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The Great Blue Way

Author Sue Mellen takes a look at the thriving theater community across the Cape & Islands in her new book.

Imagine, the curtain has just closed, the immensely talented actors and actresses, dancers and musicians have taken their bows. You and your fellow audience members are still standing, applauding what was perhaps the best performance you have experienced in a long time. Finally, you are ushered out of the building. But, you don’t step out of the door onto a crowded city street just blocks from Times Square or Piccadilly Circus or Downtown San Francisco. You’ve stepped into the cool, salty night air of a Cape Cod summer. Every summer, performers and audiences alike flock to the Cape for the summer theater season. What is it about the Cape and Islands that has fostered such a strong, untold theater culture? In her new book, “A History of Theater on Cape Cod” (The History Press), Sue Mellen seeks to answer that question, going all the way back to the beginning to do so.

When most think of Cape Cod or the Islands, they picture sprawling beaches, picturesque downtowns and seafood restaurants touting “the best lobster rolls.” But, there’s another aspect to Cape culture, one that has been holding strong and steady since the 1800s: the arts. “The Cape, Provincetown specifically, was the beginning of truly American theater. It’s where Eugene O’Neill’s play ‘Bound East for Cardiff’ was first staged in 1916. So many theater critics and historians say that that was the beginning of the truly American art form as theater, with American subjects and characters and a real look at the American scene. But, the Cape theater culture predates even that,” Mellen, who spent many years as a theater reviewer, explains. “There was an artist colony in Provincetown in the late 1800s, and at that point, there were plays being produced informally in homes and local community centers.” At the time, shows performed on Broadway were pulled directly from European stages, with a little bit of American flare thrown in for fun. But, artists and playwrights and performers from Greenwich Village and Broadway were making their way to Provincetown. The playwrights in Provincetown were there specifically because of their disappointment in the “stodginess and commercialism of Broadway,” as Mellen puts it. These artists wanted to create something new, something wholly American. Playwrights had been working on pieces and performing in homes and makeshift theaters, and by the summer of 1916, one of those makeshift theaters, an old fish house on Lewis Wharf, became the stage for O’Neill’s production of “Bound East for Cardiff.” Unlike previous Provincetown creations, O’Neill’s play featured unflinchingly American characters and a plot focused on the struggles of the lower class, a theme that would characterize American theater for decades to come. That one act play by O’Neill is credited as leading the way away from the classic European performances and creating an entirely American style of theater. And, with the doors of the building behind the stage open to the fog and sky and sea beyond, it became a uniquely Cape Cod experience as well. 

At the same time, there was a thriving artist colony on Nantucket; the Theater Workshop of Nantucket (TWN) that runs today can trace their roots back to that original colony. The ‘Sconset Actors Colony was started in the late 1800s, way before air conditioning existed. Actors would flee New York City and its overcrowded, sweltering streets for the cool ocean breeze of Siasconset. These big name Broadway actors created their own colony in ‘Sconset, complete with tennis courts and a bowling alley. But the most important creation was the stage known as the ‘Sconset Casino. Later generations of that colony would join a group of players who would become the Theater Workshop of Nantucket. TWN did what no other group on Nantucket before them had been able to do: stage a successful off-season. Their first season ran from October 1956 through April 1957. They staged four productions of popular Broadway shows and received high praise, securing their place at the Wharf Theater for the next 10 years. Since then, the group has moved from building to building, but the goal has remained the same: to foster a theater community on the island. They now reside at Bennet Hall on Centre Street.

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