Summer is nearly here, and that means afternoons by the pool, family picnics in the park and straw hat theater in the evenings.
Western Pennsylvania is gifted with a number of such live summer theater groups, dubbed 'straw hats' because audience members wear them to performances or called red barn theaters for the refurbished barns they often perform in.
When the Red Barn Players started in 1955 in Beaver County, sheep were living in the bottom of the barn, said Tom Bickert, president of the organization from Franklin between Ellwood City and Zelienople. "The plays were going on upstairs and sheep were bleating downstairs."
What summer theaters have in common are casual surroundings in a natural setting, reasonable ticket pricing and plots that appeal to a broad audience looking for a place to relax and unwind. Comedy, mystery, farce, dramas and musicals make up the usual season, but atypical productions are also offered dependent upon the interests of casts and audience.
"Summer is a time when people are looking to get out of their houses and be entertained with a certain type of escapist entertainment," said Colleen Reilly, artistic director of Saint Vincent Theatre, Unity.
"People are looking for a different style than they want in the fall or winter," she said, comparing straw hat programming with summer movie and book releases.
But more than that, it's about "sharing with others something touching, something moving," she said.
"It's a very relaxing, enjoyable evening for a lot of our patrons," Mr. Bickert said, adding that the 180-seat Red Barn theater has a "very intimate feeling. We have a very summer-like atmosphere, where you kind of leave the doors open while you're doing a show."
Mr. Bickert noted the spontaneity of live performance as part of the appeal. "There are great moments and there are also things that go wrong. It's kind of like reality TV, but there's no editing."
Summer theater is generally acknowledged to have started as a way to bring entertainment to rural or tourism areas during the off season for professional companies, often combining a noted stage performer with young emerging talent. Now a variety of companies feature members of Actors' Equity, the actors and stage managers union; amateur performers, or a mix.
Mountain Playhouse, in Jennerstown, Somerset County, founded in 1939, is one of only a dozen professional summer stock theaters remaining in the U.S. and the oldest in Pennsylvania. Others, such as South Park Theatre, founded in 1995, are relative newcomers with a volunteer actor base.
As with many community arts groups, volunteers are important to summer theaters in every aspect, from backstage work to publicity.
"Community theater is a labor of love," Mr. Bickert said.
Red Barn Players does not use Actors' Equity members, but several of their performers have worked in professional productions, he said. The tricky part is finding younger actors. "Actors in their mid-30s to 60s age range are easy to find. Young guys, in their 20s, are hard to attract, and that's become more pronounced of late. These days, people's lives are a lot busier."
Asked about the organization's budget, Mr. Bickert laughed and said, "We try not to lose money." By the end of the year they usually have a small profit, which they invest. Years of savings allowed them to buy the barn two years ago, and they are in the second year of a three-year capital campaign to pay off the mortgage. The organization is planning fundraisers including a wine festival it hopes to hold at the barn in the summer.
"It's a really nice site," he said, "a 10-acre plot on a hillside looking down into a valley with a deck people can sit out on. The parking lot is just a field where you can bring a basket and picnic."
He said the Players agonize over whether to raise ticket prices because they, like community symphonies, want to keep performances affordable. Actors and musicians are not paid, and the stipend offered to directors basically covers commuting expenses. One of the things that drives production costs is royalties. "A musical can run thousands of dollars. You hope you fill enough seats to justify that," he said.
The majority of actors at Saint Vincent Theatre are Actors' Equity members, an affiliation the late founder, the Rev. Tom Devereux, instituted. By contract, the first five actors hired for any show have to be Equity, Ms. Reilly said. All actors are paid. Most of the actors cast in a season live and work in the region, which is part of the organization's mission, Ms. Reilly said. "There are remarkable actors in the Pittsburgh area. There are some wonderful conservatories and other training programs in Pittsburgh which supply a rich pool of talent to draw on."
The group's largest expense is payroll, and the primary source of revenue is ticket sales, but it also receives support from the namesake school at which it performs.
"We are absolutely dependent upon Saint Vincent College and Archabbey for the support they provide," Ms. Reilly said. "We are a separate corporation, but we have a close relationship. We were founded by a Saint Vincent monk, and the executive director is still a monk."
Some theater groups offer lunch or dinner packages, such as Apple Hill Playhouse and The Lamplighter Restaurant in Delmont, or the Green Gables Restaurant on the Mountain Playhouse grounds. Saint Vincent offers post-performance gatherings begun by Father Devereux.
"Father Tom was very aware of the event nature of summer theater," Ms. Reilly said. "I think that's why he founded the Cabaret with free food and beverages. There's no obligation to donate, although most people do. You can sit under the tents and listen to the musicians and talk about the play."
Ms. Reilly and Mr. Bickert each spoke of broadening their audience and reaching out to families and children. They know intrinsically the value of doing so.
Mr. Bickert was about 10 years old when he first watched his father, Leo W. Bickert, act in a play at the former Sherwood Forest Theater in Murrysville. The senior Mr. Bickert, now 81, was also active with the Penn Hills Players and Stage Right near Fox Chapel.
"I didn't know what to expect and it was fascinating," he said. But he was in his mid-20s before he took to the stage himself. "Once you get bit, you're in it for life."
Ms. Reilly has been around theater "since I was born," she said. Her mother, Patricia Carney Reilly, was one of the founding members of the Saint Vincent company. She continues to act and will appear in a couple of this summer's plays. Her late father, Joe Reilly, who was a member of the Saint Vincent College faculty, directed and acted with the company for more than 40 years. When she was young she helped backstage and at the box office. "It was a really neat way to grow up."
Ms. Reilly earned a bachelor's degree in history from Williams College and a master of fine arts degree in film production from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television, and began a career as a professional theater director.
She returned to Pennsylvania in 2008 when her father invited her to direct a play at Saint Vincent. In 2009 she moved back to direct a show and to help out when her father died unexpectedly. Later she was offered his position with the theater group. She also teaches film studies and acting classes at Saint Vincent College.
Both Ms. Reilly and Mr. Bickert hope their passion translates into a growing appreciation for theater.
"For some [patrons], it's an introduction to live theater. Many only know high school musicals," Mr. Bickert said. "If people really enjoy their experience, they may move on to Pittsburgh Public Theater or the Broadway Series. It creates a whole new level."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1925. First Published May 31, 2012 4:00 AM