Chester Theatre Company: A theater open to possibilities


CHESTER -- Actress Jennifer Rohn is about to take a big plunge, and she's asking theatergoers to join her.

Rohn will be starring in Leslie Ayvazian's semi-autobiographical comedy, "High Dive," in a series of special performances 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Chester Town Hall in celebration of Chester Theatre Company's 25th anniversary season.

Thursday's performance is for Friends of Chester Theatre Company only. Wednesday's performance will be followed by a Champagne reception.

First performed at Chester by Ayvazian in 2002, "High Dive" begins with Rohn as Leslie perched on the edge of a high-dive platform recounting the series of farcical misadventures that have brought her to this place.

"High Dive" is a one-woman show with a cast of 36 -- one professional actress on stage and 35 nonprofessionals in the audience whom Rohn has chosen at random in the lobby 15 to 20 minutes before curtain and to whom she has given the parts they will read from their seats at the appropriate time.

"It's one of the most popular shows we've done," CTC artistic director Byam Stevens said in a recent telephone interview. "We thought three performances of an innovative interactive piece would be fun and in keeping with who and what we are as a theater."

Working with 35 unknowns on each of three evenings is an invigorating challenge, says Rohn, who is making her sixth appearance at Chester with "High Dive" (her most recent was last season in "Body Awareness;" her first was in 1999 in "John Brown's Body").

"I miss them (the audience) in the rehearsal hall (where she is working under the direction of James Warwick)," she said in a telphone interview. "Interaction is clearly the heart of the piece.

"I've done a one-woman show before so that helps. For this, you have to be on top of your improvisation skills. Anything can happen. The key, I think, is to know what I know as well as I know it."

Chester Theater Company began as The miniature Theatre of Chester in 1990 when H. Newman Marsh, a retired New York banker and philanthropist living in Chester, invited Vincent Dowling -- an actor and director who was associated for 23 years with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and spent nine years as artistic director of Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland -- to give a benefit in Chester for the Chester Foundation to renovate the town's railroad station.

"Before I could even do any serious thinking about (the benefit), I decided to do theater here, one production a year and it would be an Equity show," Dowling said in an August 1991 interview with the Eagle.

"Every town deserves a theater, and a good one," he would say then and again, often, over the years until his death at the age of 83 in 2013.

His eyes were set on the Chester Town Hall, whch he had seen some years earlier when he and his wife, Olwen O'Herlihy Dowling, bought some land in North Chester upon which they eventually built a home. Dowling had, at that time, accompanied a friend to the Chester Town Hall to pay his taxes, "I peeked in and thought ‘What a place.' All actors like intimate spaces," Dowling said.

He and his wife invested some of their own money, and miniature Theatre was established. Dowling produced and performed in one play that first season, "Mr. Dooley's America."

For his first full season a year later in 1991, Dowling produced "Dawnings," "A Smaller Place" and a series of one-actor shows.

Dowling's wife was the theater's producer and managing director.

The theater operated on a budget of $30,000 (the annual budget now is $240,000).

Dowling retired as founding artistic director after the 1995 season -- his wife also stepped down as managing director -- and was succeeded by Peter Bennett who, for health reasons, left at the end of the 1997 season. He was replaced by Stevens.

"Vincent built the foundation for all of this," Stevens said in his phone interview.

"He made it an Equity company from day one. In his six years as artistic director, he produced 12 new plays, which is a remarkable commitment to new plays. So the foundation was there."

But the theaer also was something of a curiosity. Blame that on its name.

Dowling's idea was to present small-cast plays in an intimate 150-seat space at low ticket prices and low budgets without sacrificing quality.

"Our home is a small space in the tiny town hall of the tiny town of Chester," Dowling would tell the Eagle in a 2006 interview. "We play on a small stage. We perform small-cast plays. We operate on one of the smallest budgets for an Equity professional regional theater.

"I was inspired to call the theater I founded ‘miniature' by the great artists of the past and present who, in miniature, painted, sculpted, composed music and poetry of the highest quality on rings, brooches, stones, masks, and even on pinheads, for example."

Still, the name raised more questions than it answered. Two attempts to change the name were rejected by the theater company's board of directors. A third effort, however, just before the start of the 2006 season -- the theater's 17th -- proved the charm. The name was changed by unanimous vote.

"A lot of people aren't sure what the ‘miniature' means," Stevens told the Berkshire Eagle in a July 3, 2006 interview. Moreover, Stevens believed the name change reflected the company's growth.

Thinking again about the name change during an interview earlier this summer on the porch of CTC's Main Street offices around the corner from Town Hall, Stevens said it was important "for us to be clear to audiences who we are; what we are going to do."

What that means to Stevens is choosing plays by writers who show "original use of language; courage to take on matters of substance and heart.

"I'm not interested in post-modern irony. That's opposed to risk," Stevens said. "Risk is at the heart of theater."

Among Stevens' immediate concerns when he became artistic director was to improve the theatergoing experience for audiences. That meant new chairs, new risers, air-conditioning, reserved seating.

"If people are uncomfortable, they're not talking about the play," Stevens said.

He also extended the stage and built a black false proscenium as a means of shaping the environment and giving a simple, unadorned town meeting hall a true theater ambience.

Educational outreach is a big component of CTC's programming. The Gateway Project and Camp Shepherd Project mentor junior- and high school students in acting, writing and production; linking the art and craft of theater to issues facing kids these days..

"I think of this as a teaching theater from junior high school to high school to college," Stevens said. That approach extends to CTC's audiences through post-performance talkbacks and panel discussions; annual theater trips in the fall to Dublin and late winter to London, and periodic one-day theater trips to New York.

Stevens -- who lives year round in a home in Blandford he bought in 1991 and shares with his wife and, when he is home from college, their son -- is not unmindful of the fact that audiences should feel entertained while they are being stimulated intellectually.

"I don't want people to come here and suffer," Stevens said. "Art and life are not zero sum games in which there is only one outcome.

"I want people to wrestle with these issues. It makes us flexible and supple.

"It's rather like a Rorschach test -- open to possibilities."

On stage

What: “High Dive” by Leslie Ayvazian

Who: Chester Theatre Company When: 8 p.m. Tue., Wed., Thu. Where: Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester

Tickets: $35 (Tuesday and Thursday); $50 (Wednesday)

How: (413) 354-7771;

Note: Thursday’s performance open to Friends of CTC only; Wednesday performance followed by champagne reception


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