Theater in the Hills

Suzi Takahashi and Mark Poppleton in “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. Photo by Web Begole

It’s spring again, time to get your guestroom ready for that regular summer visitor. No, it’s not your son home from college, your niece from the Midwest or your mother-in-law up from Florida. It’s an actor from New York City who returns each year to work at the Bristol Valley Theater for its summer run of shows.

While the Bristol Valley Theater, located in an old church in Naples, is not a community theater per se, members of the community of Naples do feel a sense of ownership toward the organization. It was community members, known as the Friends of Bristol Valley Playhouse, that rescued the original incarnation of the theatre when founders George and Mary Sherwood closed the Bristol Valley Playhouse in the mid 1980s. The Friends bought and renovated the Trinity Federated Church on Main Street in Naples, which provided a home for the newly dubbed Bristol Valley Theater.

Community members continue to lend their support by providing housing each summer for the cast and crew. From a renovated garage apartment to a summer lake house, Naples residents open their doors and provide various spaces for the transient actors
to stay while the productions are in full swing.

Yes, there are community members among the cast, including the president of a local bank and some youth who intern with the theatre company for the season, but the bulk of the actors and technicians migrate here from New York City. And it’s not difficult to entice them to come. “We get probably a thousand pictures and resumes from actors, and we have to weed through those and select who we want to see when we go down to New York City for auditions each spring,” states Karin Bowersock, artistic director of Bristol Valley Theater. “We end up hiring between 35 and 50 people over the course of the summer, so it’s fiercely competitive. Actors like to work and that’s an actor’s life to go from one job to the next and see different parts of the country. Many of them have never seen this part of the state before, and it’s a beautiful place to be and work. There’s a lot to enjoy when they have a free moment.”

Those moments are few and far between once the summer season gets underway. A typical day’s rehearsal runs a minimum of eight hours. Once the technical aspects, such as lights, sound effects and props, are added in, rehearsals run 12 hours or more each day. Follow that up with an evening performance and it’s a grueling work schedule. “In the summertime, my day starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 1 or 2 in the morning,” says Karin. “It’s a hectic, high-energy schedule, and by the fifth show, people are getting worn down.”

Each show runs for two weeks, and at the end of the run, the crew must completely transform the stage. “The crew builds sets for each show in 12 days with a four-day changeover between productions. Their hours are crazier than mine!” adds Karin.

While the technical staff, including stage carpenters and lighting technicians, stay for the whole summer, the actors vary in the amount of time that they work at the theater. This is because each production has different needs in terms of casting. Still, Karin likes to use the same actors for multiple shows. This has benefits for the actors and the audience alike.

“It’s great for the actors because they have experience in more than one role,” explains Karin. “It’s also great for the audience to see the same person transform himself from show to show. There are definite audience favorites, and people want to follow them. It also helps build an ensemble that works well together. When actors ‘job in’ for a single show, it’s hard to get into the groove of everyone working well together, but if the team stays together and gets in that groove, it’s a better production. They also tend to treat each other a little better because they know they’ll have a longer relationship.”

Being in a small town has its advantages in terms of getting feedback from the audience. Karin’s relationship with village locals means that she gets a steady stream of feedback about the plays the theater puts on. “The audience feels a great ownership of the theater,” she says. “It’s very different from working in New York City, where I was for nearly 20 years. There are so many theaters there that it’s hard to feel like you’re touching anybody, but here I know the direct person-to-person connections I’m making. I see it, feel it, and hear it from the audience. A good day for me is when I know we’re touching people with the theater experience.”

The locale of the theater also is a deciding factor in the plays Karin chooses each year. She picks a variety of genres, including comedies, musicals, mysteries and light dramas, but she stays away from fare that is too serious. “We don’t want to do anything heavy in the summertime because people are trying to enjoy themselves,” she says.

While the high season for the theater is June through August, its “shoulder” seasons (in April/May and September/October) offer shows that are performed at, but not produced by, the Bristol Valley Theater. “We bring in different artistic presentations in the spring and fall. It may be dance, music, comedy improv, or family programming,” notes Karin. The season culminates with a Halloween performance of “Ghosts Among the Grapevines,” a production that incorporates Halloween stories along with local myths and legends.

Karin says that the location of the Bristol Valley Theater is also one of its biggest challenges. “We have to make sure that people know that we’re here, and then get them to come to Naples,” she adds. “There’s not really a straight shot on the Thruway, but it’s a beautiful scenic drive from whatever way you come. Still, it’s a marketing challenge for us.”

Karin admits that a small town like Naples is an unusual place to find a theater with professional actors. “Logically, a professional theater shouldn’t exist in a community of 1,500 people,” she says. “But I share the theory that each community, as it has a library, as it has a hospital, should also have a theater to bring to the members of that community. To have a live professional theater in a community this size is a rarity. I think we’re very blessed to be here, and that the area is very blessed to have had a theater in its midst for over 40 years.”

by Kari Anderson
Kari Anderson lives in Victor with her husband and three children. She plays the harp, piano and organ professionally and is learning the banjo.

1 Comment

  • Marion Morris Bush says:

    I participated in the first season of the Bristol Valley Playhouse in 1964. Your article brought back many memories of the Sherwoods, and of my fellow actors. What a summer that was! I even still have some photos. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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