by Gail M. Burns, June, 2003
Two decades ago, as her youngest child approached high school graduation, Joan Phelps turned to her husband Abe and said, “Let’s mortgage the house and start a theatre.” You can imagine his response, but they took the plunge and 20 years and 160+ productions later the Theater Barn is still going strong with Joan and Abe as co-producers.
Joan, a Chatham native, had worked as a biochemist at a research lab until her children arrived, but as Empty Nest Syndrome hove into view, she knew she needed a new challenge to occupy her days. “If I just sat around and did nothing I would have gone crazy!” she said. Son Allen had been a child actor, and the theatre was a family passion. So in 1984 she and Abe acquired a 99-seat performance space in the Tilden Plaza and started staging professional non-equity shows year ‘round. The Theater Barn season was shortened to June-October after a February 1988 snow storm turned a sold-out house for Tomfoolery into a handful of hardy folks and a mountain of refunds and exchanges.
A local businessman built the Theater Barn’s current home on Rt. 20 in the spring of 1989. Once the new building was up, the Phelps family had a proverbial 40 days to finish off the interior in time for the start of the 1989 season. The building design stresses function over form. It contains a 134-seat air-conditioned house, a small lobby and concession stand area, and public restrooms for customers, along with a big green room/shop space, two large dressing rooms, and a company bath behind the scenes. “Do we wish we had more space? Sure! Who doesn’t?” said Artistic Director Bert Bernardi, “But what we have allows us to do what we want to do and offer a wide range of shows.”
In addition, the Theater Barn owns a former two-family house within walking distance of the theatre which can house up to 16 actors, designers, and technicians. About 90% of the performers in any given season are 20-somethings from New York City, but the Barn holds local auditions in the spring and always features the best of local talent as well. Joan has strict rules about the cast and crew getting adequate time to sleep and eat.
“These kids come here to build their resumes, and we make sure everyone has a chance to do that. You won’t come here for a summer and just do ensemble or chorus work,” Joan explained, “We give them a chance to do what they might not get to do elsewhere, and have fun at the same time.”
Speaking with Joan and Bert the other day, their love of the theatre and commitment to providing a happy, creative living and learning environment for their performers and crew was as evident as their joy in selecting shows which are just slightly different to entertain local audiences. Joan cites the 1994 season as her favorite because it contained two of her favorite shows – Falsettos and Sweeney Todd – neither of which could be considered safe, run-of-the-mill choices.
Bert came to the Theater Barn for the first time in 1997 to direct a production of The Taffetas and has been back every summer since. “I was attracted by the eclectic choice of shows. When I saw how the Barn is run and how well it is run and how much fun it is to work here, I was hooked,.” he said.
This is his third season as Artistic Director and he is enthusiastic about the shows lined up. “I love to hunt down shows that are a little bit obscure,” Bert said, noting that the Barn is offering two area premieres this season: Route 66 (which Bert describes as Forever Plaid on high octane!) running July 24-August 3; and the recently closed Natalie Needs a Nightie.
By the time you read this the Barn’s second production Fame Takes a Holiday will be on the boards through July 6th, with Charles Ludlam’s campy two-man tour-de-force The Mystery of Irma Vep – a show Joan is particularly excited to present – opening on July 10th.
Fame Takes a Holiday has a book by Warren Leight of Side Man fame, Cassandra Danz, and Mary Fulham, incorporating the comic sketches of a New York comedy group called The High-Heeled Women and songs by Marc Shaiman, composer of the Tony award-winning Hairspray.
After Route 66 the Theater Barn continues their long tradition of innovative Gilbert & Sullivan productions with Hollywood Pinafore a 1945 piece that takes the crew of the H.M.S. Pinafore off the ship and into a Hollywood movie studio, combining Sir Arthur Sullivan’s beloved score with a new book and lyrics by the legendary writer/director George S. Kaufman.
“Then we are just thrilled to be bringing Chicago to the Theater Barn,” Bert exclaimed, “We’re not going to try to recreate the movie or the currently running Broadway production. We’re returning more to Bob Fosse’s original 1975 New York staging of the show.” Chicago runs from August 21-31 and you had better order tickets now as they are already selling fast!
The fall season ushers in Same Time, Next Year, which was the most requested non-musical on a 2002 audience survey, from September 5-21; and Fully Committed, a one-man comedy about a reservation clerk at New York’s hottest, trendiest restaurant, from September 26-October 12.
Theater Barn audiences come from throughout the Berkshires and Columbia and Rensselaer counties, and Bert and Joan are working to get the word out to the greater Albany area. Tickets are an affordable $19 for all seats for all shows, except for 2 pm Sunday matinees when all seats are $17. There are lots of great restaurants in New Lebanon so you can really make an evening of it! Ask Joan where to eat when you call for tickets and she may even help you make a reservation!
The Theater Barn is located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003