Ever since Eugene O’Neill left for New York and Tennessee Williams decamped to Key West and Susan Glaspell died, and ever since the Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf was destroyed by arsonists in 1977, the town has wrestled with the existential question of what constitutes its “theatrical heritage.” Does it mean theater-on-the-fly, coalescing and evanescing with the tides, or established repertory companies and resident playwrights? Should it be an incubator for challenging works that provoke — even upset — audiences, or a showcase for comfortable entertainment that complements a day of shopping, dining, and beach-going? Is it best served by scattershot, makeshift venues, or by a permanent Theatre; raked seating, proscenium wall, lighting bridges, box office, and all? The question hasn’t been satisfactorily answered. It’s likely, in fact, that it cannot be answered, which may explain why the Provincetown Theater has had both a difficult and rewarding existence since it opened in 2004 in a reconstructed automobile dealership and garage at 238 Bradford Street. It has tried to be a bit of everything. None of its incarnations thus far has managed to get the traction needed to create a durable, perpetual institution. Perhaps that’s for the best. But it does mean, at least for now, that the Provincetown Theater Foundation has to concern itself as much with money — of which there’s never enough — as with the ideas, talent, passion, and energy for the theater that never seem to be in short supply on the Lower Cape.
At the Provincetown Theater, the best drama has sometimes been off-stage.
Every theater group in town likes to trace itself to the evening of 28 July 1916, when O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff was first performed on Lewis Wharf. But it would be fairer, in the case of the Provincetown Theater, to start the clock on the evening of 29 March 1963, when the embryonic Provincetown Theater Workshop presented Constance Black’s Circles in the Snow and Anton Chekhov’s The Anniversary in the parish hall of the Church of St. Mary of the Harbor. The workshop had formed that winter when a group of friends — including Jim Forsberg, Ray Martan Wells and Nicholas “Nicky” Wells, Constance and Carl Black, Barbara Dennis, and Reeves and Frances Euler — “got together to put on Twelve Angry Men and couldn’t find enough men for a full cast,” Black recalled in an essay for the 2014 Provincetown Art Guide.
The fledgling group moved in 1964 to the Provincetown Art Association. “For the next nine winters, the company continued to write, direct, and act in its own productions,” the 35th anniversary booklet recounted in 1998. “The group also produced a wide selection of plays from theaters worldwide, plus an original revue — What Do You Do in Provincetown in the Winter? — that provided wildly popular with the winter population.”
Jim Forsberg, Reeves Euler, Barbara Dennis, Norma Snow, and Doug Ross in What Do You Do in Provincetown in the Winter? An early production of the Provincetown Theater Company, photographed by Molly Malone Cook and published in a 35th anniversary booklet. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5712.
Bill Meves and Judy Israel in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photograph by Khristine Hopkins. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5399.
The workshop incorporated itself as a nonprofit corporation, the Provincetown Theater Company, in 1973. While growing stronger as an organization, it was nonetheless an itinerant group in the 1970s, moving among the Art Association, Town Hall, and the Crown & Anchor. It even made use of Piggy’s Dance Bar, 67 Shank Painter Road, where Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore was presented in March 1977, under the direction of Larry Riley. Back at the Art Association in 1982, the company offered one of its best-received productions of its early decades: A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Barbara Dennis, and starring Judith Israel as Blanche DuBois and Bill Meves as Stanley Kowalski.
(The relationship between Provincetown and Streetcar is strong. It was in the cottage at 773 Commercial Street — where Tennessee Williams was living in the summer of 1947 with his lover, Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez — that Marlon Brando came to read the part of Stanley; a reading that won Brando, within 10 minutes, the lead role in the play, which was soon to open on Broadway. It was also, Williams recounted in his memoirs, where he wrote Blanche’s line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”)
From the Art Association, the company moved in 1988 to the Pilgrim Room of the Provincetown Inn. “This new location provided the company with its first year-round acting space, and the company embarked on an ambitious schedule of productions with other theater companies, both locally and off-Cape,” the 35th anniversary booklet said. Michael Prevulsky (1957-1992) was hired as the first artistic director. Soon, however, the company hit one of its deepest troughs in its history — by 1993, it was without an artistic director, a performing space, or money. Beverly Whitbeck, the chairwoman, led a rebound in the mid-1990s, helped by a large grant from the David Adam Schoolman Trust, named for the proprietor of Lands End Inn, 22 Commercial Street, who died in 1995. Roger Cacchiotti was appointed the second artistic director in 1996 and a new arrangement was struck with the Provincetown Inn, for the use of the Mayflower Room.
