WELLFLEET – While the theater doors do not open until late June, the magic starts in January at the Harbor Stage Company.
That’s when the four multi-talented people—two married couples—who run the nonprofit theater start discussing what plays they want to perform for the upcoming summer season.
All four are actors. One is also a playwright. One has written adaptations of classic plays. Three of them are also directors.
The theater itself, located in a non-descript box of a building set just steps from Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, is known for hosting some of Cape Cod’s most compelling productions in the summer months, staging comedies and dramas, world premieres and classics performed by professional actors.
But what makes this little theater the talk of the town and what happens on stage and back stage and in the box office is mostly due to four people, Brenda Withers, 38, a playwright and actress; her husband Jonathan Fielding, 39, an actor and director; Stacy Fischer, 40, an actress; and her husband Robert Kropf, 48, an actor and writer, who serves as Artistic Director of the Harbor Stage Company.
Original co-founders of the Harbor Stage Company in 2012 included a third couple, Amanda Collins and Lewis Wheeler, who both left the troupe in 2014.
The four who stayed, Withers, Fielding, Fischer and Kropf, ended up running the theater after starring in shows in the harbor-front building for several summers.
“We had been working together for years but there were a few of us that discovered we were likeminded in sensibility about theater and what we wanted to do,” Kropf said.
But it wasn’t only a likemindedness that drew the group together.
“There was a desire to start something that would shake things up a little,” he said.
The theater building was used for more than 20 years by another distinguished theater company in town, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, known by the acronym WHAT, but that theater needed more space and built a new building on Route 6. That made the harbor theater building available beginning five years ago.
“We took it over and were lucky enough win the space. So much theater and history is wrapped up there,” Kropf said.
The members of the Harbor Stage Company like to think they are continuing the tradition of staging challenging high-quality theater in the building by the beach that was started by WHAT.
“There was always a spirit of invention down there. They were pushing the envelope,” he said of WHAT. Kropf said he and Stacy and Jonathan and Brenda, all worked as company members beginning in 2008 with WHAT when Jeff Zinn was leading the theater.
Brenda Withers remembered when they all met. “Bob and Stacy and Jonathan and I and Lewis and Amanda all met and started dating while in shows at the Harbor, sort of like a weird reality show,” she said.
Kropf said when the theater management changed, the actors decided to try to form a theater company themselves.
“Once [Zinn] left, the whole scene changed. We wanted to continue the legacy, frankly. We have maintained that spirit but in a different way but it still has that wildness about it,” he said.
This is the sixth season of the Harbor Stage Company and Kropf recalled when the first year when the troupe came together.
“We started out very ambitious with a lot of energy. You want to do great work but you also want to put the thing on the map,” he said.
Now that they have five seasons under their collective belts, Kropf said this season is a turning point of sorts.
“We came to the realization just this year, our expectations have shifted a little bit. We want to keep it afloat and sustainable. We’re not in our 20s anymore. It takes a lot of energy but it gives a lot back artistically. The business part is a little more daunting but we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s difficult to keep an arts organization afloat.”
Kropf said he did not want to characterize running the theater as a struggle. “It’s a little more complex. It’s an artist-run deal. We don’t have a board or staff so we’re doing double duty,” he said.
All four of the principals are Equity actors, meaning they are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents professional performers of live theater. Together, they form a rep company, with the same actors performing in many of the season’s plays.
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“We’re an acting company. We’re trained and have been doing it for a long time,” Kropf said.
Having the performers in charge at a professional theater is, Kropf said, “incredibly rare.”
He said he has heard of smaller theaters that are run by actors who perform, perhaps, one show a year. “The fact that we are an Equity company and artist-run is incredibly unique,” he said.
“Bob and Stacy and Jonathan and I and Lewis and Amanda all met and started dating while in shows at the Harbor, sort of like a weird reality show.” Brenda Withers of Harbor Stage Company
Typically theaters that employ Equity actors charge more for performances, but Harbor Stage Company has made it part of their mission from the beginning to keep their prices low.
“It’s what makes the business side very complicated. We believe in the mission, that everyone should be able to come to the theater,” he said.
The four principals of the theater do not answer to any board or management and that gives them great freedom. “We’re basically free to do anything we want to do,” Kropf said.
And that comes back to what happens in January when the four principals get together to plan the upcoming season. The group gathers for winter retreats in January and February where they read aloud possible plays they are interested in performing for the upcoming season.
Kropf said that while there are free-wheeling discussions at their first meeting about the next slate of plays, there is also a lot of agreement.
“We share a common aesthetic. We like similar things,” he said.
Kropf said he prefers classic plays and will often make suggestions along those lines. Brenda Withers, the playwright in the group, often suggests newer plays. Jonathan may suggest a world premiere possibility and Stacy hones in a great writing.
“We all bring stacks of plays to the table,” Kropf said.
They stage three plays a summer and the formula that has evolved is to run a classic play, a contemporary jewel and a modern play.
“We talk about them and what’s hitting us this year and ultimately we seem to find the balance,” he said. “It gives everybody something they are inspired by.”
Because they are also the core actors of the troupe, they are also looking for roles specifically for the company members.
“We never want to just fill a slot. We always look for passion projects.” Brenda Withers
The group’s familiarity with each other helps them to be able to debate the choices. “There’s a safety net. We get into it. It gets heated,” he said. Kropf compares the group’s partnership to a marriage. “Once you decide you are going to stay in this marriage, you compromise and make it work and you are a little more generous and tolerant,” he said.
Withers agreed that the four are opinionated but that passion is always the common denominator in their choices. “Each year we try to find something that suits a passion for all four of us. We are very happy to support each other because we’re all behind each other. We never want to just fill a slot. We always look for passion projects,” she said.
