Actors, Volunteers, and Audience Members Still Coming to Hackmatack Playhouse Decades Later
Karol and David Gooch of Kittery were young and in love, earthy-looking types, when they first discovered Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick, Maine, 40 years ago. And Hackmatack itself was a new theater on a farm, started by the late Carleton Guptill.
Now the Gooches are parents of adult children and firmly hold senior citizen status and Hackmatack is set to launch its 45th season, a family-run operation still set in the barn of a 400-year-old farm.
Roger Munger, 68, of Berwick, who has no doubt ushered the Gooches to their seats more than once over the decades, first began volunteering when his wife dragged him to Hackmatack 25 years ago.
"I went to tag along and fell in love with the place," said Munger, who has since become a volunteer house manager. "You work for a half hour and get to see a live performance on stage - as many times as you want."
As it launches the summer season with a production of "She Loves Me" on June 15, Hackmatack will be welcoming back audience members, volunteers and even actors who have been part of the playhouse family for decades, some since almost since the beginning.
" I was 27 and living in a campground in Sanford," said Kelli Connors, 58, recalling her summer in Maine. "I came from Connecticut to do summer stock and never left the state."
When Connors first tried out for "Kiss Me Kate" at Hackmatack in 1988, actors auditioned with the late Carleton Guptill, the founder of Hackmatack who would listen to the monologues and solos before heading north to fish at Mooselookmeguntic and make his casting decisions.
Since then, Michael Guptill has taken over and auditions have evolved into a much more formal panel of directors reviewing actors off site. But the atmosphere that drew Connors in the first place has remained.
"Carlton is still there. He's alive and well in every nook and cranny and that feels good," said Connors, now a freelance theater artist with a home of her own in Kittery. "And there's still a general caring from the Guptills."
Connors dropped out of the scene when she became a mother 18 years ago years ago, but returned in 2011 to appear with a cast of old-timers - along with her daughter - in a revue of "Ten Nights in A Bar Room." This year she was cast as M'Lynn in "Steel Magnolia," which opens July 26.
Cindy Brown, 58, of Berwick, who has volunteered for a couple of decades now, reports that ushering is at times amusing.
"People can be really flakey," Brown said. "They decide they are going to move, even though you seat them in the right row."
It is nearly a cliche that anyone who acts, volunteers or buys tickets at Hackmatack comes to feel they are part of the extended Guptill family.
Gooch saw her status as a family member confirmed after she begged Guptill to produce "Once Upon A Mattress" again. Lo and behold, Hackmatack showed "Once Upon a Mattress" last year and even put in her favorite songs.
"You call Michael and talk to him and give him suggestion and sometimes it materializes into an actual production," said Gooch, 69.
After decades of watching shows, Munger too has his favorites - "Annie Get Your Gun" is one - but what he really loves is the theater itself with "the open barn, sitting outside during intermission and how everyone knows each other."
"At other places you're a person who buys a seat. Here you're a friend," Munger said. "Michael knows 1,000 people who come there."
As far as Guptill is concerned, it is the Koochers, Browns and Mungers, just as much as the actors, who make Hackmatack what it is.
"The patrons and volunteers who come back year after year," Guptill said, "are as much a part of our Hackmatack production as the actors - new and old, young and mature - who fill our barn each summer."