While the Provincetown Theater Company was struggling, into the void came Kenneth Hoyt, an actor, a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and a new face in town. He and Joan and J. Anton Schiffenhaus founded the Provincetown Repertory Theater in 1995 with ambitious dreams; first, to establish a professional, Actors’ Equity company, and then, to house the company in a brand new, 295-seat theater, designed by David McMahon of Boston, on the grounds of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. “There are people here who love theater, really love it,” Hoyt was quoted as saying in the The Cape Codder, “but it can’t be called a theater town when the playhouse burned down in 1977 and there’s been no functioning theater since.” Publicly expressed sentiments like that were not guaranteed to endear Hoyt to people who believed there was theater in town.
Above: The infant Provincetown Repertory Company performed two O’Neill plays under the direction of José Quintero. Kenneth Hoyt (below left) was replaced as artistic director by Norris Church Mailer (below right). Photos of Quintero and Hoyt from A Roof Over Our Heads. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5266. Photo of Mailer by and courtesy of Sue Harrison.
But he delivered some electrifying results quickly, beginning with For Heavens Sake: An Evening of Short Plays by Joe Pintauro, directed by Jerry O’Donnell, which opened in Town Hall on 18 July 1995. The next year, he scored the astonishing coup of persuading José Quintero (1924-1999), the preëminent theatrical interpreter of O’Neill, to direct the Rep in a two-play program, O’Neill 80, composed of Ile and The Long Voyage Home. Jason Robards (1922-2000) and Julie Harris (1925-2013) were in the opening-night audience at the Provincetown Museum. “This reminds me of the way José and I started out 44 years ago,” Robards told the company. “I am moved and thrilled.” Another notable milestone occurred in 1999, when the Rep presented the world premiere of the musical Goreyphobia, with a book by the illustrator and author Edward Gorey (1925-2000) and music by Peter Matz, under the direction of Daniel Levans. Under the title The Gorey Details: A Musicale, the play was presented a year later Off-Broadway, at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 East 15th Street. Hoyt was co-producer. His honeymoon at the Rep was long, but not indefinite. Tensions with the board over budgets and programming culminated in his resignation in 2002. Norris Church Mailer (1949-2010), an author and the wife of Norman Mailer, stepped in as his replacement.
By now, the Rep’s plan for a new theater at the Pilgrim Monument, which it was to have shared with the Provincetown Theater Company, had been dashed. The dream survived, however. In 2001, the Provincetown Theater Foundation was organized as a 501(c)(3) corporation. Its purpose, according to the articles of organization, is
“to further, and promote the performing arts in Provincetown … and surrounding communities; and in particular, to establish and maintain The Provincetown Theater, as a facility suitable for the performing arts, and the training and development of artistic skills, and related programs in the arts; and in particular, to establish and maintain The Provincetown Theater, as a facility suitable for the use and benefit of the Provincetown Theater Company and the Provincetown Repertory Theater, and their successors, if any.”
Alix Ritchie, the founding publisher of The Banner, was the first president and treasurer of the foundation board, which also included Howard G. “David” Davis III, of the Schoolhouse Center; Kenneth Hoyt, representing the Rep; Hunter O’Hanian, of the Fine Arts Work Center; Brian O’Malley; Robin Reid; Robert Seaver; Margaret Van Sant, artistic director of CTEK Arts; and Guy Wolf, the artistic director of the Provincetown Theater Company. Months after it was organized, the foundation paid $550,000 in April 2001 to acquire the Provincetown Mechanics building at 238 Bradford Street from Duarte Motors.
Decades earlier, No. 238 had been a hub of the automotive business in Provincetown. In the early 1930s, it was known as the Provincetown Garage and numbered 236 Bradford Street. The 10-car station serviced Chevrolets and Buicks. In 1939, Albert Francis Noones (1891-1969) began leasing the property from Almeda Caton. He opened Cape End Motors, a Ford agency. As the Ford Motor Company returned to the production of civilian vehicles after World War II, Noones conducted an “open house” at Cape End Motors, inviting the public to inspect Ford’s “streamlined new trucks.” He purchased the garage and land outright in 1948 and the next year built a 2,400-square-foot workshop addition, allowing him to dedicate the front of the garage as a showroom. (The workshop is now the auditorium of the Provincetown Theater.)
Advertisements for Cape End Motors from The Advocate in 1949 (left and right) and 1939 (center). Courtesy of the Provincetown Public Library.
Noones was awarded two watches in 1956, engraved with the signature of Henry Ford II, the president of Ford, for exceeding his sales quotas. Three years before he died, Noones sold the property in 1966 to Richard P. Packett, who owned it until 1978, when it was purchased by Ronald K. Cabral, John D. Edwards, and Joseph G. Taves, doing business as Monument Ford. Monument defaulted on its mortgage in 1981. The Sentry Co-operative Bank foreclosed and auctioned off 238 Bradford, which was picked up by Joseph M. Duarte, of Duarte Motors, at 132 Bradford Street. In its last years as a garage, it was known as Provincetown Mechanics. That was the building purchased by the foundation.
