New Bedford Community Theatre Thrives After 62 Years

Your Theatre, a Local Arts Treasure, Would Love to Have a New Home
By Jack Spillane, New Bedford Standard-Times

Ed Maguire, left, artistic director, and Jennifer Palmer, executive director of Your Theatre, want to find a new and permanent home where the 62-year-old company can return to including experimental stage performances among its offerings, as well as acting, directing and set design workshops. Peter Pereira

It’s like this hidden-in-plain-sight treasure that local theater lovers know about but the rest of Greater New Bedford is mostly oblivious to Your Theatre.
Name me another New England city or town that has had a community theater staging quality productions of serious theater for 62 consecutive years.
But there it is in the South End, a fine-arts performance venue that’s as much a part of contemporary New Bedford as the scallop boats and empty clothing mills.
It’s lived at the old Kenyon-Campbell School near the infamous Weld Square; in a nondescript warehouse on working-class Parker Street; and at the busy Maxfield/Purchase corner where the former Swain School of Design (now the Quest Center) sits.
Your Theatre has staged small, experimental “black box” productions and one-woman shows. Respected actors’ workshops and powerful staged readings have taken place under its name.
During its long history of providing quality theater on a cheap ticket, Your Theatre has also produced everything from an original children’s play, “The Land of the Dragon,” to elaborate musical productions such as “The Sound of Music.” In the past few years, it’s staged more-than-credible productions of serious dramas such as “Wit” and “Doubt, a Parable.”
In its current incarnation at the auditorium at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in the South End, Your Theatre is where local attorney Ray Veary’s play “Water Widow” genuflected to sudden death in the New Bedford fishing industry; and it’s unassuming stage is where later this year an original play named “Dr. Banner’s Garden” will be born.
“As a theater company, we are a landmark.” said Jennifer Palmer, the company’s first-ever paid executive director. “We’re open year round, the only community theater in the New Bedford area.”
Yeah, but, it’s truly, really a lot more than just that.
Community theater is often schoolhouse-like productions of “My Fair Lady” and “The Odd Couple,” a smorgasbord of cliches, uneven acting and tinny musical accompaniment. That, however, is definitely, not Your Theatre.
Ed Maguire, the company’s longtime artistic director and jack-of-all-trades, chalks up its high standards and imagination to the powerful personality and views of its original moving force, a woman named Mary A. Smith.
“The quality was pretty much instilled in us by our founder,” he said.
From Your Theatre’s start in 1946, Smith, a classically trained actress and speech teacher, pushed for the highest quality, “whether or not the community demands it.”
She wanted the company to stage the best plays, with the best actors, the best directors and best staging, according to a recent company history by Roger Allen, one of the troupe’s members.
“Good theater can be professional theater or nonprofessional theater, but it can never be amateur,” Smith said at the theater’s annual dinner in 1958.
Amateurism is a state of mind, she believed.
In a contemporary era in which entertainment has come to mean two-minute videos on YouTube or text-messaging gossip on a cell phone, Jennifer Palmer says she wants to bring good theater to a generation more used to virtual reality than a live stage. She plans to expand the company’s productions aimed at children — she will direct “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at Gallery X this year.
Her biggest goal, however, is to locate a new and permanent home where the company can return to including experimental stage performances among its offerings, as well as acting, directing and set design workshops.
“We have a huge responsibility to provide the best we can, to educate,” she said. “And if you want to educate and do classes and workshops, it’s important to have your own space.”
Your Theatre has worked with Mayor Scott Lang’s administration on a long-range plan to find its own space, but Palmer acknowledges it won’t be easy.
The old Orpheum Theater in the South End is breathtaking and grand but too large for community theater. And the former Center Theater (formerly Strand) on Acushnet Avenue in the North End might have been perfect five years ago. But now its roof is open to the sky, Maguire said ruefully.
They have looked at the old Capitol Theater, also on the Avenue north of Coggeshall Street. It’s the right size for subdivision for stages, classes and storage. But it needs a lot of work. The Bijou Theater over in Fairhaven is a possibility, but they would rather stay in the city.
A downtown space, at least for a satellite theater, would also be great, but the company has yet to identify that location either. Looking for an open lot and building is also a possibility.
One great benefit to Your Theatre of having its own space would be as a revenue generator.
It could then lease out the space when it isn’t using it, along the model of Gallery X, the city’s successful contemporary art gallery on William Street.
“And I think, honestly, that after 62 years, we deserve our own space,” Palmer said.
“Damn right,” said Ed Maguire, who has been involved in the theater for nearly 50 of the theater’s 62 years.
Your Theatre is in better financial and organizational shape than many of the community theaters that have come and gone during its lifetime.
It has a subscription base of 330 (it would like to get it to 500) and a base of volunteers, including actors, of about 200. Maybe 30 or 40 of those volunteers are the most active.
In recent times, they have staged five major theatrical productions every year, along with several specialty productions. And you can buy coupons for three shows for a bargain of $33.
Wherever Your Theatre eventually lands, Palmer and Maguire say it will remain the same as it’s always been.
“We still hold to our standards for community theater, to choose productions of quality, to try to bring to the audience and to the public the chance to see things they haven’t had an opportunity to see before,” Ed Maguire said.
Contact Jack Spillane at  jspillane@s-t.com.
May 24, 2009
Source URL: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090524/NEWS/905240346/-1/NEWS06

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