Cod’s College Light Opera Company (CLOC), which puts on musicals every summer at Falmouth’s Highfield Theatre. That’s because the rehearsal hall was the living room of the iconic Tudor-style building that once served as the West Falmouth Inn, located on Chapoquoit Road by West Falmouth Harbor. Not only is there not much headroom in there, but heavy wooden beams scoring the ceiling make it lower still.
Any choreography or other moves that required lifting off the ground—like Curley literally sweeping Laurey off her feet in Oklahoma!—meant the actors had to schlep themselves and their props outdoors to practice. If it was a rainy or windy day, precious rehearsal time might be lost. It was a particular problem because CLOC puts on nine shows in nine weeks each summer, leaving not a minute of rehearsal to spare.
Another difficulty was that the building was crowded. While actors practiced their scenes in the living room, “all our music work was done in the dining hall,” says CLOC’s executive director, Mark Pearson. “Coachings often went on upstairs. It was always all over the place, and you were kind of always on top of yourself.”
That’s why, when CLOC was approaching its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, its trustees decided to begin a capital campaign to raise money for building a new rehearsal hall. But how did the old stucco-and-timber, Tudor-like building become the theater company’s rehearsal space in the first place?
A brief history of CLOC time
“In the 1940s and 50s, America had a very strong tradition of summer stock theater,” Pearson explains. Troupes often were comprised of college-age actors who would go to resort towns and put on musicals and other plays. That was the main entertainment for the summer crowd.
Out of that tradition grew the Oberlin Gilbert & Sullivan Players in 1953. It was an organization founded by Ohio’s Oberlin College to help students who were aspiring actors get their feet wet. At the time, the students roomed and rehearsed at Tanglewood Hall, on the same property as Highfield Theatre.
Oberlin closed up shop in Falmouth in 1968, but some alumni of the program felt it was “too important, too cool of a thing to let die,” as Pearson puts it. So they continued the tradition by starting CLOC in 1969. Tanglewood Hall and its large barn where the rehearsals took place were soon torn down, however, so there was no place to prepare for shows or house the students. The then-owners of the Tudor building that had been the West Falmouth Inn, the Lilly family, saved the day by inviting CLOC to use the inn (also called Bridgefield Hall) and some rustic houses on the property’s six-and-a-half acres for rehearsals as well as dormitory accommodations for student actors during
CLOC eventually raised the funds to buy the “campus” from the Lillys, and today, the organization is a thriving stepping stone for college students who plan to move into the professional theater world upon graduation. Each year, between 300 and 400 students from universities like Yale, UC Berkeley, the Berklee College of Music, as well as universities in England and Canada, apply for 80 available summer spots. Once accepted, they live in the old inn and the smaller dorms around the campus from June through August and learn not just about acting but also costume design, orchestra work, box office and other business details—whatever they are interested in pursuing once they graduate.
And when they do graduate, they go on to employment in the field they love. Some make it to Broadway, Pearson says, but wherever they work, they are able to earn a living in a profession that is extremely hard to break into. The pre-professional step offered by CLOC gives them the leg up they need. They get not just room and board with their training but also a stipend. It is truly a professional beginning.
“I did this program when I was a student,” Pearson says. “I was a stitcher in the costume shop my first summer as an undergrad, then came back as a costume designer for three seasons.” He left for Germany for 10 years to do stage directing for operas but was drawn back. “I had drunk the punch as a kid,” he says. “I really believe in this organization.”
The design of the new rehearsal space
Pearson and the CLOC trustees had a significant list of must-haves for the new build. They wanted high ceilings. They wanted what is known as a sprung floor, which when danced upon has a touch of a trampoline-like quality so that performers don’t land with a thud that can strain their joints and ligaments during the many hours of practice. They also required double doorways that were wide enough to push baby grand pianos from one practice room to another. And the main rehearsal hall needed tons of light but not direct sunlight. “Folks don’t need the sun in their eyes when they’re rehearsing,” Pearson says
Additionally, they had to have ample office space—no more squishing everybody together to run the back-of-house operations. Other must-haves: a kitchen on site, more storage space, smaller warm-up rooms, a room to do choral work, an archive room to store almost every musical that has ever been written….
Cue the architect, Susan Hoadley of Hoadley Martinez Architects in Cohasset. “Susan had done the new sailing club in Cohasset,” Pearson says. “She did a very good, very sensitive design, and she had also designed public spaces in various universities, which appealed to us since we were looking at creating a communal space. We also got really good vibes when we talked with her.”
Pearson and the CLOC trustees originally asked Hoadley to design a building on the space used for the old facility’s parking lot right by the road. But not too far into the process, they realized that the new structure would be too much for the area’s quaint streetscape overlooking West Falmouth Harbor, so they asked Hoadley to redraw for a different spot.
It was complicated, Hoadley says. There were required setbacks for a pond on the property, and also for the harbor just across the way. “We needed to work around the fragile ecosystem of the site,” she comments. She did so by changing the shape of the building and reducing its size—to about 8,000 square feet. That required consolidating and creating shared spaces for different activities while retaining the same level of functionality—no mean feat.
