Ohio University Players past and present celebrate Monomoy Theatre's 50th season
June 1, 2007
By Alison Wayner
While most students are dutifully working double shifts or relaxing poolside this summer, a select group is becoming a part of Ohio University history.
It was 50 years ago this spring that Elizabeth Evans Baker, wife of former Ohio University President John Calhoun Baker, purchased the vacant Monomoy Theatre in the quaint Cape Cod community of Chatham, Mass. With that purchase and a crystal-clear vision, Baker -- a drama enthusiast who both acted and directed in Athens and at the Monomoy -- ensured that a university and community treasure would remain strong today, 17 years after her passing.
Beginning this weekend, the idyllic New England setting will be home, as it is every year, to a lucky group of Ohio University theater students. The Ohio University Players are the actors; costume, lighting and set designers; box office attendants; and even the cleanup and maintenance crew.
This year's group, comprising 13 Ohio University undergraduates as well as students from other prestigious theater programs, has the added bonus of participating in the theater's alumni reunion weekend commemorating the 50th season. From July 27 though 29, Monomoy alumni are invited to this year's performance of "Irma la Douce" on Friday evening and a reunion dinner on the theater grounds Saturday evening followed by a special performance featuring both alumni and current company members that will capture the landmark's history. A farewell brunch will take place Sunday morning.
Alan Rust, artistic director of the Monomoy since 1980, says he has heard from a number of alumni who are looking forward to celebrating the theater's past, present and future.
"We have a lot of alumni stop by every season to catch a performance and reminisce," says Rust, a former Monomoy actor who earned a master of fine arts degree from Ohio University in 1973. "But this year is different. We have individuals coming who were a part of the very first season."
One of those former company members is Ed Feidner, who earned his master of fine arts degree in 1958. Feidner, who went on to become a founder of the University of Vermont's theater department as well as the first producer and artistic director for the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Vermont, says his Monomoy experience was invaluable.
"It helped me a great deal," Feidner notes. "I helped to start a program similar to Monomoy while at the University of Vermont. I produced all of the plays in the Shakespeare Festival and directed some."
Many agree that the summer stock theater produced at Monomoy is great training for those who aspire to become professional actors and designers. Students produce eight plays in 10 weeks and are forced to find creative ways to use the "stock" (costumes, props, sets, etc.) from previous plays for the current production.
"It's a no-nonsense environment. As someone wrote on the ceiling in the bullpen (one of the rehearsal spaces), 'Everyday is Monday at Camp Monomoy!'" says Kaitlyn Whitebread, a senior majoring in theater performance.
Whitebread is preparing for her second summer at Monomoy, and she says her experience there has taught her about all aspects of theater, not just performing.
"Now when I go to auditions next year I can honestly feel more confident about my work and my potential," Whitebread notes.
Monomoy is Cape Cod's second-oldest summer stock theater, a brand of entertainment that saw its heyday in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. In those days, these theaters, referred to collectively as the "straw hat circuit," were speckled across New England and offered not only cheap entertainment for vacationers but also a launch pad and training site for some very fine actors.
"It required me to use the tricks that work, the things that I had in my arsenal, but it also allowed me to test out new things that I had been learning. To try new things on. To take chances. And to do it under fire," says Ellen Fiske, a frequent Monomoy visiting artist who has appeared on Broadway and in commercials and soap operas.
Bob St. Lawrence, director of Ohio University's School of Theater, says that while there are still a few lingering summer stock theaters of this caliber, there are none of this character.
"Our students are going into this as the big names, the main performers," he says. "At any other theater, students would be the understudies or the stagehands."