Curtain Won't Go Up At Monomoy Theatre This Summer

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local Theater

The Monomoy Theatre will be dark this summer for the first time in more than 60 years. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Uncertainty Surrounds Future Of Historic Playhouse

CHATHAM – The Monomoy Theatre stage will be dark this summer for the first time in more than 60 years.

When the curtain will rise again at the historic Main Street theater is uncertain. Artistic Director Alan Rust said that the company that has an agreement to purchase the property plans to renovate and preserve the buildings, and that will take time.

“We will therefore not be able to have a season of plays this summer but we can look forward to what I believe will be an exciting future for this theater we all love,” he wrote in an email to theater supporters last Friday that was also posted on the theater's Facebook page.

A group of theater supporters, with Rust listening in by phone from Connecticut, where he is director of the theater program at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, met last Friday with Gregory T. Clark, whose Newton company, Alexandra Properties, has an agreement to buy the 2.7-acre theater property from the Steindler Family Trust. The deal is scheduled to close on April 30.

Clark announced at the March 4 selectmen's meeting that his company was buying the property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. He said the buildings will be restored and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Clark told theater officials Friday that the company's plan is to renovate the theater into a year-round facility, with a 10-week period during the summer reserved for a student theater program such as the one that operated at the property since 1958. Rust said there were no specifics given on when the renovations would be completed, whether a theater program would be able to utilize the entire property – as it has in the past – or who would operate the program.

“I don't think we'll know any of that until they own it,” Rust said in a telephone interview Monday.

“To me the positive thing about all this, that the fear that it would all be torn down and turned into condos or a strip mall, does not seem to be the case at all,” Rust said. In his email Rust wrote that Clark indicated the company had “considerable experience and success in renovating and preserving historic buildings, including other theaters... It is their goal, as I understand it, to do the same in Chatham.”

He added Monday, “I thought it was quite encouraging and an inevitable step for it to stay alive.”

A theater has been located on the property since 1938. In 1958 the Ohio University began the summer program that recruited theater students to put on eight plays during a 10-week season, with actors, technicians and others working and living on the campus. For the past three years, the University of Hartford has sponsored the program and leased the property. After town inspectors found health and safety violations last summer, the university decided not to renew the lease following a disagreement with the Steinder family over who was responsible for upgrading the property. The lease expires this Friday, March 15.

The nonprofit Monomoy Theatre, Inc. reportedly made an offer to purchase the properties which the Steindlers rejected. After the property went on the market for $3.9 million, another group of theater supporters made an offer, reportedly just short of the asking price, which was also rejected. The property then went under agreement, with the buyer remaining unknown until Clark's announcement last week.

All of the buildings on the property are at least 75 years old, and some are considerably older. The double Greek Revival building that fronts on Main Street was built around 1880 and the main theater was once a toy factory. Along with a scene shop, rehearsal building and carriage house (where the costume shop was located), there is a cottage at the rear of the property and a small house on Depot Road. The latter two buildings and the main house were used as dorms for students. Rust said that is an unusual arrangement and he doesn't know if it will continue under the new owners.

“There aren't many summer theaters like Monomoy that have housing on site,” he said. He added that at the meeting, which Rust said was attended by representatives of the Friends of Monomoy Theatre and Monomoy Theatre, Inc., Clark indicated work wouldn't start on the property until the fall.

Clark did not respond to requests for comments about Friday's meeting. But in an email to The Chronicle last Thursday, he wrote that the company was in the early stages with the property and still performing “due diligence” to determine how to address all of the issues with the existing structures.

“It is our policy not to discuss plans for properties until we have completed our studies and determined the associated costs,” he wrote. “Upon presentation to the town of a formal plan, our program will be made public and submitted for local and federal approval.”

At the March 4 board of selectmen's meeting, Clark said he planned to meet with the historical commission to discuss the property. The commission was scheduled last Tuesday to discuss seeking a ruling on the building's eligibility for listing on the National Register from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, but members decided to hold off until they are able to discuss the property with the new owner.

Over the years the theater became an important educational and artistic institute for Chatham and the Cape, and “developed a national reputation for excellence in the world of student-driven theater,” Rust wrote in his message Friday. “It has opened doors to thousands of theater students and theater professionals. It has also shared the work of these artists with thousands of visitors as well as the residents of Chatham and the Cape.”

Clark's description of his firm's plan for the theater include such work as enlarging the lobby and adding rest rooms, something Monomoy could never afford to do, Rust said.

“It was a beautiful little building that was put together by hand 85 years ago and kept together by hand and blood and sweat and love,” he said. “But as with all things like that, to keep it going, it's going to have to be brought up to date.”

Rust, who has been Monomoy's artistic director since 1980 and has a home in town, doesn't know if he'll return to the theater in that capacity; it depend on what shape the summer program takes once the renovations are completed. He said he sees himself being a consultant to the program, at the very least.

In the meantime, he's looking forward to his first summer off in more than four decades, and said he plans travel and enjoy sailing, “without having to worry about being back by 5:30.”

Gay Murdoch, a member of the board of directors of Monomoy Theatre, Inc. who was at Friday's meeting, declined to comment. Scott Hamilton, co-president of the Friends of Monomoy Theatre, was also at the session and could not be reached for comment.

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