Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre

The Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre retired their trademark orange and white tent at the end of their 18th season in 1988, and so symbolic was the tent to the identity of the theater that the future seemed uncertain for the organization. But, there would be a 19th season, and many seasons more until at last the curtain rang down for good.

But this was theater-in-the-round, where there are no curtains, and that is surely one of the factors that made the Mount Holyoke Summer Theatre so fondly remembered as a unique theatre experience. Their productions were, by necessity, intimate and cleverly presented.

Founded in 1970 by Mount Holyoke College Department of Theatre faculty member Jim Cavanaugh, this South Hadley, Massachusetts summer stock event was borne of a desire to create, as Mr. Cavanaugh wrote in the 10th Anniversary special program, “a theatre in which students would take positions of responsibility, on and off stage, and learn by doing.” Students had shared with Cavanaugh their less than satisfying experiences paying money to apprentice with major professional companies and “learning little except how to withstand lack of sleep.”

The first season produced eight plays in eight weeks, as Cavanaugh notes, “We didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so we did it.” Some memories over the years includes stopping a performance of the musical “Carnival” for 35 minutes to wait for a rain shower to stop so that the audience hear the performance. In the meantime, the actors taught the audience the words to songs from the show and they had a sing-a-long until the rain stopped.

Occasional rumbles from C5 aircraft taking off from nearby Westover Air Force Base always required a pause in the action, but were thankfully less frequent, and not as long-lasting than very loud rain on the tent roof. In fair weather, there was something tantalizing about the warm summer night, with the moon and stars lingering just beyond the tent wall and the screened door.

The series was reduced to seven plays in later seasons, and always ran the spectrum of comedy and drama, from MoliƩre to Thornton Wilder, from Neil Simon to Tennessee Williams. No big names from Hollywood or Broadway were among the casts, but none were needed. The mixture of professional guest actors and technicians, and company apprentice and journeymen students created a vibrant, intimate, and emotionally charged world in the orange and white tent. They are still missed.

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