The $3 million renovation began in September 2003. The design team was headed by Phil Lindquist of Brown Lindquist Fenuccio & Richmond Architects in Yarmouthport. It included Robert Davis Theater Consulting Services of New York, Ted Chapin of Provincetown, Atsushi Ishizaki of Boston, and Janis A. Barlow & Associates of Toronto. The contractor was the Augustus Construction Company of North Eastham. A grant of $750,000 came from the David Adam Schoolman Trust, following the sale of Lands End Inn, 22 Commercial Street, which the trust had owned after Schoolman’s death.
The last automotive incarnation of 238 Bradford Street was as Provincetown Mechanics. Courtesy of the Provincetown Theater Foundation.
Rendering of the renovation, by Brown Lindquist Fenuccio & Richmond.
The theater as it appeared in 2008. Photo by David W. Dunlap.
On 22 June 2004, the Provincetown Theater opened with The Direct Line Play, presented by the Rep, under the artistic directorship of Lynda Sturner. The actor and singer Phyllis Newman directed the reading, a kind of cadavre exquis in which more than two dozen playwrights created a chain play in turn, working (largely) within the constraints of what they were given by the previous contributors. Terrence McNally started it off with Frank posing nude for Tom, a painter. He passed the play to John Guare, who brought in Tom’s new husband, Dwight, as well as Tennessee Williams. Among other playwrights in the chain were (in alphabetical order) Douglas Carter Beane, Charles Busch, Michael Cristofer, Meryl Cohn, Jim Dalglish, Steven Drukman, Christopher Durang, Eve Ensler, Harvey Fierstein, A. R. Gurney, David Henry Hwang, Julia Jordan, Wendy Kesselman, Shirley Lauro, James Lescesne, Marsha Norman, Joe Pintauro, David Rabe, Dotson Rader, Sarah Ruhl, Diana Son, Lynda Sturner herself, Alice Tuan, Sinan Ünel, Wendy Wasserstein, Lanford Wilson, and Susan Yankowitz.
Rather than continue an inadvertent competition for financial support, and duplicating resources, and confusing the public, the Provincetown Repertory Theater and Provincetown Theater Company merged in 2006 into the New Provincetown Players, under the artistic direction of Guy Wolf, who had headed the community-based theater company for seven years. Attractive as the notion might have been of a new theater with a resident company, the arrangement quickly proved unmanageable. By late 2007, the Provincetown Theater was nearly $75,000 in debt, a situation that spelled the end of Wolf’s tenure and the pursuit of more joint ventures.
One of those ventures was the CTEK Arts production in 2010 of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by David Drake, a familiar face around town and the winner of a 1993 Obie Award for his performance in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which he also wrote. As part of the production, the artist John Dowd created an installation in the lobby titled Provincetown Passages, made of salvaged doors and windows. “It provided a beautiful transition from the outside contemporary time through the ‘passage’ through the lobby, into the timeless location of the play,” Margaret Van Sant said. In the play, the role of Stage Manager was played by Beau Jackett, whose father was in the cast of the previous Our Town revival 40 years earlier.
Interior views of the Provincetown Theater, taken in 2014 by David W. Dunlap.
Despite such successes, the Provincetown Theater “struggled to find a clear identity or a distinct artistic point of view with persistent debate of semantics and resources as to what definition of theater applies: a building with a stage or an institution that creates art rather than hosts it,” Steve Desroches wrote in Provincetown Magazine in April 2016. The occasion was the appointment of Tristan DiVincenzo as executive artistic director — the first in nearly a decade — and the arrival of several new board members, including David Wilson, a retired Verizon executive.
Wilson and his husband, Robert Compton, were among the named plaintiffs in Goodridge et al. v. Dept. Public Health, the case that led to the decision in 2003 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that gay and lesbian couples could no longer be excluded from civil marriage rights. Wilson had also served on the boards of MassEquality and the nationwide Human Rights Campaign. He became president of the Provincetown Theater Foundation in July 2017. As DiVincenzo’s ambitious 2018 season proceeded, financial warning lights turned from yellow to red: once again, the theater was unable to pay all its bills. It cancelled the planned wintertime productions of A Christmas Carol and Studio 54-ish, the New Year’s Eve gala, and turned its attention to raising the necessary $50,000. DiVincenzo departed, in what Wilson termed a mutually agreed-upon resignation.
