Take a turn onto Brandy Brook Avenue from the main road that heads into Saranac Lake, and you’ll find a large dirt lot and a modest building with a smartly-decorated-but-otherwise-unassuming facade. Behind the building’s rustic exterior, a little bit of magic happens. This is the home of Pendragon Theatre, a staple of the Saranac Lake community that’s celebrating its 40th season this year.
Pendragon has an authentically Adirondack feel while maintaining a sense of character that is decidedly Saranac Lake. The building, inside and out, is elegant, artistic, and appropriately rough around the edges. That’s not surprising considering the structure was built in the 1920s and has been a dairy, warehouse, and garage.
But the current team of people who run Pendragon don’t speak of the theater company's history as something that happened, instead they talk as if it's something that still lives and breathes with the organization. That’s not to say there haven’t been changes, it just means the founding spirit of Bob Pettee and Susan Neal has endured since the beginning: bring a world-class theater organization that’s also a community theater to a small quirky town in the mountains.
The original Pengradon Theatre was downtown, above a spa and fitness center. The first play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," showed in 1980. There were only three performances and the budget was under $500. Pendragon got its name the following year — it’s a reference to Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur — and there were two performances, "Under Milk Wood" and "Hot L Baltimore."
Pendragon’s Executive Artistic Director, Karen Kirkham, said her family were summer residents of the region while she was growing up, and she would watch plays and hang out backstage at the theater. She never forgot the spirit of Pendragon, and one day she wrote Bob and asked if she could direct a play. He said "sure" and Karen went on to direct a summer program every year since.
One of Karen’s favorite experiences was directing Julie Harris, a famous stage and film actress, for Pendragon's presentation of "Amber Patches."
“She was humble and beautiful and amazing. It was a great experience for everybody,” Karen said.
Pendragon Board President Holly Wolff said a big part of what’s made Pendragon such an institution is the way it straddles being a year-round theater and being part of the community. In some areas, community theater might mean lower quality, but that’s not the way of things in Saranac Lake.
“When you think of Saranac Lake as having over fifty galleries within the vicinity of a five-thousand-person community, you realize how artistic it is in relation to other places, Saranac Lake was the right place to be,” Holly said. “There’s an environment that encourages theater, and it’s gone through generations.”
Other Adirondack communities attract creative types, but Saranac Lake is unique in that it has attracted a critical mass of creative types. They’re drawn here with paintbrushes and drum sticks and guitars in hand, ready to contribute to the overall vibe of the place. That means Pendragon has an ever-growing pool of talent to draw from for its performances, and it also means there’s a built-in audience for live theater here. But Pendragon doesn’t exist in a bubble — Karen said about half the tickets sold are to locals, the rest are to people visiting from outside the region.
Pendragon is a year-round theater, but the summer series is when it really shines. The stage plays host to a revolving melange of productions and themes. There are popular plays even the most non-theater-going person has heard of, like “A Christmas Carol,” modern plays like this year’s “Native Gardens,” and things you’ll only see in Saranac Lake, like the gut-busting comedy “Guys On Ice.”
Associate Artistic Director, Kimberley Bouchard said there’s a balance to every program. Kid friendly, social commentary, dramas, and comedies are usually part of the mix.
“It’s entertainment, it’s thought provoking, it’s edgy,” Kimberley said. “For example, "Disgraced" really spoke to ethnic diversity and how people have assumptions of other people based on their ethnicity or their religious background. That’s part of what keeps Pendragon vital.”
It is the Adirondacks, after all
Pendragon has a legacy to uphold, but it’s also on the move as plans to relocate to a space that’s closer to downtown are in the works. The building will be a better performance space, and if all goes well it will also help position them in a way that allows them to better collaborate with other organizations.
That’s not to say the current space isn’t fun, it just isn’t modern. And since this is the Adirondacks, quirky buildings can led to some quirky happenings.
Kent Streed, the resident designer and box office operator, fondly recalls times when the theater’s guests included mammals of the non-human variety — a skunk backstage during a performance, a woodchuck under the box office, and deer loitering in the road, messing up the traffic pattern for people trying to pull into the parking lot.
“This is kind of an odd place, it’s kind of cool, there goes a woodchuck, and people walk out having seen a great show,” Kent said with a laugh.
It is the Adirondacks, after all.
40th summer season shows
- Native Gardens (June 21 - July 12): A brand new comedy that explores the good, the bad, and the ugly about the clash of generations and cultures. It’s timely and relevant.
- Next to Normal (July 5 - August 4): A Tony-Award winning musical drama with some funny moments. Sponsored by St Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center
- Mary Poppins, Jr. (July 19 - July 28): The Camp Pendragon show, this classic musical features memorable songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" Sponsored by Long Run Wealth Advisors
- A Doll’s House, Part 2 (August 2 - August 23): A continuation of the original that picks up the story 20 years later. Pendragon has also shown Doll House in the past.
- The Foreigner (August 16 - September 8): This year marks the third time Pendragon has performed this timely comedy that's loaded with social commentary. Sponsored by Guide Boat Realty
Before Pendragon can move to its new home, it needs to raise money. To donate, visit the theatre’s website or email info@PendragonTheatre.org.