This 2017 season strays a bit from their formula in recent years of having one classic, for instance a Chekhov play, adapted for the troupe; one contemporary play; and one brand new play.
This year, instead of a classic play, they are staging an adaptation of a classic 1966 movie, Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” a psychological drama. This adaptation of this classic film also serves as the season’s world premiere.
Kropf was granted the rights from the Bergman Foundation to write the American adaptation of the film.
When he found out he had been granted the exclusive rights to do the adaptation, he was thrilled. “I love Bergman films,” Kropf said. He said the story lends itself to Cape Cod, since half of it is set in a seaside town.
Kropf worked on writing the “Persona” adaptation over two to three months this winter and spring in order to have it ready a month prior to the opening of the season in mid-June.
Filling the slot of the contemporary play this year is David Mamet’s 1983 play “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which
Kropf said the group was drawn to the Mamet work because of the “meaty roles for actors.”
When they read it during their winter workshops, they realized they had to do it. “It was so evident what a masterpiece it is,” he said.
The third play they are doing this season, which is actually the first on the docket, is a play that is just a few years old, “Everything is Established” by Hannah Kenah, which is a regional premiere.
Withers said the idea of doing a classical play, a modern classic and a contemporary play was in some ways accidental.
“Having the same sort of play in each slot was sort of organic. We had a really fun season last year. [This year] we are going to top that. We are trying something different. Some will say, where’s the Chekhov?” she said.
As a repertory company, the four principals are hard at work all season. They rehearse the first play and once it opens, they start rehearsing the second play. They rehearse the second play during the day and perform the first play at night and so on. “It’s pretty rigorous,” Kropf said.
In recent years, they have brought one of their plays to Boston in the fall in conjunction with Suffolk University in Boston. “Sometimes it’s hard to make the ripple beyond the Cape. It is important to travel our work and share it with Boston,” Kropf said.
Kropf and his wife, Stacy, live in Boston while Brenda and her husband, Jonathan, live on Long Island in New York. The four come to Wellfleet in May for the Harbor Stage Company’s summer season.
They rent a house year-round in Wellfleet for the troupe to use in the summer and rent the apartment above the theater for the stage manager, Kropf said. They finish casting the plays in May, bringing other Equity actors to Wellfleet for the season.
Withers, the playwright in the troupe, said she considers herself an actor first. “I’ve done more acting than writing,” she said. She started writing to give herself good roles. “It came out of feeling like there were some roles I wasn’t playing and wanted to play,” she said.
Her first play was performed in 2002. She even left the theater world years ago to move with a writing partner to Los Angeles and work in the television world on a sitcom for a time but returned to the East Coast and to the theater.
She said the camaraderie of the troupe at Harbor Stage is part of what makes it all work. “I think we have really good chemistry on stage together,” Withers said.
She said that the way they all met, as actors rehearsing shows, helped them to bond in a unique way. “It is a physical process. You can get to know someone from every point of view. For whatever reason, we clicked on stage and that has helped off stage. We admire each other as artists,” she said.
Though the troupe consists of two men and two women as principals, Withers said there has never been a competition for roles. “We admire each other’s talents and often instead of proposing a role for ourselves, we suggest it for the other. We feel like the others are looking out for us. We feel protected. So much of acting is competing. Here it really feels like an ensemble. We feel stronger if everyone is showcased,” she said.
Withers said she is excited about the 2017 season. “We’re trying stuff we’ve never done—some of it is quite physical,” she said. Of their decision to put on “Glengarry Glen Ross,” she said the troupe felt the play was a way to “examine something current without hitting it on the nose.”
“It does feel like it’s responding to what’s happening in the country with its focus on salesmen and con men,” she said.
In a small theater, there are logistics to consider in doing a large ensemble piece like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but, Withers said, they learned last year when they put on her play, “The Critic,” that the theater could handle a large ensemble piece.
“We can fit in the dressing rooms. It all worked out,” she said.
Withers said there have been seasons where all four of the principals in the troupe, who also handle the administration and the box office, have also performed in all three plays in the season. They could be running the box office one minute, then running into the dressing room to get ready to get on stage to perform.
“That makes it a little harder with scheduling and divvying up the workload,” Withers said. “It’s very rejuvenating. What we lose in sleep, we make up for in inspiration.”
Now they try to keep it to two plays for each actor on stage and they take turns directing the shows.
As a playwright, Withers said she has learned to appreciate the family atmosphere of the Harbor Stage Company.
One of her plays was performed at a theater in Portland, Maine this spring and she found the experience to be quite different from doing her plays at the Harbor.
“It was a little view into what it would be like without the Harbor, how to develop a play without a family to develop it with. There is a different candor with strangers. People don’t know what toes not to step on,” she said, adding that she really enjoyed the experience in Maine.
Withers echoed Kropf when she said the low prices for quality shows is one thing that really sets the Harbor apart.
She said the policy of keeping the ticket prices low grew out of practical experience with having higher prices and fewer audience members.
“We said, I wonder what would happen if people like us could afford to go to the theater,” she said.
Withers said the theater itself, an 88-seat space where the stage is only inches from the first row, is a part of what makes performances there stand out. “The space is like a character in all of our shows. It really changes things,” she said.
Withers said the audience tends to be split between the local population and tourists. “What is interesting is to see [audience members come as] tourists one year and then buy their tickets ahead of time the next year,” she said.
The theater’s audience is growing. Harbor Stage Company started with 120 subscribers the first year and now, in its sixth season, has 400 subscribers.
And that too helps the performers.
“What we really love is having an intimate theater and having a packed audience night after night. Having a strong audience changes everyone’s experience,” Withers said.
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