Broadway at the Beach
The Ogunquit Playhouse is proof that sometimes there is no final act. Founded in 1932, the venerable theater was once just one of dozens of regional New England stages that made up the old Straw-Hat Circuit. The theater brought a touch of Broadway to the coast of Maine each summer. The Barrymores, Bette Davis, Steve McQueen, Jessica Tandy, and a host of others found their way to the footlights in the tiny beach community, and more than one ingénue got her big break in front of the playhouse's audiences.
In the long run, though, regional theaters had a survival rate lower than off-Broadway productions. From a peak of some 150 summer stages in the 1950s, today fewer than a dozen of Ogunquit's caliber survive in the Northeast. Yet the playhouse is not only still alive, it's growing, with soaring audience numbers and an ambitious seventy-fifth anniversary season featuring the first performance of the Broadway hit Hairspray outside New York City.
"We'll have a name star in every production," promises Brad Kenney, who took over as executive artistic director in December of 2005. "I'm going after other big titles as well. This will be the Ogunquit Playhouse like it used to be, back in its glory days."
Kenney, who has a background in both theater and the hospitality industry, brings a business and marketing sensibility to the position. Last year the playhouse attracted nearly 80,000 people, up from 46,000 in 2005. Its children's theater programming doubled in size, and its subscription base grew 20 percent in one year. Even its Web site traffic grew by 300 percent over the year before.
"The playhouse board is looking to expand the season and our offerings even more than before," Kenney adds. "Last year we expanded to a sixteen-week season, and this year we're looking at a twenty-week season. Last year we had some of our best weeks in October."
And all of those shows will be homegrown, rather than provided by the touring companies that were commonly used in the past. "We bring in Broadway costumes, Broadway backgrounds, and Broadway actors for Ogunquit prices," Kenney says. "We're now the pre-eminent Actors Equity regional theater in the country."
Much of the credit for the playhouse's survival belongs to former owner John Lane, a successful producer who bought the 650-seat theater in 1951. In 1995, shortly before his death, he donated the playhouse to a specially created nonprofit foundation [Down East, July 1995].
The other key, Kenney adds, is Ogunquit itself. Theaters "are very fragile things," he notes, "and yet this one has continued to prosper in large part because of its location. Ogunquit has always been a wonderful draw for both stars and audiences. This town has continued to grow, be hip and eclectic, and offer the kind of support a theater needs to survive."
Location and history aren't enough to guarantee the future, though, and Kenney recognizes that. "No theatrical heritage is going to help if you don't have a first-class production on the stage every night," he notes. "Our goal is to be the cutting-edge regional theater in the country. This is going to be Broadway at the beach."