Give My Regards to Berwick
Claire Junkins enjoys a good musical. "I've seen this probably eight times," Junkins says before a matinee performance of Cabaret at the Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick. At seventy-eight, Junkins knows what she wants — and what she doesn't. "I don't like mysteries," she says firmly. "And I tell Mr. Guptill that."
Mr. Guptill — Hackmatack Playhouse executive producer Michael Guptill — aims to please, in big ways and small. Big: by staging at least one classic musical every season. Small: by making sure that Junkins, a longtime Hackmatack patron, stays comfortable in his un-air-conditioned barn on a summer afternoon."I tell Mr. Guptill, 'Don't reserve us any seats — just put us in the back by the door,' " Junkins says. "And if it's full, he puts up [extra] chairs for us."
Guptill, 52, handles complaints deftly. It's the compliments that throw him. "Once in a while someone will come up to me and say, 'I saw this show on Broadway and yours was much better!' " he remarks. "I say, 'Thank you very much.' But in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'You're nuts.' How are we gonna be better than Broadway?"
It's a fair question.
Start with the way-off-Broadway location. The Hackmatack Playhouse sits on the two-hundred-acre Guptill farm, where not much farming goes on anymore. "Up until a couple of years ago we had corn and strawberries," Guptill says. "But we grow basically just hay now." The farm also includes a carriage house that has no horses and a dairy barn that has no cows.
"The original house was built in the mid to late 1600s up on a hill over there," Guptill says, pointing east. "The Indians burned it down."
His ancestors built a new house just to the west. More than three-hundred years and many alterations later, that house remains. And while the family still relies on agriculture for a living — Guptill works as a sales and marketing manager for the New England Produce Center — the farm now serves primarily as a breeding ground for local theater talent.
The transition from produce salesman to producer isn't as incongruous as it might seem. "My grandfather, Lewis Guptill, was the state Grange Master," Guptill says. "He played six instruments, and he thought every Grange should have a band. My father got a lot of his showmanship from him."
Guptill's father, S. Carleton Guptill, took theater courses while attending agricultural school at the University of Maine in the early 1950s. By the 1960s dairy farming had become too hard a dollar, so Carleton went back to school and became a teacher. He sold off the last of his cows around the time he took over the drama department at Oyster River High School. Looking to revitalize the idle dairy barn while cultivating his interest in theater, he opened the Hackmatack Playhouse in 1972. The playhouse sports a thirty-six-by-twenty-two-foot stage, a concrete floor, and 218 seats salvaged from a defunct movie theater. The rafters were cut to improve sightlines, the roof reinforced. Otherwise, it still looks like a dairy barn, right down to the hand-painted signs bearing the names of its former tenants: ETHEL, DOTTIE, LIL. "My father named his cows after my mother's relatives," Guptill says.
The old carriage house now serves as a combination box office and concession stand. And the antique farm implements scattered around the premises give the playhouse an authentic charm — even if some serve a less-than-charming purpose. Take that rusty old cultivator out by the grass parking lot. Says Guptill, "I put that there so people won't drive over the septic tank."
The Hackmatack's first production was a melodrama called Ten Nights in a Barroom. "Very popular," Guptill says. "It was only three dollars a seat."
Young Guptill sang in the chorus. His four siblings also got involved in the new theater. "Whenever a show needed kids," Guptill says, "we'd be in it." Years later — Carleton died in 1995 — Guptill's own four children filled the same role. "And most of my nephews have been involved, too."
The Hackmatack family extends beyond bloodlines. "One thing that [the Guptills] always did was give you the feeling that you are part owner," says artistic director/producer Sharon Hilton. "You're part of something that's been here forever. That sense of ownership sets this theater apart."
It also pulls people back. Stage manager Sally Frkonja spent ten years at Hackmatack before going to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Big-city show business, she says, "was very professional, and very cold. I never got the sense that the actors were grateful for what we did. Here, they really are."
So she came back, as did Hilton, a Berwick native who worked at the Hackmatack during its formative years. She then started her own theater groups before returning to the playhouse fourteen years later. "It felt like coming home and continuing Carleton's dream — even though we weren't ever clear on what that dream was," she laughs. "But in going through his papers after he passed away, we found notes that said, 'What I would like is a theater that combines young people and professionals so that we can learn from each other.' "
While the Hackmatack — named after an indigenous larch — sometimes uses actors and directors from New York, it also relies heavily on local kids, from college theater students to kindergarteners. Kids like Chris Gallot, class of 2005 at North Berwick's Noble High School. Gallot started at the playhouse around the time that Carleton died and progressed from odd jobs to acting. In high school he discovered a talent for technical work. Mechanical effects are his specialty. "Every show has one 'Gallot,' " says Gallot, who now studies architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "One time it was the Grease car. I went to a junkyard and cut a 1951 Chevy in half. I brought the body here and cleaned it up, polished the rust off, painted it, wired up the headlights, and put it on a platform."
Carleton would have been proud. As stage manager Frkonja recalls, "He used to hand me a hundred dollars at the beginning of the season and say, 'Here's your set budget.' "
The Hackmatack Playhouse might have been at its low-budget, improvisational best the time a late-afternoon thunderstorm knocked out the power. The skies cleared by show time, but the theater stayed dark. Rather than cancel that evening's performance of Oklahoma! Carleton lined up some cars, turned on the headlights, and staged the show outside. "We didn't do the story, but we ran through the songs from top to bottom," Guptill recalls. "The audience loved it. We offered people their money back, but I don't think anybody took it."
This evening's performance of Cabaret begins with a producer's nightmare: the leading lady arrives in a sling. Courtney Lynn Rhorer, a recent Plymouth State University graduate who plays the role of dancer Sally Bowles, tore some shoulder ligaments during rehearsal. In show-must-go-on style, Rhorer decides to continue, although she has to rework a few dances. Somebody finds a shawl to cover the sling.
Just before show time, Guptill stands at the foot of the stage to greet the audience, as is his custom. His approach to the evening's problem is disarming: he simply tells the audience about Rhorer's injury. Then he says, "Please show your support with a lot of extra claps."
The audience does. And from the opening strains of "Willkommen," they are transported from Berwick to Berlin. If the barn is a bit stuffier than the Kit Kat Klub, no one seems to mind. Still, it's refreshing to step outside at intermission and discover that the hot summer day has softened into a comfortable night. Some patrons line up at the concession stand to try the blueberry pie that Guptill's wife, Gayle, has baked. Others converse on the lawn until a bell calls them back.
This was Carleton Guptill's vision: a centuries-old farm, glowing in the night, ready for the second act.