By Anne DeAcetis
been quite a year for the freshly-revived Port Washington Play Troupe. The
company’s first season back since “going dark” (theater parlance for becoming
inactive) in the mid-90s has been busy: a production of Alice in Wonderland with a multi-generational cast of 50, a
behind-the-scenes discussion series on the making of theater, and a unique
production of GREASE with an
all-adult cast at the Landmark on Main Street. The troupe launched a website and won the support of both the Peter & Jeri Dejana Family
Foundation and Port Washington’s Community Chest.
Local theater insiders know all about the company’s history on the peninsula. But according to its Board of Directors (Pamela Meadows, Diana vonRoeschlaub, David Barnett, Vivian Aiuto, Christine DeAcetis, Janet Grunwald, and this author, in full disclosure), newcomers are persistently surprised to learn that Play Troupe isn’t a brand new creation, and that it’s been a registered non-profit for decades.
For President Pam Meadows, sharing stories from the past can serve many purposes. Those with experience in coordinating a volunteer-only labor force and talent pool can help others avoid common pitfalls. And it’s important to give past contributors their due. At the same time, it’s important not to let nostalgia create barriers to future success, she has stressed, both privately and publicly. New talent, new perspectives and new methods are what will strengthen the new Play Troupe.
“I want people to know we have a history, because when you think about how many Port Washington generations have been part of this, it’s inspiring,” Meadows said. “At the same time, this is a new age. We can’t be held back by our history or the way we used to do things. We have to build on the past and invite new ideas. It’s the only way to become sustainable again.”
There’s plenty to build on. Established in 1927, Play Troupe is the oldest chartered amateur theater company in New York State. Its founders were a group of self-described “careless artists, with an utter disregard for tradition and custom.” They penned their charming, irreverent charter after walking out on a meeting of the Player’s Club, the town’s then-preeminent amateur dramatics society, dismissing it as “a dictatorship” unworthy of their talents.
What followed were decades of high-quality theater, produced in every available auditorium, church, gymnasium and unsuspecting open space in town. Play Troupe focused on plays vs. musicals, and the company’s body of work included Harvey, Death of a Salesman, The Little Foxes, Blithe Spirit, The Crucible, Outward Bound, The House of Blue Leaves and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed site-specifically in Hempstead House, a former Guggenheim mansion now part of the Sands Point Preserve.
Play Troupe proved a magnet for the multi-talented, and tradition always co-existed with experimentation. There were variety shows and novelty performances. In the 1950s, Play Troupe even tried its hand at film and television production, creating training films for nursing programs and even the Census Bureau.
Throughout its history, the group attracted big names. Charlotte Merriman, principal of Main Street School and a published author, was a founder of the Children’s Show in 1947. Her family went on to build Merriman School in Port in 1952. In the 1960s, LuEsther T. Mertz (Publishers Clearing House owner and prominent supporter of Joe Papp and the Public Theater) was an active and vocal member. In 1980,Tony-nominated Broadway star Robert Cuccioli appeared in Play Troupe’s Death of a Salesman.
For most amateur companies, this history alone would be sufficiently satisfying. But in the spirit of its independent-minded founders, Play Troupe also invited anyone with energy and a vision to come inside its non-profit tent flaps and launch their own independent Play Troupe program.
Play Troupe performances for and with children first began to appear in the 1930s. But in 1947, a group within Play Troupe partnered with Main Street School to create the annual Port Washington Children’s Show. Dedicated to staging literary adaptations of children’s classic (and later, original scripts), the intergenerational Children’s Show proved a formative growth opportunity for young artists. The group’s 1994 production (The Emperor’s Tales by Play Troupe member Tony Traguardo) was so strong that it toured to the UK in 1995.
In 1972, then-Children’s Show director Pam Meadows and her husband, the late Ron Meadows, founded the Port Washington Teen Summer Theater. Working with kids in grades 6-12, the Teen Summer Theater produced musicals like Oliver, Annie, The Robber Bridegroom, On the Town, and a Peter Pan that featured the same type of harness and rigging system used on Broadway to “fly” the actors. The activity was taken over by parents in 1987 and renamed the Port Summer Show, but still recognizes its Play Troupe roots today.
In 1984, Teen Summer Theater alumni Frank Dietz, Nick Scandalios and Robert Raduazzo partnered with Play Troupe to found the Harbor Theater Company, a natural home for young adults. This group produced shows like 1940s Radio Hour, Sweeney Todd and Godspell before going dark in 1997. Dietz went on to become a Disney animation artist and co-owner of Benevolent Monster Productions, and Scandalios is now a Broadway producing executive for the Nederlander Organization.
In 1989, musicians and singers led by Robert B.G. Horowitz founded the Varsity Choral Society, dedicated to performing fine choral music with accompaniment. Today, it includes members from across North Hempstead.
Since 1995, and the shadow of the first recession, Play Troupe had seen this once-vast programming—productions, readings and events, the Children’s Show, Teen Summer Theater, Harbor Theater and the Varsity Choral Society—reduced to the annual VCS concert. That changed in 2013 when, thanks to resurgent enthusiasm, the company returned to rich, full production activity.
The Children's Show revived in March 2013 with Alice in Wonderland performed at the Parish Hall of St. Stephen's Church, site of Play Troupe’s first production in 1927, and Harbor Theater Company revived in July 2013 with GREASE at the Landmark on Main Street. Play Troupe also debuted a theater discussion series at the Port Washington Public Library, “SPOTLIGHT ON THEATER: Behind-the-Scenes Conversations with Coffee and Confections” (with refreshments provided by Blanka's Kitchen).
After GREASE closed in late July, the company took a much-needed respite—and a careful look back. Moving forward, Play Troupe’s many programs will produce under the unified banner of Port Washington Play Troupe, simplifying promotion and fundraising. The timing of various productions will be tweaked to make participation easier for more children, teens and adults. There will be more casual music nights and play readings for those who want to keep creatively active…or those looking to try something new without the pressure of a full production.
But the most important change, per Meadows, has already occurred—in Play Troupe’s membership. When the revival began, it was fueled primarily by those who’d had some experience with the company before. But today’s band of “Play Troupers” includes plenty of newcomers. For the group’s leader, that marks an important step forward.
“I’m at my best when I can facilitate other people’s passions,” Meadows said. “When I look around and see all this new, fantastic talent, and people are trying to get me on the phone to talk about what they’d like to do, that energizes me. This summer, I had the time of my life mentoring a new producer. I can’t tell you how great it felt to watch her fly and make that job her own. That’s when I know we’ve brought back something that still deserves a place in our community. That’s how I know Play Troupe has a future.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anne DeAcetis serves on the Board of Directors of Port Washington Play Troupe and grew up performing under Pam Meadows’ direction in the Teen Summer Theater. Today, she is a professional writer, actor and singer. She lives in Port Washington. www.annedeacetis.com