Stars of the Stage

Up-and-coming actors continue the summer stock tradition at Priscilla Beach Theatre

By Maria Allen | Photography by Jack Foley

Summer stock theatre is by nature an intense and thrilling experience. Each year in June, a talented ensemble of singers, dancers and thespians from prestigious collegiate performing arts programs come together at Priscilla Beach Theatre (PBT) in Manomet. Following in the footsteps of acclaimed actors before them, they spend eight weeks immersed in musical theater, gaining valuable skills and career connections while providing audiences with an opportunity to watch Broadway-bound actors perform in the historic barn playhouse.

Auditions take place each year in February and attract up-and-coming actors from across the United States. The brightest stars are chosen to fit the musical roles for the upcoming season. The summer of 2016, the lineup included the Broadway hit “A Chorus Line,” known for its awesome musical score and fantastic dance numbers, and one of the funniest musicals ever written, “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.” The resident company featured 30 talented performers hailing from 13 states.

From the time the actors arrive on campus, they are swept up into a rigorous rehearsal schedule. In the few spare moments that they’re not busy running lines, practicing choreography or helping out with youth acting summer camps, the cast members spend time getting to know one another and take advantage of the theater’s proximity to nearby beaches.

Members of the resident company all live on campus, many within a rambling antique farmhouse. Much like a college dorm, there are numerous people vying for the shared washer and dryer and jockeying for refrigerator space in the communal kitchen. But despite these inconveniences, the closeness creates long-lasting friendships and valuable career connections.

On a sunny afternoon in August 2016, the dressing room inside the farmhouse is filled with a flurry of flowing togas and shimmering sequins as the cast for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” has a quick costume fitting. Meanwhile, across a vibrant green lawn, a few of the other actors are leading an acting workshop for kids on a newly constructed outdoor pavilion. Behind them, stands the iconic red PBT barn—a structure with a storied past.

Founded in 1937 by Franklin Trask, PBT is one of the oldest barn theaters still in operation in America. Trask and his wife, Agnes, operated a small barn theater in Westford, Massachusetts, before setting their sights on the Taylor estate in Plymouth. The couple purchased the farm, which included several buildings and a large barn, for $12,500. They converted the barn into a theater, then known as The Priscilla Beach Drama Festival.

The theater became a training ground for great actors who lived on campus and took part in various aspects of the productions, from costuming and lighting to set design. In its heyday (the 1940s through the early ‘50s) there were as many as 150 actors in residence. Luminaries of the time included silent film star Gloria Swanson and actor Edward Horton. Hollywood actors like Paul Newman, Rob Reiner, Kitty Winn and Peter Gallagher also spent summers performing on the historic barn stage before they became household names.

PBT’s current owner, Bob Malone, grew up just down the street from the theater and remembers hanging out on campus from the time he was 13 years old. Enamored by the magic of musical theater, Malone was willing to park cars, clean bathrooms and do just about any odd job that was asked of him in order to be allowed to stick around. His experience watching the actors rehearse and perform inspired a lifelong love of live theatre and a belief in its value as a teaching tool for young people.

The cast of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” convene for for a quick costume fitting between rehearsals.

It was this passion that led Malone, the co-founder of the software development company LeapFrog Systems, to purchase PBT in 2013 and embark on a multi-million-dollar restoration to save the decaying barn from demolition. While nearly 90 percent of the structural components had to be replaced, Malone took care to preserve as much as possible. Looking around the barn today, you can tell from the color of the rough-sawn wood planks, which parts of the building are new and which were part of the original 1875 structure. Backstage, the walls are covered with signatures from the many actors who have spent summers at PBT.

By 2015, the 240-seat barn theatre was back in action, structurally sound and outfitted with new seats and a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system. Malone invited another PBT alumnae, director Ron Fassler, a veteran of theater, film and television, to come to Plymouth to direct.

“It took me all of 40 seconds to say yes,” says Fassler, who was 19 years old his first summer at PBT. “Back then we did two-week stock, so we were putting on a show about every 13 days. Those three summers were the best times of my life.” When Fassler drove off campus at the end of the summer of 1976, he thought it was for the last time. “I couldn’t have been more surprised when I received an email from Bob Malone nearly 40 years later.”

Members of the resident company lead an acting class for children.

Several recent alumni have gone on to great success in recent years, most notably actors Michael C. Bernardi and Katy Corbus, who both had starring roles in “Fiddler on the Roof” the summer of 2015. Corbus went on to perform in the national tour of “42nd Street” and Bernardi reprised his role of Tevye in the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The 2017 summer stock troupe will present two major Broadway hits, “West Side Story” in July and “The Producers” in August. Actor Michael Caizzi, who entertained audiences with his comedic performance as Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” last year, is excited to be returning to PBT stage this year.

“It’s an amazing environment,” says Caizzi, a recent graduate of Hofstra University. “You get to work with different directors and learn so much in such a short period of time.”

“It’s an electric atmosphere,” says Malone, who still lives just around the corner from the theater and comes by after work to sit in the back and watch the performances and help park cars. More than anything, Malone is proud of the educational value that PBT brings to the community. “Being able to bring life back into the theater, have the college students living on campus and also offer children’s theater workshops is very satisfying.”

Live theater is awesome. There’s nothing like it. At the end of two hours you always leave uplifted.

Actors rehearse on the stage at Priscilla Beach Theatre.

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