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.
Meanwhile, across the Cape, over a span of decades, more and more theaters opened, and established groups of players emerged. Some would perform in whatever space was available, while others created long-term spaces in historic buildings or new structures. In Orleans, what is now The Academy Playhouse had once been the Orleans town hall. But in 1950, when the town decided the building no longer fit their needs, Gordon and Besty Argo transformed the space into the Orleans Arena Theatre. The Arena became the first summer residence arena theater, or “theater-in-the-round,” meaning the stage is in the middle, with the audience surrounding the stage. For over 25 years, the Arena hosted students from George Washington University for the summer, where they lived and worked, producing a show a week. In 1975, ownership turned over to the Kellys, who used the Arena for their Academy of Performing Arts, which is still operating today, with many alumni currently on Broadway. Up Cape, in Barnstable, the Barnstable Comedy Club (BCC) has been putting on performances since 1922 in the historic Barnstable Village Hall, making it the oldest running live community theater on the Cape and one of the oldest in the country. The BCC has survived for almost a century, thanks to their commitment to providing year-round entertainment, as well as teaming up with other theaters like the Chatham Drama Guild and the Woods Hole Theater Company to make it through the Depression.
The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, which staged its first production in 1927, became known as “the Cradle of Stars” thanks to the number of Broadway heavy hitters that graced the stage; names such as Basil Rathbone and Peggy Wood. It also became the spot where one Bette Davis made her very first stage appearance after working as an usher. Closer to the mainland, the College Light Opera Company and the Falmouth Theatre Guild both operate out of the historic Highfield Theatre. The theater was built in 1878 as an extension of Highfield Hall. In 1947, the entire estate, including Highfield Hall, Tanglewood and the Barn, were purchased by Arthur Beckhard with the goal of creating a summer theater. Though the stage changed hands a few times, performances continued, leading to the two immensely talented groups who call it home today.
In 2020, the Cape boasts over three dozen theaters. Mellen credits the number of active theaters when discussing the success of Cape theater. “What that does is it creates a culture of competition; at any given time, a theater lover on the Cape can choose from so many choices. On any given bright, warm summer evening, there are over a dozen performances happening,” she says. “I’ve been a fan of theater for so long, and when you compare theater in other areas to the Great White Way, it fails. But, that’s not the case on the Cape. On the Cape, with this culture of theater and of excellence, so often I will review a show and think ‘Oh my god, it really is New York quality.’” While the number of theaters creates competition, it also deepens that sense of community. “It can compare to Broadway because of the competition, because of the long history, and because of the number of people that are a part of the theater culture,” she continues. “So often you’ll go to a show in Wellfleet and see someone in a starring role, then a month later go to a show in Orleans and see that same person. The same is true of the tech folks, the lighting and the sound and directing. Folks go from group to group when they find a show that speaks to them. So, there’s this reservoir of talent that’s just amazing that you won’t find anywhere else.”
What made the Cape a place for so many theaters and players groups to thrive? Mellen believes it’s the Cape itself, the unique, magical light that glows across the region. “I think, in the beginning, the colony in Provincetown was a place where many new thinkers came from Greenwich Village because there was the freedom to do what they wanted to do. It was ‘lands end is the beginning’ in this place where this unique artist culture had already formed because of the light, the Cape Cod light; for a long time, artists have been coming to the Cape to paint because of the light,” she describes. “So, it created this hospitable environment for artists of any kind, for revolutionaries, for literary geniuses and for playwrights. And that has continued and continued to grow. I think the Cape is still associated with that history of being an art colony; people come here and thrive. So you’re not in New York, crushed into a tiny theater, you’re on the Cape, in the open air, able to perform your art. What a magnificent thing.”
Elizabeth Shaw is the assistant editor for Cape Cod Life Publications