“It was also important to integrate the significant Tudor vocabulary of the original inn building but at the same time design something that would make sense from the standpoint of a regional architectural vocabulary,” she says. With that in mind, some of the building is coated in stucco, like the old inn, but the rest of it has cedar shingles consistent with Cape Cod architectural aesthetics. “It’s a high-performance building,” Hoadley says, but one “that is meant to convey itself as being somewhat more rustic and accessible. It’s meant from the outside to be read as a big barn.”
Says Pearson, “Susan did a really great job of trying to make it look like a retrofit. If the Tudor-style building had a carriage house and that carriage house was expanded, what would it look like? It would look like this.”
Hoadley also designed some whimsical elements, such as the building’s octagonal entry pavilion—sort of a cupola at ground level to reflect the one up top. That touch, she says, “is meant to be theatrical in and of itself.” But inside, she notes, “the place has the technology of any university practice facility. It’s a workhorse of a space that’s meant to take anything you want to throw at it. The intent is that it can be cleaned and restored to order quickly.” For instance, the floors, which look like concrete, are epoxy. You drop some paint and just wipe it up. You’re not ruining wood flooring.
Additionally, she came up with the idea for making the main rehearsal space capable of feeling like an outdoor room when that might be called for. It has three large “garage” doors, each with loads of windows, and the doors open up completely, more or less eliminating the fourth wall. That allows the space to segue seamlessly to a porch right outside, the bucolic grounds, and West Falmouth Harbor beyond.
That same hall can also be used as a small theatre. This past winter, CLOC hosted performances for both the Woods Hole Theater Company and ArtLab, which put on the musical A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. As a theater, the space holds an intimate crowd of about 90.
Hammers and nails
CLOC selected Falmouth-based The Valle Group to handle construction. The firm is primarily known as a custom home builder but also takes on special projects within the community. “They’ve done a lot of great work here in Falmouth,” Pearson says. “And Christian Valle, the president of the company, is a trustee of the Cape Cod Symphony…the Valles are a very community-minded family, and this was going to be a community project, so they were a very good fit for us. We also liked that they were a local, family-owned business.”
The firm had its work cut out for it. “The building was to be constructed in a flood zone,” says Valle Group project manager Andrew Seguin, “so we had to elevate the foundation. We trucked in fill for, probably, three days, with 10 or 12 trucks to bring up the floor elevation.”
In addition, Seguin explains, each of the buildings on the 6.5-acre campus “had its own antiquated cesspool, including the old inn. As part of the project, we partnered with the Buzzards Bay Coalition to replace the existing septic with a state-of-the-art denitrification system capable of reducing overall nitrogen pollution by as much as 80 percent. This was particularly important given that the campus is right next to West Falmouth Harbor.”
Making that task more complicated still was that the septic tanks—all seven of them—had to be installed below the water table. “We hired a company to put in some 180 wells connected to pumps and a massive filtration system running 24/7 to ensure that silt didn’t mix with water going into the harbor. Any water being pumped off that site during construction needed to be 100 percent clear,” Seguin explains.
The variegated roof line was complicated to build, too, and the tightness of the space didn’t make any of it easy. The foundation workers couldn’t be there at the same time as those working on the septic system, for instance. There just wasn’t the room.
The pandemic only added to the difficulties. “Whole crews of subcontractors would get sick,” says Christian Valle. “There were delays on getting materials. But we had a great team of people with CLOC and the architect. “It was a good, collaborative process.”
Hoadley agrees. “During the pandemic, lots of different disruptions took place that necessitated the builder-architect team get creative,” she says. “The materials market was presenting weekly fluctuations, and we had to follow those fluctuations as a group and come up with solutions midstream.”
But it all came together—within eight days of schedule and right on the budget of $3.9 million (plus another $1 million, give or take, for the new septic system). That price tag includes the sprung floor, from which air underneath is displaced when people land on it, escaping through what Pearson calls little “nostrils,” or vents, in the baseboards at the sides of the room.
Pearson credits The Valle Group’s Seguin for much of the efficiency. “Andrew was a good man for value engineering and suggesting and outlining the pros and cons of various options. ‘You can have these windows or those windows—these are the costs; these are the benefits.’ When everything is done by committee, as happened with CLOC, it can really slow the process if you don’t have someone like Andrew to boil it down to concrete information so you can make an informed decision quickly. That’s key.”
The new building, completed only last year, is called John R. Lucas Hall, after a theater design professor from Brown University who spent many summers directing CLOC productions. Set well back from the road, the edifice, opened for its first full season this summer, makes it much easier for the entire operation to run smoothly—and for the actors and musicians to practice and put on even better shows over at Highfield Theatre.
Each summer, says Pearson, “we try to hit as many periods of the musical theatre genre as possible to give our students the broadest range and make them the most marketable. There’s always an English operetta, something from musical theatre’s golden age, often a Sondheim….”
This summer, the organization’s 54th, No, No Nanette is on the roster along with Cinderella and The Scarlet Pimpernel. To see what else will be playing and to purchase tickets (they go fast), check out www.collegelightoperacompany.com.
Larry Lindner is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.