Neither a state of national high alert nor a sluggish economy keeps the curtain from rising at the Olney Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in Olney, Maryland. On Oct. 10, the Center broke ground for a $6.2 million facility, designed to house a 440-seat state-of-the-art main stage theatre, an intermission lobby and gallery, administrative offices and classrooms. The facility is expected to open in 2003. As local politicians, theatre board members, and even actors took a turn with the shovel, the orange tape outlining the boundaries of the proposed facility fluttered in the cold wind, above autumn leaves fallen from the plentiful trees on the 14-acre property. Wooden sign posts designated key sites, including "Will's Place" Performance Lawn, located not far from the proposed theater. This outdoor venue hosts the free Summer Shakespeare Festival, staged since 1989 by the National Players, a company of recent college graduates which for 52 years has served as the theater's educational and touring arm.
Founded in 1938, Olney Theatre was designated as Maryland's State Summer Theatre in 1978. During its years as a summer stock theater, such actors as Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead, Moss Hart and Olivia de Havilland graced the main stage theater, which was winterized in 1993. (Marcia Gay Harden, who won this year's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, worked at Olney Theatre during the 1980s.) Like many of today's out-of-town actors, these notables were housed during the run of their shows in the Crawford House, a converted farm house — renovated in 1997--a few steps from the theater. In 1999, Olney Theatre dedicated the Multiz-Gudelsky Family Theatre Lab, a 150-seat black box space, which housed last season's innovative production of Therese Raquin. The current expansion is part of a Millennium Campaign, which thus far has raised $8 million toward a goal of $11 million from state and country monies, as well as private donations.
At the Oct. 10 press conference with the design and project team, an attendee asked whether, in light of recent events, the Center was instituting security measures. Jim Petosa, Artistic Director since 1994, sighed in response. "Well," he said. "On Sept. 11, for the first time in the history of the theatre, where we have people living and working and coming and going 24 hours a day, we locked the door." He recollected that the morning of Sept. 11 found the full cast of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing at the theatre. The New York-based thespians had chosen to remain over the Monday break. After discussions with Petosa, the cast decided they would perform that evening. "As things worked out," said Petosa, "approximately 80 audience members, average age 75, came to the theater with a resoluteness on their faces. We added a curtain speech and discussion relating to the tragedy. The theatre must be a place where people can come together to reaffirm their belief during the worst, as well as the best of times."
The ground breaking ceremonies will continue the evening of Friday, Oct. 12, when Olney Theatre opens the area premiere of Art, Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony-winning drama, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Petosa, the cast features Olney Theatre regulars Alan Wade as Serge, Christopher Lane as Yvan, and Paul Morella as Marc. Mickey Sacks will design properties, and David McKeever, sound, while Helen Hayes Award winning designers Jim Kronzer will design the set, Daniel MacLean Wagner, the lighting, and Helen Q. Huang, the costumes.
Art runs through Nov. 11. The holiday show, She Loves Me, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joe Masteroff, will run Nov. 20-Dec. 30. Billed as "Theater Without Boundaries!" the 2002 Season will offer Olney Theatre's 5,000 subscribers: Grease, with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (Feb. 26-March 31, 2002); Collected Stories by Donald Margulies (April 9-May 12); Candida by George Bernard Shaw (May 21-June 23); The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, presented by the Potomac Theatre Project, Olney Theatre's politically oriented, alternative theater-company-in-residence; Coffee with Richelieu, a world premiere by local playwright Norman Allen, based on The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas (Aug. 20-Sept. 22); Driving Miss Daisy by Albert Uhry (Oct. 1-Nov. 3); and The Secret Garden with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Nov. 19-Dec. 22).
For further information or to purchase tickets, contact (301) 924-3400. The Olney Theatre Center is located at 2001 Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Maryland 20832.
— by Barbara Gross
Special to Playbill On-Line.