The six founding members of the Harbor Stage Company feel a new sympathy for the people of Billingsgate Island, who abandoned their community off Wellfleet a century ago as the ocean slowly drowned it.
“We have experienced a lot of flooding in the Harbor Stage this year,” says Brenda Withers, who wrote and acts in the company’s new production, “The Billingsgate Project.” “Every day we get up and mop the floors and try to figure out how to plug the holes.”
The “flooding” in the theater is from rain, not rising seas. But company members have also found their regular rental digs here badly damaged by rain, wind, and even a falling tree in last winter’s storms. “We are very aware that at any point if we have a hurricane in the harbor, that the Harbor Stage may be under water, so we’re crossing our fingers,” she says.
That would provide a boffo ending to the play, though, right?
“That’s true,” Withers says with a laugh, “and it would be amazing for fund-raising.”
The world premiere “Billingsgate Project,” running Thursday through Aug. 10 at Harbor Stage, was created to coincide with Wellfleet’s 250th anniversary celebrations this summer. In fact, the final performance has been moved up to 5 p.m. to free cast and audience alike in time for the fireworks and other festivities on the closing night of the town’s Founders Week.
In their second season after breaking away from Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, the company members say they understand the townspeople better as they run every aspect of the company, from staffing the box office and dealing with contracts to mopping those floors and taking out the trash.
“To be honest, I feel like I’m getting a picture of what everybody I know here has been doing for years, every business owner and every summer employee,” Withers says. “For five years I came up here and just did plays and that was great, but I didn’t quite understand the intensity of the work in summer. Now we’re getting a taste of what we’ve been taking advantage of for such a long time.”
“It’s made us appreciate the community even more in a really wonderful way,” company member Jonathan Fielding says, “a way I never thought I would be excited about, but I am and I feel very lucky to have it.”
Billingsgate Island was the original community of Wellfleet, Withers says. “There were about 30 homes, a school, little shops, oyster shacks. Then in the middle of the 19th century, it started to erode to a place where they wondered if they would be able to stay.”
Over a period of years, a number of the houses were floated to the mainland on rafts, including structures that serve as restaurants in present-day Wellfleet, she says, such as the Wicked Oyster. Eventually only a series of lighthouse keepers remained on the island before the lighthouse was destroyed by storms and the island itself submerged in the early decades of the 20th century, leaving only a rubble-strewn shoal.
“You can only see it now if you kayak out there,” Withers says. “I haven’t had a chance yet, but our technical director has a double kayak ready for me. We’ve been so busy, but hopefully once the show opens we can go.”
The play, funny at times though not a comedy, ricochets between three “time zones,” in the cast’s jargon. In the historical scenes, Robert Kropf plays the lighthouse keeper, while Withers, Fielding, and Stacy Fischer play all the other townspeople. The four also appear as members of a local theatrical troupe rehearsing a pageant about the island. They perform scenes from the pageant itself, breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly. (The troupe’s other two founders are Amanda Collins and Lewis D. Wheeler.)
The company wanted to work on its first new play and also wanted to contribute to Wellfleet’s 250th. Withers and others expected to do something like an evening of readings, but the more they worked on it, “Billingsgate” came to seem like a full production.
“We wanted to do something for Wellfleet, because we love it here so much,” says Fielding. “It’s a birthday party, and we thought, well, we should be able to incorporate it in our season somehow.”
What people shouldn’t expect is the actual history. “Don’t use my script as too much of an actual bible,” Withers cautions after sending along a few sample scenes. “We’re playing with narrative and history, and we’ve purposely changed some facts, so we can go back there in the play and say, ‘That’s not right.’ ’’
Although Withers is credited as the writer, there’s no director named, and the play is described as having been “devised by the ensemble.”
“It’s much less of the traditional ‘the director tells you where to stand, the writer gives you the motivation,’ ” she explains. Calling it “devised” is “just kind of giving due credit to the fact that the actors are participating in the development of the piece as opposed to just learning their lines.”
So, the history isn’t necessarily accurate and the theatrical process is a bit edgy. Are the folks in Wellfleet going to like this sort of tribute?
“Part of what we like about Wellfleet and part of the reason we’re all working hard to stay here is there is more progressive thought toward art and toward culture and toward history,” Withers says. “That’s why we feel we can address the town’s history in a more adventurous way than you might in another New England town celebrating its 250th.”