In the late 1920s and 1930s, a group of Sharon residents formed a play-reading group – at first for their own pleasure and then as they hoped, for their friends' and neighbors' entertainment. People in the area seemed to appreciate the idea of a local place where they could hear the words of famous playwrights interpreted by talented readers.
SHARON INN STABLES (PITCHFORK PLAYHOUSE YEARS)
Of all summer theaters sprouting up in the 1940’s, none was quite as thrilling as the Pitchfork Playhouse at Sharon. The group there is a direct outgrowth of the Jesters, dramatic organization of Hartford’s Trinity College. George Dessart of Trinity was the producer, while the stage direction is handled by Don Craig of the Jesters.
In the summer of 1947, some of the Jesters decided to do their own summer stock. The group obtained the use of an ancient barn, the 100 year-old carriage stable of the Sharon Inn and in late July 1947 converted the barn into a highly workable attractive theater.
They convinced the Sharon Inn that a Playhouse would be just the thing to revive a sagging Inn business. The "Pitchfork Playhouse" was born, and the Jesters found themselves working 18, 20 and 22 hours a day putting the barn in shape, working on publicity, choosing casts, acting and directing. In ten weeks, nine or ten plays were produced, including "The Male Animal," "Dear Ruth," "Out of the Frying Pan," "They Knew What They Wanted," and "Arms and the Man." The core group in Sharon that summer consisted of Michael Campo, who was the main actor, Donald Craig, the director, George Dessart, the assistant director, and E. Otis Charles, manager of publicity, props and ticket sales. Other Jesters helped out for several shows, but the core group worked at Sharon all summer. The first play produced was "The Male Animal," and its author, James Thurber, came to a performance. Afterwards, according to Dr. Campo, Thurber wheezed up the rickety stairs to the dressing room, and, still puffing, told the Jesters, "I wouldn't even do this for Elliott Nugent." (Nugent was the coauthor of the play.) He also told them that they had done a great job.
The Pitchfork Playhouse was continued in the summer of 1948, with Mike Kellin, replacing Michael Campo. During the next school year, the Jesters premiered Ruth Gordan’s warm comedy about her childhood “Years Ago” a play which is not just a play, but an experience. "Dear Ruth," "Masque of Kings," and "Men in White" under Don Craig, their first student director.
July 1 1948 was the 2nd season of the Pitchfork Players with “John Loves Mary” Broadway hit by Norman Krasna author of “Dear Ruth” August 1948 “All My Sons” August 15 1948 “Claudia”
1949 George Dessart was in charge of the Pitchfork Playhouse. 1949 was the 3rdseason
has been enlarged in order to present a new play each week. “Rose of Killarney” a musical play by Stella Unger, was given a tryout the week of August 31.
Sharon Playhouse at the Inn
According to Judson Philips “There has to be on date, a beginning date.” Walter Winburn, a nicely stage struck young man undertook the beginning, aided primarily by Helen Kingsteadand her husband Gerald Cornell, an acting couple with a long Broadway history who made their summer home in Sharon. It was due to Helen that the Sharon Playhouse idea was born.
The Cast of "The Circle" by Somerset Maugham outside the early Sharon Playhouse and converted stable in 1952. Helen Kingstead Cornell is seated center in a white shirt. To her left is her husband Gerald Cornell.
1950 and with a growing audience, the original group was taken over by the well-known mystery writer Judson Phillips, who created a small regional Equity theater. Judson and his team and the Sharon Playhouse name was born. Judson produced in the 175 seat barn until 1954.
In 1951 Walter Winburn decided not to go on and Guernsey LePelley, now the brilliant political caroonist for The Christian Science Monitor, and Judson Phillips, the well-known mystery writer, decided to take over. They rented the Playhouse barn from the Sharon Inn Corporation for one dollar a year.
In 1954, after four years Judson decided, reluctantly, that he could no long make up the annual deficits. With only 175 seats in the barn theater there was no way to meet the costs even if every seat was occupied every night. Judson decided that what was needed was a bigger theater The Sharon Inn was gone and the buildings and grounds were given to Judson and his group.
1953 Intermission of "Pygmalion when the Playhouse was in the converted stable.
In 1955 Judson Phillips, and Guernsey LePelley enlisted the architect Frank Poehler to build the building that stands today as The Sharon Playhouse. The original barn theatre was converted to a gallery, moved to the 49 Amenia Road location.
Groundbreaking for the theatre (L-R) Judson Philips, R.E. Molloy - Superintendent, , Herman Middlebrook - Town first selectman, Norma Burton - Actress, Guernsey LePelley - Chairman of the Board,
1955- Rafter trusses for the new Sharon Playhouse
According to Judson Phillips “The first seven weeks of that season were successful beyond our dreams, and then came the floods. Connecticut was a disaster area. Audience towns like Torrington and Winstead were crippled.
“1956 was a bad summer. Connecticut hadn’t recovered from the floods. It became apparent that there would have to be a new way to raise money. The Sharon Creative Arts Foundation (SCAF) was formed, a tax exempt corporation. This meant that people who gave money could take their gift as an income tax deduction. SCAF was the producing entity at the Sharon Playhouse through the 1980’s. During the 1980s and 1990s, management and directorial guidance at The Sharon Playhouse lost continuity. Season after season outside companies came and went. The Sharon Playhouse was too often dark.
During the 1960's and 1970's the Playhouse was maintained and kept "in the black" by the dedicated hard work and devotion of two Sharon couples - Dr Walter Fairservis and his wife Janno Fairservis and William Landis and his wife Elizabeth.
