Let’s put on a show? Sure. Let’s put up a tent to have the show in? Fine. But Nantucket’s White Heron Theatre Company has grander plans.
For the second summer in a row, White Heron is producing shows in a 74-seat tent off North Water Street, hard by the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Its offices are in an 1850s house on the property. But the company is trying to become a year-round institution on the island, and it plans to build a permanent theater on its property by next season.
“It is a full plate,” says executive director and co-artistic director Michael Kopko, but he notes that some pledges of financial support are already in place. “There are not many open, buildable spaces in the downtown core commercial district. It’s going to be an iconic building when it gets built, so we want to do it right, and people want to be involved in helping us do that.”
White Heron’s other principal is president, founder, and artistic director Lynne Bolton, an actor who is directing several of the shows this season. A summer resident of the island, she serves on the Yale School of Drama advisory board and the board of Yale Repertory Theatre. Kopko, a former selectman who’s been active in local theater, has held various jobs (“I ran a B&B for 15 years. I made a lot of muffins.”) since moving to the island in 1977. White Heron is his job now, although he also plays regular gigs as a musician on the island.
He and Bolton met about five years ago when she directed his daughter in a play at Theatre Workshop of Nantucket. They discovered their shared enthusiasm for theater and ended up taking a production of “Candida” to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in summer 2012. Then they got ambitious. Bolton bought the property on North Water Street. They bought the tent second-hand over the Internet from a Connecticut company. They got seats from a Kingdom Hall in New Orleans on eBay; Kopko flew down, rented a truck, and drove them home. They booked a full summer season in 2013 and began planning the Nantucket Theatre Institute for training programs and workshops, as well as running educational programs for Nantucket schools. “This is taking more and more of our time now,” Bolton says.
In August, their second full season of new plays under the tent includes rotating performances of “Miracle on South Division Street” by Tom Dudzick, “Family Furniture” by A.R. Gurney, and “The Vandal,” by actor Hamish Linklater, all directed by Bolton. (Kopko will act in “The Vandal.”) The September schedule will include “The Vandal” and a reprise of June’s production of “Small World” by Frederick Stroppel, directed by Kate Katcher.
White Heron runs under an Actors’ Equity Association contract, meaning it hires only actors who are members of or eligible to join the professional actors union. The biggest names this summer were stage and TV veterans Kevin Kilner (from the ’90s sitcom “Almost Perfect”) and Dan Butler (Bulldog on “Frasier”), who came for a weeklong workshop and two readings of “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” a new play by Joe DiPietro. This was the kickoff of the New Plays Collaborative between White Heron and the respected Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Bolton says the hope is for White Heron to be a regular part of Long Wharf’s development process.
White Heron’s long-term plans depend on concluding a $4 million fund-raising campaign, of which about $3 million would be used for construction and the rest to seed an endowment. The campaign is currently in a quiet phase, gathering commitments from deep-pocketed supporters, and will go public at the end of the summer. Bolton and Kopko express confidence that they’ll break ground this fall.
“We have a very short trajectory for raising the money and putting up the building, but we feel very confident and excited about being able to do that,” Bolton says, noting that an architect is at work on plans and the local permitting process is underway.
“I have a little bit of island-to-island jealousy about the Vineyard Playhouse,” Kopko says. “We ought to be able to do professional work here. They were premiering plays by great playwrights there, and I thought we ought to be able to do that here.”
His island already has the Theatre Workshop, founded in 1956, which produces in the 120-seat Bennett Hall theater and the 75-seat black box venue known as Centre Stage, both just blocks from the White Heron tent. The Workshop, too, offers shows in repertory — including a Gurney play of its own, “Black Tie,” which closed Saturday — as well as occasional one-offs and comedy events across the year.
“They’re a brilliant community theater, they do a great job,” says Kopko, who has worked with the Workshop as actor and director over the years, as well as with the now-defunct Actors Theatre of Nantucket.
The Workshop uses many community actors, but up to half of each cast are professionals from New York and elsewhere, under a special appearance agreement with Equity. The Workshop had stage, TV, and film actor John Shea as artistic director for six years until this summer, when he took on emeritus status and handed off to Justin Cerne.
“Theater is becoming more and more a part of our community,” says Workshop executive director Gabrielle Gould. “We all would love to believe that if you are a theatergoer, you are going to see as much theater as possible.” She hopes that means you would see, for example, one Gurney play one night, and another Gurney the next night.
“We are a hard-working organization, and we know everybody likes the shiny and new, but we are really excited about what we do,” Gould says.
“The more the merrier,” says Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce executive director P. J. Martin Smith. While it does seem like a lot of theater for a small area, she says, “think about the fact that we go from 12,000 people year-round to about 60,000 on any given week during the summer. So it’s more than welcome.”