Busting Out All Over, Academy Looks To Expand Its Theater

By: Ed Maroney

Over the decades, actors have signed their names and left messages along the back stairs that lead down from the stage to the dressing room. Their work will be preserved.

ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS The Academy Playhouse is staging its greatest production yet – a $4 million fund-raising campaign to upgrade and expand its theater and school.

The historic features of the grand old building at the top of the hill off Main Street, built by shipwrights to serve as town hall, will be preserved while modern touches such an elevator, an adequate number of restrooms, and a full basement will be added.

In the not-too-distant future, theatergoers will enter through a new main entrance farther back on the parking lot side of the 1870s building, which will be extended 12 to 16 feet to create a new lobby and new space for the dressing room. The extension will provide lots more backstage space on the second floor, and all-new seating will accommodate the plusher posteriors of modern-day customers. (There will be 147 seats instead of today's 162.)

To walk through the building today with Peter Earle, executive director and producing artistic director, is to discover a sturdy old structure jammed to the gills with costumes and scenery. Those essentials used to be stored out back in two tumbledown former camp buildings, but have been moved indoors as those structures have aged poorly.

Where the new lobby will be is now a traffic jam of costumes at two levels, some on rotating carousels reminiscent of a dry cleaner. One door leads to a cramped office space and another to the existing dressing room. The latter features almost room-length mirrors, cubbyholes above for shoes, and, higher up, storage space for big boxes with tantalizing labels such as “White choir robes (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels),” “Seussical jungle characters,” and “bowlers.” A lot of this will find its way to the new full basement.

Climbing the steep steps from the dressing room to backstage, while fantasizing about stepping in for Richard Burton in “Camelot,” one encounters the theater's signature wall, decorated with hundreds of performers' autographs and messages. “It's going to be preserved,” Earle said, as is so much more of the landmark building.

The capital campaign also encompasses the Academy School on Giddiah Hill Road. The home of music, dance and theater instruction will get a new roof and the parking lot will be upgraded, among other improvements.

Fundraisers are hoping to sock away a $100,000 endowment for the Academy “so when we fall on hard times – February – we can fall back on it,” Earle said, “and continue to replenish that.”

Raising $4 million for projects that are expected to take four years is something only a community can do, and the Academy has been reaching out. Already the beneficiary of community preservation funds for a sprinkler system, its asking for $500,000 from the town toward “restoration and rehabilitation of the original exterior and interior elements of the building, a new foundation, and construction of a new elevator tower and handicapped bathrooms to accommodate universal access.”

The Academy's application to the community preservation committee highlights preservation efforts, including “retaining and repairing as much of the original building material as possible by placing the proposed addition to the rear on less distinctive facades, and by designing the rear addition to be easily distinguished from the historic structure.”

In addition to also seeking support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council Cultural Facilities Fund, the Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Projects Fund, and foundations, the Academy wants to raise almost $3 million from residents and businesses and through special events.

The Academy's vision, according to its board of trustees, “is to secure the Playhouse building's future – creating a 21st century theater in a fully restored 19th century historic landmark – and rejuvenate the Academy School.” Anyone wishing to play a role is welcome to call Earle at 508-255-3075 or write to academyplayhouse@comcast.net