In 1989 the current dormitory was purchased from Bambi Linn and Joe Dejesus from West Cornwall and moved to it’s current location. Bambi Lynn was major dancer in New York City and was Louise in the original Broadway company of Carousel and in the original company of Oklahoma. Bambi also performed in the 10thAnniversary production of the OBLONG PLAYERS production of “Talking With”
In 1989, Bettie Snyder was the president of SCAF. Bettie brought in the Broadway actor/director, Ray Roderick to direct a production of THE MUSIC MAN.
In the late 1980’s into the early 1990’s the Playhouse was rented out to outside producers (TUFTS, and University of Miami). The theatre went dark from 1991-1994.
In 1991 the theatre and all of the 3.5 acre land was purchased by Sharon Resident and Board President Marilyn Reagan and Salisbury resident Nelson Slater. The theatre remained closed from 1991-1994. In 1994 Clockwork Tower from Manhattan bought the Playhouse and created SHARON STAGE.
In 1995 the new group led by Michael Gill, an independent producer shepherded the company. This group came with heavy hitters from the Broadway Community as board members including Broadway press representative Merle Frimark. This team came from the Broadway companies of “Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Through these connections came a big upgrade. The Jujamcyn organization was refurbishing the Virginia Theatre on Broadway and offered Michael Gill the seats they were removing. Sharon Stage produced in the Playhouse for two seasons.
The theatre once again went dark in 1997. In 1998 the Westchester based Yorktown Theater Co headed by Kevin J. Kearins leased the theatre to produce a 5 show musical season.
The following section takes us back to the history of TRIARTS in Pine Plains.
In 1989, Ray Roderick, a Broadway actor/director, directed a production of The Music Man at The Sharon Playhouse, using a combination of professional and local talent. Inspired by having worked with an extraordinary group of local actors and theater lovers, Ray Roderick and Sarah Combs got together with a group of passionate volunteers to create their own tri-state regional theater in Pine Plains, NY. This new theater was named TRI-STATE CENTER FOR THE ARTS – commonly known as "TriArts” with Ray Roderick as Artistic Director and Sarah Combs as Board President. Michael Berkeley came on board as Resident Musical Director the following year.
Starting under a big tent for two years, and later, in the Carvel Warehouse for seven – TriArts produced many successful musicals, using a unique formula of blending professional and community actors under the direction of professional directors, designers, and musicians, establishing a tri-state reputation, and attracting Broadway performers and professionals, including now Broadway producer Kevin McCollum who served as Executive Director for two seasons, and Tony Award-winning director Casey Nicholaw.
In 1999, spearheaded by then-President of the Board Lori Belter, the decision was made to move to The Sharon Playhouse. The following year, a 3-year capital campaign was successfully undertaken under the direction of Pat Best and Bill Suter to raise the funds to purchase the Playhouse complex and to build the Bok Gallery. A generous grant from the state of Connecticut through the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) helped to complete the funding.
The first season in The Sharon Playhouse saw productions of GREASE, GUYS AND DOLLS, and IMAGINE THAT with the assistance of Gordon Heyworth and Bill Landis as Theatre Managers, who had been involved with the Sharon Creative Arts Foundation. Michael Berkeley became Artistic Director at the new location, and worked closely with Executive Director Pamela Chassin, and Pat Best assumed the Presidency of the Board for several years.
In 2003, the Bok Gallery was completed thanks to the generosity of Scott and Roxanne Bok, and Stephen Belter, building contractor, who built the building at cost. The Bok Gallery provided a year-round performance space, offices, workshop space, and on-site rehearsal space.
In addition to the musicals on the main stage in the summer, plays, a Young Playwrights Festival, and youth theatre programs (for children of all ages) were added. Michael Berkeley also created the “Diva” series, an annual, original musical revue, involving as many as 50 women from the region, that became one of the most highly anticipated events of each season. The Bryan L. Knapp New Works Series, special events, and workshops were launched in the Bok Gallery, offering year-round programming.
Over the years, TriArts was the recipient of critical acclaim and awards for its productions, and was proud to produce several original works, including: Rip Van Winkle and I Love a Piano, both written by Michael Berkeley and Ray Roderick. In addition, TriArts presented three of Michael Berkeley’s original musicals at The Sharon Playhouse: Imagine That, Off the Wall, and Dirty Doings in Deadwood, allowing many children and adults the exciting opportunity of participating in the creative process of developing new musicals. Most of the above shows have been licensed and are being performed around the world.
Many children and young adults who have worked with TriArts have gone on to pursue professional theater careers. Countless others have had the opportunity to experience musical theater and to develop an appreciation for the magic of live theater.
In 2006, Alice Bemand became Executive Director, and in 2011, John Simpkins became Artistic Director, creating a Collegiate Company of actors and furthering the commitment to the development of new musicals. Late night cabarets following shows were created to make use of the newly-renovated patio.
In 2014 Justin Ball took over as the Managing Director and In 2015, the Board voted to rename the organization "The Sharon Playhouse" to make the company and the venue one and the same.
At the end of the 2016 season John Simpkins returned to teaching at Penn State University, Justin Ball also moved on and a new team came to the Playhouse for the 2017 season.
At the end of the 2016 season, Johnson Henshaw was brought on as Artistic Director and George Quick was brought on as the Managing Director.
At the end of the 2017 season, the two man team of 22Q Entertainment, Alan M-L Wager and Robert Levinstein were brought on as Artistic Director and Managing Director.