Backstage Tours at Ogunquit Playhouse - A Behind-the-Scenes View
Ogunquit Playhouse has dazzled audiences with professional productions featuring stars of the past and of today for 82 years. Four years ago, the Playhouse began offering theatergoers a Backstage Tour, a chance to see how theater magic is made from behind the curtain.
On a recent tour, volunteers (called docents) Joyce Stowe and Donna Bakke, both from York, Maine started the excursion with a quick overview of the history of the theater.
Guiding the group from one section of the lobby to another, the docents outlined how the theater was founded in 1933 by Broadway showman, Walter Hartwig and his wife, Maude, who opened the theater in a renovated garage in Ogunquit's town square.
Hartwig's reputation and connections to Broadway allowed him to persuade such theatre legends of the time as Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore and Laurette Taylor to star in Oqunquit. The theater quickly outgrew its downtown space and a parcel of land, part of the old Weare Farm on Route One, was purchased. The Hartwigs built the present-day Ogunquit Playhouse, which opened on July 17, 1937.
"Unlike other summer theaters of its day, which were renovated barns, garages or churches, the Ogunquit Playhouse was the first, and remains the only, summer theater built exclusively as a seasonal theatre," noted Stowe.
After Walter Hartwig's death in 1941, his widow Maude stepped in to carry on his legacy. In 1950, John Lane, then a young actor, was hired as general manager to help oversee production duties. He acquired the theatre and land from Maude, who retired in 1951. Lane would manage the theater for almost 45 years until his retirement in 1994.
"Lane took care of his stars. He picked them up in a limo and had fresh flowers in their dressing rooms every day," said Bakke. "And performers were drawn to Maine to work at the theater."
The tour took a lingering stop in the lobby to view many of the signed photographs of stars who trod the Ogunquit stage. On one wall there's Jane Wyatt, Hume Cronin, Jessica Tandy, and Betty White from the glory years of summer stock theater. A more recent section of photos and posters showcase Sally Struthers, Andrea McArdle, Carson Cressley, and Leslie Uggams.
Today's theater is run by the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, under the helm of Executive Artistic Director, Bradford Kenny. Stowe said that Kenney's leadership has doubled the visitors to the theater and has expanded its season from ten weeks to this year which will run 23 weeks.
"When the theater first opened, there were 700 seats," explained Stowe. "That was because Douglas Fairbanks said that he wouldn't perform in any theater with less than 700 seats. Today's theater has 688 seats, a number that can be adjusted when shows require taking space from the first couple of rows."
Next on the tour is the Stage Door where hundreds of actors entered the theater for their performances. A short, drab looking hallway quickly leads to the stage manager's location where every detail of the show is monitored from curtains, to sets, to sound cues.
The Green Room, a place for actors to gather during the performance, is a very small kitchen area with an outdated sink (circa 1960?) and a soda vending machine. There's a mounted deer head on the wall, giving the room a truly Maine flavor. The nearby wig room is even smaller with space for only three or four tour takers to gather at one time.
The highlight of the tour is stepping out onto the Ogunquit stage. For a moment, the tour group stands in awe thinking about the stars that have graced this spot as they look out into the audience.
"Are you ready to see the dressing rooms?" asks Bakke.
"The female lead usually gets this room," said Bakke, pointing to a corner near the backstage area. "If the show has a male lead, they usual defer to the next female lead and share a dressing room with another male performer."
The room is small, maybe 100 square feet, and very rustic; paneled with pine boards. It is the only dressing room with an attached bathroom. There are about 15 remaining dressing rooms, all in a single row with wooden doors and panels, down a long hallway.
Bakke makes a special point to show the group the dressing room with the number seven on it.
"This is the haunted dressing room. It is rumored that an old time actor, AJ Hebert, occupies the space. He's always doing something here while waiting for his turn onstage."
Tours are scheduled for July through October. are available on a limited basis in July and August with a more extensive schedule in September and October. Tours usually run for one and a half hours except for those on Fridays that run for an hour. Pricing is $10 for a 90 minute tour and $5 for 45 minute tours.
Tickets for the Back Stage Tours can be purchased online at www.ogunquitplayhouse.org