Mount Abe musical trio enjoys a final bow

BRISTOL — Hundreds of 5-Town residents will never forget it.
In the fall of 2011, nearly 100 students in bright yellow raincoats electrified the theater at Mount Abraham Union High School. Covered from one end to the other, the unusually wide stage seemed to push the students up through the floor, like flowers.
They were “Singin’ in the Rain,”of course.
Whether they were 12th-graders belting out the lyrics or seventh-graders still finding their voices, every single one of those students knew that rooting for them were three dedicated, and by then legendary, women: Anne Gleason, Martha Chesley and Andi Gordon, directors of the Mount Abe Fall Musical program.
The trio’s recent retirement from that program marks the end of an era.
“We in the 5-town area are incredibly fortunate to have our children grow up with the unquestioned assumption that theater is a part of their lives, accessible to anyone who cares to participate,” wrote Buzz Kuhns in “Thespians Three,” a book dedicated to Gleason, Chesley and Gordon, produced by 5-Town Friends of the Arts.
Gleason and Chesley took over the program in 1993, after 20 years of working with a community theater group called The Committee. Fellow Committee member Gordon joined them at Mount Abe five years later. So, collectively they have managed the Mount Abe fall musical for 70 years.
“Martha and Anne are kind, encouraging, imaginative, and supportive people,” said Bristol resident (and state representative) Fred Baser, who acted in Committee productions of “You Can’t Take It with You” and “The Odd Couple.” “They will be missed.”
When Gleason and Chesley took over at Mount Abe, their productions had an immediate impact. Elementary school students wowed by the shows they grew up seeing arrived at middle school wanting to get in on the action.
“By the time I got there, I was looking forward to the theater program at Mount Abe,” said Caleb Elder, who performed in all six shows as a Mount Abe student. “Drama was my number one extracurricular, and I loved every minute of it — from auditions to costumes.”
Like many fellow theater alumni, Elder noted the program’s dedication to inclusivity. Though large productions (“casts of thousands,” he joked) sometimes led to “the occasional melee,” they also created what he called “a very deep bench,” which allowed talent to develop gradually over the years.
“That (Gleason, Chesley and Gordon) have maintained the energy for decades is really amazing,” he said.
Some of their students have gone on to act professionally.
Grace Experience, a 2011 Mount Abe grad, took a break from tech rehearsals for a production of “Molasses in January”at Manhattan’s Snapple Theater to write about her experiences out Mount Abe:
“I have such fond memories of doing ‘Seussical’ at Mount Abe. I was a ‘Who!’ The production was huge (we even had a girl on stilts). Anne and Martha absolutely helped cultivate my love of theater and musicals and they were extraordinary at making every kid in that show feel vital to the performance.”
ANDI GORDON, LEFT, Martha Chesley and Anne Gleason, long-time co-directors of the Mount Abe Fall Musical, work their way through a Saturday planning session during preparations for “Singing in The Rain” in 2011. Photo by buzzkuhnsphotography.smugmug.com
One of the hallmarks of the program is “complete inclusion.” Gleason, Chesley and Gordon would find a role for every single student who wanted one.
Such dedication brought great rewards, they said in a recent interview, but it wasn’t without its challenges.
“The process was not for the faint-hearted,” Gleason said with a smile.
When parents of new students in the program volunteered backstage for the first time it was a shock to them, Gordon said, “my husband included.”
The three agreed that casting was the hardest part of the job. Friday auditions were followed by two days of intense deliberation. Cast lists, which these days get posted online, appeared on Monday or Tuesday.
“Back before the program was a hot item, I liked to post the cast list in the office,” Gleason said. Kids would stream in to look at it, giving the school administration a firsthand view of how much student interest the program was generating.”
When choosing the following year’s show, the program’s production team would sit down and weigh the pros and cons of several suggestions.
“We didn’t have to agree 100 percent of the time, as long as we had our eyes on the prize, which was the students,” Gleason said.
One thing they could all agree on was making theater a big deal.
“Early on we wanted a very high production value,” Gleason said. Sophisticated sets and colorful costumes were one way the three directors could make the kids feel valuable.
Among many years of accomplished set pieces, Chesley pointed to a stage-size dragon made by Buzz Kuhns, a “flying” Peter Pan orchestrated by a Las Vegas professional, and a “rain truck” built for “Singin’ in the Rain” by Paul Stetson, Steve Cobb and Ken Labas, which pumped water continuously from a shallow tub onstage.
“It rained during the whole show,” Gleason said. “At the start of the second act, we started the pump before the curtain opened, so in the dark you could hear the rain before the lights went up and you could feel a cool breeze from the water.”
In a longstanding tradition of pranks, some of those set pieces ended up on Chesley’s front porch. She woke up one day to find the huge rocking chair from “Shrek” out there, she said.
Though the school budget finally allotted $3,000 for the program a few years ago, it doesn’t go very far. Performance rights must be purchased, not to mention fabric and lumber. And the program must rent its own lights every year. Ticket sales pay for the lion’s share of production costs.
Still, the three believe they’re leaving the program on solid ground — and in capable hands.
Jen Allred, who’s been the program’s musical accompanist for 18 years, and her husband, Ben, an architect and set designer, will co-direct their first show this fall.
The couple grew up in Utah together and have been involved in theater since they were kids.
Though she acknowledges that “complete inclusion” can sometimes make for logistical nightmares, it’s also the source of much of what’s most moving about the program.
She recalled one audition when a seventh-grader and a senior simultaneously stepped forward. Only one could audition at a time. Sensing that the seventh-grader was nervous and didn’t know what to do, the senior broke the ice, offering to decide who would go first by playing a game of rock, paper, scissors.
It’s this sort of camaraderie that makes the program special, Kuhns said.
“School classes, sports teams, and most other activities are sorted by age, so it’s rare that a seventh-grader gets to work on something together with a high school senior. Because the Fall Musical is intentionally so inclusive, young participants have role models to look up to, and older participants have the chance to be role models.”
The Allreds are thrilled to announce that “Newsies” will be the 2018 show. An info session will be held June 11, and they’ll soon afterward get to work.
“We’re going to have a stage-combat coach come over the summer,” Jen said.
When the production opens, Gleason, Chesley and Gordon will likely be there, cheering them on, only this time it will be from the audience, for a change.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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