A Tale of Success on Summer's Stage

A theater in upstate New York offers thoughtful plays instead of usual light summer fare

WHILE Broadway insiders lament the lack of serious dramatic fare in the upcoming season, audiences have been enjoying provocative offerings in summer theaters across the country. Non-musical shows have taken hold on the straw-hat circuit, partly because of their less-expensive production costs, but also because of a genuine hunger for straight plays.

Whether it's ``Dancing at Lughnasa'' at Asolo Theatre Company in Sarasota, Fla., ``Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., or ``Marvin's Room'' done by the Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, Wisc., vacationers have displayed an interest in thoughtful plays.

One of the most impressive success stories, the Bristol Valley Theater in upstate New York, rebounded from near closure a few years ago by catering to this trend.

Founded in the early 1960s in the hills near Naples, N.Y., the Bristol Valley Theater was housed in a facility known for its experimental shows and rugged locale. When drama teacher and founder George Sherwood and his wife, Mary, decided to retire in 1988, the town stepped in.

``The people in this area said, `We can't allow this to die,' '' says bank president and summer thespian George Hamlin. After trying various combinations of artistic directors and business managers, the theater's board turned to actress and director Barnetta Carter, who had worked at the theater for two seasons, to take the reins. She presented her vision for the theater: It should be life-affirming, with an educational component, and should entertain.

Three years later, the theater group now works out of a renovated church, operates within its budget, and attracts a growing following each summer. And Carter is dedicated to a lineup of shows that are ``thought-provoking, with an element of heart, that the audience can become involved with.''

Ms. Carter's selections have included ``Witness for the Prosecution,'' ``Educating Rita,'' ``Crimes of the Heart,'' and John Olive's `Voice of the Prairie,'' a colorful moving look at the early days of radio.

Carter managed to bring together local resources, townspeople, and her own experience to shape a winning formula. With the assistance of supporters such as Mr. Hamlin, the Federated Trinity Methodist Church on tree-lined Main Street was purchased for a modest $40,000. Moving the site into town ``created much more interaction between the town and the theater,'' Carter says.

The interior of the stately stone edifice was redesigned in a way that retained its familiar comfortable atmosphere, including the wooden pews for seating. The revitalized theater was launched in 1989 with a combination of funding: corporate underwriting from nearby companies, equipment loans from area colleges, 350 subscribers, and a generous outpouring of small donations.

The theater has continued to hold its own against competition from other attractions in this popular Finger Lakes region in Ontario County, which has been a preeminent vacation area since the late 1800s. Barry Hamilton, assistant general manager, points out that ``there are all kinds of places people could also visit, like the splendid Sonnenberg Gardens, or that picturesque riverboat cruise on the Canandaigua Lady, or the Cumming Nature Center. We're delighted they include us.''

Carter adds that the Bristol Valley Theater brings in an audience from a 60-mile radius, noting that ticket sales account for about 55 percent of their total income, higher than many other theater groups.

Serious drama has its drawbacks, Carter acknowledges. ``If I were doing a more name-recognizable show, like many musicals are, I would get more people in. But after [a play] opens, word-of-mouth goes out. Now, there's a growing number who come to the theater to participate.''

Recently she heard from a woman who wasn't sure she liked a particular production. But, Carter says with a smile, ``She told me she thought about it all week. To me, that's great.''

The Bristol Valley Theater ``took me by surprise,'' says New York-based actor Scott Winters, who joined the company to appear in ``Voice of the Prairie,'' presented in August.

``I didn't know what to expect. It's very professional, very well run. And the audience is very giving. They really welcome the work we're doing.'' Mr. Winters says the experience here is somewhat representative of other locales where live drama is presented. For him, it was ``a total experience. I'd come back in a heartbeat.''

Carter looks forward to eventually adding a holiday-season entry, as well as bolstering the apprentice program she supervises to stimulate local talent. She keeps a conservative eye on her $140,000 operating budget and strives to balance artistic goals with fiscal responsibility.

Hamlin credits Carter for being ``the glue that made it all come together. She took the risk. That first year, it was a successful season, with an $800 surplus.'' And he points to the selection of provocative plays as a valuable component in Bristol Valley's rebirth.

``They are appealing because they mean something to people, because everybody takes away something from them,'' he says. ``We have firmly established a vibrant new tradition. We have real momentum now, and we're building on it.''

* The Bristol Valley Theater's season ended Aug. 28. Next season's roster of plays has not yet been determined.

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