A Brief History of WHAT and the Harbor Stage Company
The passing of Carol Green last week got me thinking about the long journey we took together at WHAT (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater) and the subsequent birth of the Harbor Stage Company. I was only dimly aware of Carol as one of our reliable donors when, around the year 1999, Gip Hoppe and I decided that after fifteen years of operating with only a “paper” board, it might be a good idea to form a real board. Carol had recently resigned from the presidency of Castle Hill so we knew she was available.
Shortly after she accepted our invitation to lead, she asked me out to her house in Truro. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it certainly was not what actually happened. It was fall and she was closing up the house for the winter and emptying out her fridge. She wanted to know if I wanted some yogurts.
Fast forward to our first full board meeting in 2000. It is decided that our year-to-year leased Harbor home is too precarious and that what is needed is a new, year-round venue; cost, size and location TBD. At the conclusion of the meeting Carol takes me aside and tells me she’ll be starting the ball rolling with a gift of $500,000. Before it was all over she and her brother Larry would donate millions. Generous doesn’t do it justice.
Carol believed in WHAT. She supported our mission and vision of producing the most interesting theater we could find at the highest level of professionalism we could muster. Thank you Carol Green.
One thing we knew early on was that we would not be abandoning the Harbor stage when we opened what would come to be named the Julie Harris Stage. The little theater was too much part of our identity and, besides, keeping it going would allow us to mount more shows, sell more tickets, while offering economies of scale; there would be one marketing department, production department, scene shop and actors house to service both venues.
I also knew that running two venues simultaneously would require the Harbor to have its own “impresario.” So at least a year before the June 2007 opening of the Julie I approached Brendan Hughes to ask if he would like to fill that role. (Brendan had already directed a number of our shows — brilliantly.) Yes, he would and he did, immediately recruiting Brenda Withers and Jonathan Fielding to join Robert Kropf, Stacy Fischer, Lewis Wheeler and Amanda Collins to form a kind of company within the company. In the course of the next five years we mounted 52 full productions in all THREE venues — including the WHAT for Kids tent, but not including workshops and readings — an astounding output for a “little” theater.
The 2012 season brought many changes: I resigned as WHAT Artistic Director, Brendan Hughes moved to Los Angeles to make movies, and a glitch in the Harbor venue lease left it somewhat up for grabs. This provided an opening for six of the core company actors, the aforementioned Amanda, Jonathan, Stacy, Robert, Lewis and Brenda — to take over the space, forming the Harbor Stage Company. From 2012 to 2019 Harbor Stage forged an identity, mission and aesthetic that was all their own while, in a fundamental way, continuing the legacy and vision of the original WHAT; as they like to put it, “A theater by the sea that’s right on the edge.” (Amanda and Lewis moved on after the 2nd season.)
Meanwhile in LA, Brendan Hughes was making movies. He also (shrewdly) married world class cinematographer Emily Topper (you can google that) and together they spawned young Oscar (the first of many?) Hughes.
Then came Covid and the shutdown of the entire theater industry, from Broadway to, yes, Cape Cod. There would be no 2020 season.
2021 dawns, however, and Harbor Stage is back with another season. Not Zoom. Live. On Stage. Yes, there was a Zoom presentation of a new play by Brenda Withers entitled Dindin (as in dinner) which is now receiving a full blown production — let me say it again — LIVE ON STAGE at the Harbor. And in a grand cycle of circularity, Brendan Hughes (with Emily and Oscar in tow) has returned to the East Coast to make a film version, also called Dindin. It’s important to note that this is not a capture of the stage production but rather a full blown feature film based on the play and filmed on location at the Fischer/Kropf home in Stow, MA. Principal photography was wrapped (as they say) just a few weeks ago and investors are being pitched (as they say) to fund post-production as we speak. Cannes looms on the horizon.
As I wrap up this brief history I must note that, in keeping with our collective obsession with dates and anniversaries, there stands a funky space at 15 Kendrick Avenue in Wellfleet that has now seen 37 years of continuous (not counting 2020) live theater produced on its modest stage. I’m proud to have played a part in making that happen.
What’s next? In a post-Covid world where we may be increasingly shy about sharing live spaces, and the already precarious existence of live theater — especially live little theater — is rendered even more so, might the Dindin stage to screen progression portend the next chapter in this journey? The Harbor Stage and Screen Company? Stay tuned.