Wilson also announced the appointment of David Drake as the theater’s new artistic director. “Basically, I’ll be doing American classics,” he told Ann Wood of The Banner in May 2018, as he prepared to begin his tenure with the madcap comedy You Can’t Take It With You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It had opened in 1936 on Broadway, won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize, and — in its Hollywood adaptation — the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1938. Drake followed that up with with another classic, Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, the Tony Award-winning play that premiered Off-Broadway in 1994 and moved to Broadway in 1995. Joined by his husband, Tom Kirdahy, McNally came to town for opening night, and to receive the inaugural Provincetown American Playwright Award before a $500-a-plate benefit dinner at Baxter’s Landing, the home of Ken Fulk and Kurt Wootton (and former home of George Bryant), 471 Commercial Street.
Financing from the estate of David Schoolman, above left in a photograph by Jay Critchley, was critical to the Provincetown Theater and its constituent companies, which merged into the New Provincetown Players, under Guy Wolf.
Both as guest director and artistic director, David Drake emphasized classics like Our Town and You Can’t Take It With You. Below: The artist John Dowd created a lobby installation for the Our Town production. Photo courtesy of Margaret Van Sant.
Below: Celebrating Love! Valour! Compassion! were Tom Kirdahy; his husband, the playwright Terrence McNally; David Drake, hands clasped; David Wilson, in hat; and Ken Fulk, in striped blazer. Courtesy of the Provincetown Theater Foundation.
The cast and Drake’s staging of the play, with assistant director Myra Slotnick, won rave reviews in The Banner and The Cape Cod Times. The production, Steve Desroches wrote in Provincetown Magazine, offered “early evidence that the Bradford Street performance space has finally found its voice,” with a staging “worthy of Provincetown’s theatrical legacy.” Such words had been written hopefully before. But who’s to say there can’t be an Act VII?
¶ Last updated on 3 October 2018.
For further reading online
Provincetown Theater website.
“Provincetown in the 60s,” by Constance Black. Provincetown Art Guide, 2014. (Pages 52-55.)
The Hot L Baltimore program (1977). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5491.
The Hot L Baltimore poster (1977). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Borkowski Collection, Page 6034.
A Streetcar Named Desire program and photographs (1982). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5399.
Newspaper articles about the founding of the Provincetown Repertory Theater (1995). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5499.
“All of a Sudden, Eugene O’Neill Is Everywhere,” by Bruce Weber, The New York Times, 4 August 1996.
A Roof Over Our Heads: The Provincetown Repertory Theater and the Rebirth of Professional Theater in Provincetown (1996). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Municipal Collection, Page 5266.
“Provincetown Rep to Build Home at Cape Cod Monument,” Playbill, 29 July 1997.
Provincetown Theatre Company, PTC, ‘Celebrating Our 35th Year’ (1998). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Theater Collection, Page 5712.
“Provincetown Rep Gets ‘Gorey’ When Illustrator and Author Hits the Stage, Aug. 17 – Sept. 11,” Playbill, 14 June 1999
“Mailer Steps in for Hoyt in Rep Shuffle,” by Sue Harrison, The Provincetown Banner, 18 April 2002. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Norris Church Mailer Collection, Page 5872.
“Phyllis Newman Directs Three Minutes of Durang, Fierstein, Guare and More at Provincetown, June 25-26,” by Robert Simonson, Playbill, 31 March 2004.
“Theater: Excerpt; The Direct Line Play,” The New York Times, 20 June 2004.
“‘Chain’ Play Links 25 Playwrights,” by Stacy A. Teicher, The Christian Science Monitor, 25 June 2004.
“P’town Theater Writes New Script,” by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, The Cape Cod Times, 25 October 2007.
“DiVincenzo Is New Leader at Provincetown Theater,” by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Online, 18 January 2016.
“Rasing the Bar,” by Steve Desroches, Provincetown Magazine, 28 April 2016.
“Provincetown Theater Undertakes ‘Rebalancing,’” by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, The Cape Cod Times, 27 November 2017.
“David Drake Named Artistic Director of Provincetown Theater — Announcement Comes Amid Show Cancellations and Staff Cutbacks,” by Howard Karren, The Provincetown Banner. Wicked Local, 30 November 2017.
“David Drake’s Vision of Earthly Delights,” by Ann Wood, The Provincetown Banner. Wicked Local, 16 May 2018
“David Wilson and Rob Compton Are Not Retiring Types,” by Rob Phelps, The Provincetown Banner. Wicked Local, 3 February 2018.
“McNally’s ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ a Stunner,” by Debbie Forman, The Cape Cod Times, 20 July 2018.
“Review: Love! Valour! Compassion,” by Steve Desroches, Provincetown Magazine, 21 July 2018.
“The Mortal Sins and Wins of ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ at the Provincetown Theater,” by Howard Karren, The Provincetown Banner. Wicked Local, 25 July 2018.
Grave sites in Provincetown
Noones, Albert. Find a Grave Memorial 162733629.