June 22, 2016
Pendragon Theatre has been delighting the North Country since 1980. They draw from a considerable pool of professional and amateur talent, most of it local. Then they craft productions which range from the best of contemporary drama to well-loved classics.
Since we are all about conservation here in the Adirondacks, we have become adept at taking existing buildings and making them into something else. Much like an actor sits down at the dressing table, and gets up as Abraham Lincoln or Marie Antoinette.
Pendragon Theatre was once an abandoned garage.
A garage is an interesting choice for a theater, but does offer some advantages. There's already considerable open space. Numerous levels are an advantage, since a stage also needs vertical room. There is plenty of parking.
It's actually not a bad idea at all.
Pendragon's first production was Tennessee William's classic, "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Fran Yardley played Stella Kowalski, the long-suffering wife of the main male character. She remembers it was a fateful gathering in a local bookstore. "Just a tiny place, they only had room for one little row of drama books, down on the bottom shelf. Bob Pettee (one of Pendragon's founders) and Eliot Verner knew each other from Adirondack Mountain School in Long Lake. Bob and Susan Neal (the other Pendragon founder) had moved to Saranac Lake. They both wanted to explore theatre here. And since there wasn't a group already here, they decided to create one."
In 1980 the first Pendragon production (though they didn't have a name, yet) gave three performances for a budget below $500. They weren't sure if they were even going to get that far. At the first meeting, at the downtown bookstore, three people had shown up: Fran, Bob, and Susan, who was playing the pivotal character of Blanche DuBois. Fran laughed, "We just looked at each other for a bit, because the play needed eleven people. But then in walked Jay Elsworth, and he was Stanley Kowalski personified!"
Thus encouraged, the cast expanded to Jay's next door neighbors, Diane Fortado, and her husband Phil Newton. Fran remembers, "Everyone was reaching out to people they knew. Manny Bernstein was in it, Richie Merritt played the young man, Georgette Duvall came in, and we held rehearsals on the stage at the Petrova School. That is where the performances took place, too, because we didn't have a stage at that point."
By spring, they had acquired the abandoned garage for their next production, "Under Milk Wood," with Bob Pettee directing. Their fame had already spread. Fran said, "We had the whole community come out for that one. By this time, we knew we needed a name. Tom Delahant suggested Pendragon, you know, the father of King Arthur was Uther Pendragon, and everyone liked it."
I have always liked the name of the theatre, myself. The parent of great things.
started with love
Susan and Bob, teachers of art and lovers of theatre, met through a mutual friend in the late 1970s. They became involved in a small theatre group in Long Lake. They had planned to try New York City, but within two weeks, they both agreed that was not for them.
They had something smaller and more regional in mind, and the response in Saranac Lake was decisive. Here is where they were going to build their theatre. While Susan and Bob moved on in 2013 to explore new horizons, the beating heart of Pendragon Theatre is as strong as ever.
The upcoming season includes the 1998 Tony-award winning Comedy, "ART," which will have an encore performance later in the season. In late June and early July, there's "Around the World in 80 Days," a children-friendly production of the thrilling novel. Next up, the famed "Amadeus," hilarious comedy "Baskerville: a Sherlock Holmes Mystery," and in late summer and fall, another Tennessee William's classic, "The Glass Menagerie."
The lineup reflects Pendragon's commitment to the community. They like to have something for kids, a musical, a comedy, a contemporary work, and a classic drama every season.
Fran remembers, "Early on we saw that St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center would come to every play, so now we have a tradition of them coming for dress rehearsal, every play. They love it."
Expansions have been built in the front to accommodate a box office and gallery area, where local artists have shows. This is also the gathering space for opening night receptions for each play. In the back, rooms have been added on for the many backstage activities so vital to a working theatre.
POOL OF TALENT
While there are many eager actors in the region, the theatre is also blessed with dedicated volunteers who build sets and props and costumes.
I tried out for both "Harvey" and "Death of a Salesman" last season, and while I did not make it, auditioning was incredibly fun. I must map out time in the future to try out again, and even if I don't get anything, I could always help out backstage.
The "flats" are the walls onstage. If it's something small or light or in the background, mock pieces can be constructed. But furniture the actors are going to sit upon requires... real furniture. This is when garage sales, family contacts, and secondhand stores are scoured for just the right piece.
Several years ago Pendragon staged the Sam Shepard Pulitzer Prize winner, "Buried Child." The action takes place in a living room, dominated by a couch. I was told that many couches were looked at and rejected before, in a grandparent's garage, the absolutely right couch was discovered.
I saw the play. Everyone was great, and the couch was perfect for the role.
As I learned in high school drama, it's amazing that what looks like a nothing-much paint job from closeup transforms when seen from the front row... when it's properly lighted, that is. That's the job of the engineers up in the booth, where they work the lights and sounds of the play. These vital elements must all come together to create the play's alternate reality.
"It's an amazing thing," Fran said. "For it to be so good, and still going after all this time. I think it was the spirit of the founders, Bob & Susan. They were very open and welcoming. To an amazing extent, they left ego at the door, which encouraged everyone to come together and create something wonderful."
The creative spirit is still burning brightly. In early summer, in a shop window at Main Street Exchange, they created a living tableau to promote their then-current play, "ART." Fran's husband Burdette Parks both directed and acted in this production.
The playhouse stays lively into December, because there is always a production for the holiday season. Whenever friends and relatives stop by the Adirondacks, I love taking them to Pendragon. They often marvel how deeply an offering moved them — or made them laugh.
Either way, that's show business.
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