Barn theatre series calls it quits

BRISTOL — At the barn at Baldwin Creek, the curtain will soon fall on a summer tradition for the final time. For 18 summers, Shakespeare in the Barn at Mary’s has staged plays in the makeshift theater, but this year will be the last.
It’s not dwindling attendance or financial woes that are the cause — in fact, organizers expect a full house for every performance this year. Rather, the folks who put on the plays said it was just time to call it quits.
“Every artistic project has an arc,” producer Paul Ralston said. “And this endeavor is coming to the end of its arc.”
Ralston, who is also the CEO of Vermont Coffee Company, serves as the producer of the plays, while his wife, Deb Gwinn, is the director.
“Deb does the art and I make the project happen,” Ralston said. “My role is seeing to all the technical stuff, getting the audience there, managing and corralling the people.”
For Ralston and Gwinn, the annual performances are both expensive and time consuming.
“This is a completely, much-less-than-not-for-profit production,” Ralston said. “We spend a fair amount of money every summer putting on this, and we don’t receive any sort of financial support. It’s an artistic labor of love.”
Over the years, Gwinn has directed a variety of productions, including Shakespeare works and, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Miguel de Cervantes, “Don Quixote.” She’s also directed plays she herself has written: “Shadowoman,” “Belongings” and “The Night the Mountain Fell.”
Last year, Gwinn adapted Herman Melville’s 206,000-word tome, “Moby Dick,” for the stage. Ralston said his wife was inspired to try “Moby Dick” after the couple saw an Irish troupe perform it in Boston.
Undeterred by the challenge of taking a novel that takes place entirely at sea and staging it in a barn, Gwinn extracted the core narrative of the work and gave it life onstage.
“There’s a lot of stuff that happens in ‘Moby Dick,’” Ralston conceded. “There’s this lifelong nemesis, this challenge, this obsession — that’s the story. The story is about the characters.”
For the productions, Gwinn enlists the help of San Francisco-based Jim Cave, with whom she has collaborated for 28 years. The pair met in Berkeley, Calif., while they were working on a series of Greek tragedies.
Cave, who in 1991 won the Bay Area Critics Circle Award, has trekked to Vermont every summer to participate in Shakespeare in the Barn.
“They do the refining of the show,” Ralston said of Gwinn and Cave. “They stage and decorate the show, then work out the nuances of the business, and how they’re going to interact with each other.”
As for the rest of the troupe, three-fourths of the cast and crew are from Vermont, while the rest are friends of Gwinn and Ralston from the New York and San Francisco theater circles.
Many of the thespians have returned to the barn year after year to participate.
“There are at least one or two people that have been in 15 shows,” Ralston said. “I don’t think anyone has been in every show, except for Deb.”
For the last season, the troupe is putting on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It’s the fourth time they’ve done it, and it was also the first play they staged 18 years ago.
“‘Hamlet’ was the first show, so Deb decided it should be the last one,” Ralston said. “Primarily, the bookend was the inspiration.”
Ralston said the play is also a good fit because there are a lot of good roles for both men and women. Plus, the plot is a winner.
“It is one of Shakespeare’s better plays and one of the more theatrical,” Ralston said. “Everybody dies, and there’s a lot of intrigue.”
Ralston said Gwinn begins working on a play in April, creating a production to stage in July. Gwinn injects her own style into each play.
“One of the techniques Deb uses is to discover what she calls the framing device of the piece,” Ralston said. “Sometimes it’s a subtlety that only she connects to, while other times it forms the superstructure of the piece.”
This style included staging Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” as a radio show, and other works of the Bard as Westerns or set to the backdrop of “1001 Arabian Nights.”
As for “Hamlet,” Ralston said Gwinn is approaching the work from a new angle, but what exactly that is will be just as much a surprise to him as it is for the audience.
“I don’t know until show time what the framing device will be,” Ralston said.
The barn seats about 75 people — or 80 in a pinch, Ralston said. He added that the shows have had a full house every night for years. Tickets work on the honor system — attendees reserve them ahead of time, but don’t put any money down. But it’s not that tickets are expensive.
“It’s always been $10, and that’s just gas money for the performers,” Ralston said.
“The barn is a unique performance venue and this endeavor has established a unique style of performance,” Ralston said.
Ralston said the audience includes many people who have returned to the barn summer after summer.
“We’ve been doing it for 18 years and have a huge number in the audience who have come from the very beginning,” he said. “ I can think of four or five couples that have been there right from the first show.”
Though the run of shows is coming to an end, Ralston did not express sadness. As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
“Art is ephemeral,” Ralston said. “Performance disappears, and that’s the nature of it. That’s what makes being in the moment so interesting.”
He added he is proud of the connection Shakespeare in the Barn has built with its intimate audience.
“It’s like any other artistic endeavor,” Ralston explained. “When the audience finds it, they become part of what has been created. They’re the ones that are experiencing.”
Ralston said that he and his wife will continue theater work in the future, and will look upon this experience fondly.
“There’s nothing sad about it; it’s a moment in time,” he said. “A Broadway show only runs so long — for them it’s commercial, but for us it’s artistic. It’s about the arc of that experience.”
“Hamlet” will be staged July 24-27 and July 31-Aug. 3 at the Barn at Baldwin Creek at the intersection of Routes 116 and 17 in Bristol. Admission is $10 and the curtain rises at 8 p.m. For reservations, call 989-7226.

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