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Experienced duo begins professional summer theater co. at NMH

RECORDER PHOTO
David Rowland retired last summer from his job as a drama instructor at Northfield Mount Hermon School. He taught theater and directed plays for 35 years.

RECORDER PHOTO David Rowland retired last summer from his job as a drama instructor at Northfield Mount Hermon School. He taught theater and directed plays for 35 years.

GILL — With 90 years of theater experience between them, David Rowland and Lucinda Kidder know a thing or two about not only putting on plays, but also making theater work.

Both retired, they’re ready to launch a project they believe will be unique in Franklin County: a professional summer theater series.

Silverthorne Theater Company, which Rowland and Kidder are incorporating as a nonprofit arts organization, has already scheduled three plays for July in Gill and even have cast two of them — Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” and Bertold Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”

The idea for what would be Franklin County’s only professional summer theater grew out of Rowland’s retirement last summer as a drama instructor at Northfield Mount Hermon School, where he’d taught theater and directed plays for 35 years.

“I was looking at what to do after retirement,” said Rowland, aware that the 230-seat Chiles Theater in NMH’s new Rhodes Arts Center is under-used in summer and believing that Franklin County seems more likely to support the kind of professional theater that’s existed deeper down in the Pioneer Valley.

As its name implies, and unlike community theater groups, a professional theater, such as New Century Theater in Northampton or Majestic Theater in West Springfield, pays its actors, as well as its director and other artistic and technical staff, said Rowland. He insists that there’s plenty of quality community theater around the region, but says professional theater would provide an opportunity to work with trained actors chosen from far and wide who are committed to theater, so they’re expected to come to even the first rehearsal having memorized their lines.

Adds Kidder, a former Northfield resident who returned to western Massachusetts last summer after three years in Seattle, “There’s an expectation of readiness and an evenness of production. In community theater, you just have to work around everybody else’s schedule, so you’re at the mercy of someone who wants to go on vacation. Instead of having three outstanding people in a cast and the rest are so-so, there’s a consistent level of quality throughout.”

Both Rowland, who has helped train talented students like Hollywood actress Laura Linney, and Kidder, who’s worked in professional, academic and community theater for decades, say community theater has plenty of benefits, including giving young people an opportunity to try acting for self-devlopment, to see if they want to pursue it further and giving local audiences exposure to plays of all kinds.

But Rowland and Kidder expect the kinds of plays they’ll be presenting will broaden the range of what their audiences — from around Franklin County, as well as Hampshire County and southern Vermont and New Hampshire — can see.

“We’re looking to bring in types of shows people don’t always know about,” said Kidder, who most recently directed the Hampshire Shakespeare Festival and headed the UMass Renaissance Center Theater Company and done freelance work with Middle Eastern Theater at San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions and founded the Charles Playhouse Children’s Theater near Boston.

“I hope through our work to bring some playwrights and plays that are being produced in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago, but aren’t necessarily making it out into areas where there are a lot of people who would be interested,” she said. “That’s something we’ve lost sight of: the Five College area has a very rich mix of people who want to see things, to discuss and find out what people are doing, people who are interested in different cultures. I think this is something we can do.”

Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre is also a professional theater, with year-round training residency programs for professional and emerging artists.

After spending a few years on the West Coast, Kidder said she returned to this area to discover the Greenfield Fringe Theater Festival had been started by Linda McInerney, that the Arts Block had been developed and that the mix of restaurants in Greenfield all are signs that the area may be ready for its own professional summer theater. Meanwhile, Northfield has its own tourism and economic development effort, which the new theater plans to tap into and hopes it will become an added attraction.

The hope is that by starting modestly with a couple of productions, the co-directors can launch a company that within five years may be able to become an Actors Equity theater company, a designation of the most exclusive stage actors’ guild.

“It opens us up to casting from around the country instead of just locally,” said Rowland, with the possibility that actors might even be offered housing in dormitories, as they are at the Williamstown or Berkshire theater festivals. “The cliche is that every actor in New York wants to get out of the city for the summer and one of the preferred options is to do summer stock in New England.”

At the same time, the summertime population of western Massachusetts, southern Vermont and New Hampshire swells with visitors looking for cultural activities, and beginning with “Black Comedy,” which Kidder will direct July 3, 4 and 5 at Chiles Theater, with an eight-member cast, they will find at least one new offering.

The second planned production, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” directed by Rowland, will be staged July 24, 25 and 26 with 16 adult actors as well as students from the NMH summer program, to be taught by Rowland and Kidder.

Those students will take center stage at a third production, David Ives’ comedy “All in the Timing,” on July 31 and Aug. 1.

First, however, Kidder and Rowland say they’re trying to attract business sponsors around the region and potential subscribers and supporters, while also applying for foundation grants.

“There’s no guarantees we’re going to get there, but I think it’s doable,” said Rowland, who’s already been looking into ways they can cut corners here and there and keep costs to a minimum as they get started. “We don’t know where we’ll end up at the end of the summer, and we may be asking, ‘Was it worth doing? Should we keep it going?’ But we’ve got to try. It’s so exciting.”

On the web: www.silverthornetheater.org

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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