Hackmatack Artistic Director Steps Down
Crystal Lisbon began and ended her time as artistic director of Hackmatack Playhouse directing her favorite shows. A longtime actor, director, and choreographer, Lisbon got to tackle "West Side Story" in 2015 during her first season directing at Hackmatack, a theater she had worked and performed at since she was 17. And last month, as she brought her time as artistic director to a close, Lisbon got to direct another longtime favorite, "Peter and the Star Catcher."
Now in her 30s, Lisbon has decided it is time to take a break from her theater passion to give Hackmatack a chance to grow under the leadership of another creative director, and herself a chance to have her first vacation in ages.
"I'm a firm believer that artistic directors shouldn't stay too long," she said. "Each person brings their own special something to the table, and I think it's easy to sort of settle in, rest on your laurels a bit, which isn't great for the shows, or the theater. New people bring fresh ideas, and keep things interesting."
Although "Peter and the Star Catcher," was one of the first musicals Lisbon pitched to theater owner Michael Guptill, he wasn't convinced to read the script until this year.
"I've been joking the whole year that the only reason he read it is because he knew it was my last season," Lisbon said. "Either way, I'm thrilled we had the chance to produce it."
Lisbon, a resident of Dover, first performed at Hackmatack when she was a high school apprentice cast in the role of Louise in "Carousel." She has seen few days of rest and relaxation since then, as she has dedicated herself to her jobs and her love of the arts. An elementary school librarian, she estimates she works with about 500 students a week. She has also been a ballet teacher for seven years, along with juggling Hackmatack and teaching.
"I'm going to work one job for the first time in my life and I'm going to take a break from theater and have a little reboot," Lisbon said, gathering a few last items from the office/concession stand at Hackmatack. "I haven't had a summer off since I was like 11 and I haven't been on a vacation since 2008. It's time!"
When Lisbon was hired in 2015, Guptill recognized her talent as an actor, dancer and choreographer, but also hired her because she knew so well what it meant to work at a family-owned 200-year old, converted barn theater.
"Crystal's long relationship with Hackmatack, her love of theater and her great creativity, brought new energy and ideas to the theater," Guptill said. "I loved pouring over scripts with her, discussing auditions, and preparing to hire directors who can pull off a show with three weeks of prep time."
During her five years at the theater, Guptill found Lisbon exceeded even his high expectations.
"I didn't realize the full basket of talents that she would bring," he said. "Her ability to quarterback the whole production process and her talents in mothering the Hackmatack family are amazing."
Lisbon has worked with all of Hackmatack's six prior artistic directors, except founder Carleton Guptill, Michael's father. Her goal was to find the ideal blend between old and new, to try new things and take risks while holding true to what the theater is.
Lisbon grew up dancing, but after performing in a high school play she was hooked on acting. She was hired as a Hackmatack apprentice and learned about connections actors can make with the audience, breaking through the fourth wall in a way that dancers generally cannot.
A University of Vermont graduate with a degree in performance, Lisbon worked in New York and, for longer, in Boston's theater world. After working office and theater jobs in Boston, she moved back to Dover in 2012.
Although summer stock sounds like a job that would fit perfectly with Lisbon's job as a school librarian, most of her work was in fact done in winter when she and Guptill would choose plays, run auditions, find directors, prepare budgets and contracts, and ready the theater for the intense schedule of summer.
"I have been doing constant work behind the scenes throughout the year," she said. "We operate differently than other theaters. Michael and I literally do everything. It's a lot of work for two people to be doing year-round. It is a serious labor of love from both of us."
The short turnaround time for plays created some of the biggest challenges; especially on the technical end of things.
"During my time we have added a lot more technology; such as amplifiers, sound equipment, and projections," Lisbon said. "It's incredibly complicated for a barn built in the 1800s. We've been so lucky to have creative and patient designers, technicians, and directors to help us make it all happen."
The other challenges involve personalities, and the usual things theaters contend with - people dropping out after rehearsals begin because of heat, scheduling or other issues.
"I talk people off the ledge as the artistic director. I'm the middle man," Lisbon said. "I deal with the drama that happens behind the scenes that no one really wants to deal with. It comes with the territory."
But the highs have been worth it to Lisbon.
"For me the high is always when I go and thank people after strike, and actors, interns, and crew tell me this has been so great, so magical and wonderful," she said. "I always want people leaving to feel like they are part of this little theater. I want them to feel the magic I felt when I first worked here."
As Lisbon sees it, no matter who is in charge, audiences and actors return to Hackmatack, charmed by the field and the barn, but most of all by the Guptill family.
"It's a family-run theater and it feels that way," she said. "Yes, we are still professional and have expectations for a certain caliber and quality of work; but it's about family too, and that is one of the things that separates it."
Lisbon thought she would feel more emotional at the final performance. Instead, she said, "I feel proud of the work we've done, and also happy, because I know I always come back. I expect that at some point I will pop up and be in something or direct something here. It's that special Hackmatack magic. I'll keep coming back as long as Michael and his family will have me."
And there seems no question about that. As Guptill said, "We expect to be calling on her for special talents in the years to come."