'The End Of An Era' For Monomoy Theatre

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local Theater , Historic preservation

Reid Williams, left, and Mark Lawrence move a picnic table out of one of the Monomoy Theatre buildings. Both were actors in last year's company. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Historical Commission Seeks National Register Eligibility Ruling

CHATHAM – The mood was somber last weekend as Monomoy Theatre officials and alumni helped clear out the buildings at the Main Street campus in advance of its pending sale.

“It's sad to the see the passing of the theater,” said actor Casey Predovic, who performed in “Guys and Dolls” at the theater last year. His parents, Dennis and Marcia, were involved with the theater for years and he practically grew up in there. “It's been my whole life since I was 9.”

Allison Layman also grew up at the theater. Her mother, Ellen Fiske, was a student there and has returned, along with husband Terry, almost annually to act and direct. Their daughter, who recently had a role in the Hulu series “The Path,” said watching old costumes and props get moved or thrown out was “like saying goodbye to childhood.”

“It's heartbreaking,” she said.

With the University of Hartford's lease on the property running out March 31, everything owned by the school had to be removed from the buildings. A crew from the university spent part of the week removing lighting, costumes and other items. Artistic Director Alan Rust invited the Chatham Drama Guild, Cape Cod Theatre Company and the Cape Rep Theatre to go through what was left and salvage what they could use. Habitat For Humanity's ReStore removed furniture. Representatives of Ohio University came and took out the headshots of former company members that covered the walls and ceiling of the office, as well as a model of the theater; they'll be part of a display about Monomoy at a new performance arts center at the university. Several dumpsters were filled and many old and threadbare costumes were thrown out. Still more was recycled and given away to local nonprofits.

The property is being purchased by Alexandra Properties of Newton, which is expected to close on the sale April 30. Greg Clark said that his company plans to renovate and modernize the theater, reopening in the future as a year-round community facility with the summer reserved for a student theater program. This summer, however, the theater will be dark.

Many theater supporters hold out hope that the Monomoy Theatre program – an intensive, 10-week program during which three dozen students and technicians mount eight plays – will continue in the future. Rust said given the poor conditions of the buildings, what's happening now was inevitable.

“The things he wants to do are pipe dreams we had for years but could never be realized” due to costs and because the facilities were privately owned, Rust said.

Last week the historical commission agreed to begin the process of securing a place on the National Register of Historical Places for the theater. Chairman Frank Messina is preparing a letter to the Massachusetts Historical Commission asking the agency to declare the property eligible for listing on the register. According to the property's Form B, the state agency's inventory form for historical properties, the theater and the double Greek Revival house meet several of the criteria for National Register listing. Prepared in 2011, the form is being updated for submission to the state commission, Messina said.

“This is not a slam-dunk,” he cautioned, noting that the state commission will review the historical and architectural information and likely inspect the property, as it did when the commission sought eligibility status for the South Chatham and Stage Harbor Road neighborhoods.

Messina said Clark has told him he plans to renovate and modernize the buildings in accordance with Department of Interior guidelines in order to retain their historical integrity. If that happens, Rust said, it will be “really exciting in many ways for the town.” If the property is eventually listed on the National Register, as Clark has stated is his goal, it would still remain under the jurisdiction of the historic business district commission as well as the Cape Cod Commission. Clark could potential get tax credits for renovating a National Register property.

There are six buildings at 776 Main St. and one on 70 Depot Rd., but only two are likely to be the focus of a National Register listing. The Greek Revival building that fronts on Main Street was built around 1880 is unusual architecturally because it appears as two houses connected by a central section. A portion of the theater lobby is said to date from 1800 and the main theater, originally a toy factory, was expanded into an arts center in 1934. It has been operated as a theater since 1934, and became the Monomoy Theatre after Mary Winslow purchased it in 1938. In 1958, Elizabeth Baker bought the property and it became the home of Ohio University's summer theater program. Baker's heirs, the Steindler family, inherited the property in 1993. The University of Hartford took over the lease of the property three years ago.

Even after last weekend's clearing out, the storage area underneath the theater remained crowded with varied and disparate items collected over the decades; many date from the Ohio University days and will be left for the Steindler family to clear out. Rust said salvage companies toured the property last week and will be hired to remove the remaining items.

Cher Anderson, who was the Monomoy chef for two summers, was removing her personal property and finding homes for some of the kitchen equipment. “It's really hard,” she said, tearing up. “For me it's like the soul's going out of the place.”

Chris Bailey was part of the Monomoy company for the past two summers and is now a senior at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. Helping pack up or throw away things from the theater was bittersweet, he said.

“It was such a privilege to be part of this beautiful place for two summers,” he said.

Mary O'Brady, a student at Monomoy 37 years ago and returned many times to direct shows, organized items to recycle over the weekend and collected sheets, blankets and other items to donate to Angel House and the St. Joseph Shelter in Hyannis. She said with the sale of the property and last weekend's moving experience, she feels like she's going through the stages of grief.

“This was inevitable,” she said. “It was held together with love and duct tape for quite a while.” She hopes that it continues as a theater, would be thrilled if the Monomoy program could continue, “but there would be a lot of challenges that have to be solved,” including housing for students.

“But I hope that's a possibility,” she said. Many people – audience members, students, alumni, guest artists – have a lot of love for the theater, she added, crediting Rust and his wife Janet with creating the circumstances and atmosphere that allowed individuals and the theater to flourish.

“This is a family. A summer at Monomoy Theatre is a life changing experience,” she said. “It's more than just the plays. People really learn to take care of each other.”

She added, “Everyone is grieving for the end of an era.”