Ashland, Mass. — A 170-seat professional theater has suddenly appeared in this small town, to the slightly mystified delight of residents here. The mystery is partly a matter of size: Ashland, with a population of 10,000, has always been overshadowed by next-door Framingham, a sprawling community of 65,000.
Ashland townspeople have had to go there for any kind of professional performances, such as the Community Concerts series, still held in high-school auditoriums, or travel 25 miles into Boston for pre-Broadway shows or symphony concerts.
And Framingham, though possessed of three major complexes of movie houses, does not have a professional theater.
But now Ashland, a town with only one traffic light, can boast of having a real, live theater and nightly shows with a real, live orchestra and actors hired from Boston and New York. It is called Act I Arena Theatre, and it fulfills a long-held dream of its founder, Caroljean Anselmo, perhaps more than it satisfies the yearnings of Ashland residents, many of whom never felt the need for live theater and even now are not aware of its low-keyed arrival.
The theater is far from a one-woman operation. It has other backers who have put up money to get it started. It has a resident associate director (Paul Smith, who moved from New York) and a group of unpaid helpers who usher at performances and assist with mailings. Robert Anselmo, Caroljean's husband, moonlights as the business manager.
Mrs. Anselmo, however, is the prime mover behind Act I Arena Theatre, having scouted its location, shaped its first summer season of three musicals, arranged for advertising and other promotion, and directed the opening production, ``They're Playing Our Song.'' ``Cole,'' showcasing the music of Cole Porter, was the midseason production. ``Dames at Sea'' is the current offering.
Act I Arena Theatre is housed in part of a former General Electric clock factory, which earlier this year was remodeled and renamed Ashland Technology Centre. Clean and spacious, the building had the high ceilings Mrs. Anselmo had been looking for. A ground-floor location was available, as well as a huge parking lot.
``I fell in love with the place,'' Mrs. Anselmo said, and she remembers the building owner calling it ``a fantastic idea'' to put a theater in the modernized plant.
Perhaps because the building is shared with other professions, there is no lighted marquee to call attention to the theater. Only a modest sign at the entrance carries the name. For a while, a movable ``Theater Parking'' sign was placed nightly at the edge of the lot across the street. Recently a somewhat grander sign appeared, with room to advertise the current production.
With such a low physical profile, Act I Arena Theatre is having a struggle to become known. The advertising budget is modest. Publicity has been hard to come by.
Ashland has no newspaper of its own, though the Framingham daily serving the area has sent reviewers, and a big-city daily (Worcester Sunday Telegram) recently carried a splashy feature story. Before the theater opened in June, a mailing went out to an Ashland mailing list, offering reduced ticket prices to subscribers to all three summer offerings. Word of mouth has proved to be one of the most effective audience builders.
Interviewed in her office, which she shares with Mr. Smith and which doubles as the box office, Mrs. Anselmo said her dream of having her own theater started many years ago.
``I've been a professional performer all my life. I did television, commercials, night clubs, summer stock -- singing, dancing, and acting -- in the Northeast. I began dancing at the age of four,'' she recalled.
Though married and a mother, she went back to school at Syracuse University ``with a career change in mind: to get into theater management and directing.'' She worked part-time for the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, as artistic director for an acting company made up of senior citizens. Later she was hired full time as producing director for the Landmark Theater Wing ``with complete control of everything.'' When Mr. Anselmo's work brought the family to the Greater Boston area, Mrs. Anselmo went out with her portfolio to look for work in theater, without very satisfying results. After a discouraging rehearsal with a community theater group, talk turned to Mrs. Anselmo's dream, a theater of her own. Her husband said, ``Let's do it!'' Mrs. Anselmo said, ``OK!''
She liked the idea of being in the so-called Metrowest area ``for its density of population -- and no professional theater.'' Metrowest in this area usually refers to eight west-of-Boston communities: Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Southboro, Sudbury, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston, with a total population of about 175,000.
Looking beyond the summer season, filled with light musicals, Mrs. Anselmo is already inking in the details of seven productions for fall and winter. Harking back to her past management experience, she adds, ``That sounds like a lot, but it isn't to me!'' But she concedes that she is learning a lot -- ``the whole promotion thing. This is a different area, a different market.''
Ticket prices are $12.50 on most nights, $15 on weekends. But season ticketholders pay less, as do seniors. And other discounts are being offered rather freely, while the theater builds a following.
At present Act I Arena Theatre is ``not a union house,'' Mrs. Anselmo said. ``We're not ready for union. That limits the number of people you can tap into. Also, I see us as a showcase. I want to give young talent a chance to develop, to build up strong r'esum'es. We have a real family environment here.''
The Anselmo family itself, including four children ranging in age from 9 to 15, is cheerfully supporting Caroljean's dream.
Hung proudly on the wall of her office is an ambitiously large poster on which the 9-year-old collaborated with the 15-year-old. With the kind of misspelling that brings a more-than-forgiving smile, the poster proclaims, ``CONGRADULATION on the theater...I love you!!''