Chatham Drama Guild Unveils New Stage, Other Upgrades

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Business , Local Theater

Scott Hamilton works on the new stage at the Chatham Drama Guild. DON HOWELL PHOTO

CHATHAM – The Chatham Drama Guild (CDG) is ready to celebrate its facelift in public.

During a festive gala on April 22 everyone can admire the CDG’s new stage, buffed floors, painted walls and new bathroom fixtures as well as see a sneak preview of “The Miracle Worker.”

“At 85 years it deserves a makeover,” says CDG Vice President Pamela Banas of Orleans who spearheaded the two-month project. “I am so enthusiastic about it, it looks amazing.”

The CDG is one of the oldest drama guilds on the Cape. Founded in 1933, members met in the 1950s at the Wayside Inn and produced their plays at the former high school on Main Street which then had the only stage that was heated in the winter. Occasionally they also produced plays at the Monomoy Theatre off-season on its unheated stage.

The land where the guild is located at 134 Crowell Rd. once belonged to the Nickerson Lumberyard. In the early1950s it was donated to the guild and in 1956, when the Mattaquason Hotel overlooking Chatham Harbor was demolished, one of its cottages was donated to the guild and moved to its land. Later that building was expanded as far as the current-day bar. Before the 1976-77 season the seating area and stage were added on, according to CDG Treasurer Scott Hamilton.

So you can imagine that over the past few decades, the guild has collected a lot of stuff. To help with the cleanup and building/restoration projects, the guild enlisted inmates through the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department Community Service Program. This program provides non-profit organizations with prisoners supervised by a deputy sheriff to do labor such as carpentry and painting in exchange for coffee, donuts and lunch. Banas estimates that the five- or six-man crew worked for eight eight-hour days and saved the guild between $5,000 and $6,000 in labor costs. The crew kicked off the project in February by filling two dumpsters with rubbish including old props and doors.

“This was a huge project. We cleaned out two basements,” Banas says. After that, the crew dismantled the stage, filling a third dumpster. Last Friday the crew returned for a final time to clean up the guild’s yard, to finish painting indoors and to set out tables for the gala.

“It was a tremendous amount of work,” Banas says. The fact that the guild is entirely run by volunteers makes this even more significant.

The biggest project was lowering the stage by 14 inches. The completely rebuilt stage is now 24 inches above the floor rather than 38 inches. The higher level was similar to that of a stage in a school auditorium. And what’s wrong with that? Several things.

The height of the stage made it challenging to modestly costume women whose roles would call for them to stand close to the front edge of the stage, Banas notes. Likewise, if a table was used as a prop, the audience could read the brand name of the table underneath it. Also, those playing on the stage were “looming over” the audience.

Karen McPherson, a frequent actor at the Chatham Drama Guild and other local theaters, says such a high stage can also pose a danger to actors.

“I stepped off the stage at the Barnstable Comedy Club in a blackout thinking I was going to the wing—broke my foot,” she says. “The stage there is quite high. So personally, I’ll be more comfortable on a lower stage.”

CDG President Don Howell has fallen off the guild stage more than once, he says. “It used to be a rite of passage 20 years ago,” he adds.

As well as greater safety, the new stage will offer greater flexibility for sets, Howell says. “The theater itself looks bigger,” he says. “The lowering changed the cube—sets can be bigger and sight lines better.”

Sound lines, too, are improved, for those sitting in the back of the theater, Hamilton says.

The 42-year-old stage, in addition to being too high, was also creaky. The new stage is solid. Altering the stage was “a significant thing to do to make a great theater as opposed to a good theater,” Banas says.

Those who attend the gala will get a sneak preview of “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, which will run from April 27 to May 20. Stars of past shows such as “Mary Poppins” and “Beauty and the Beast” will be on hand. As well as Banas, performers will include Chuck Frates, Rebecca Banas, Rick Smith, Rebecca Lach, Sage Lach, Alexis Arruda, Liam Jordan and Delane Moser. Glenn Starner-Tate will accompany on the piano. The main summer show this year will be “Seussical.”

“We’re just in the mood to celebrate,” Banas says.

The Chatham Drama Guild Gala will be held on Sunday, April 22 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Food will be served, and a cash bar will be available. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the box office at 508-945-0510.