A significant part of Provincetown’s identity as an arts colony is its literary tradition—and, more specifically, its theatre. The Provincetown Players, a mixed group of writers, playwrights, actors, and artists—and the first truly American theatre company—in 1915 converted an abandoned fish house into The Wharf Theatre. In 1916 The Players opened with Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff and the Boston Globe ran a front page article proclaiming Provincetown the “Biggest Art Colony in the World.” Throughout the next several decades, Provincetown moved into prominence as one of the primary cultural centers of the country.
Fast-forward to 2017, and, well… let’s just say that it hasn’t been a very good year for theatre in Provincetown, and there’s real fear that perhaps that part of our legacy is fading to black for the last time.
Take the odd silence emanating from the Provincetown Theater. Things hadn’t been going terribly well—remember that expensive marquee with the misspelling?—and now the season’s final production, A Christmas Carol, has been cancelled. Possibly more importantly, the annual fundraising gala has been cancelled as well. The artistic director, apparently fired, has already found a new job elsewhere in town, though anyone who was in any of this summer’s plays and isn’t an Equity actor can go whistle for a paycheck.
Will the theater die like this? With a whimper, surrounded by rumors, and leaving everyone wondering what the hell just happened?
The theater’s website couldn’t be less transparent. It doesn’t say anything about the Provincetown Theater Foundation, formed in 2001 to “sustain, encourage, and promote the performing arts on Outer Cape Cod through the maintenance and management, both physically and artistically, of the Provincetown Theater.” It doesn’t give names of any staff or identify members of the board of directors.
What’s even more heartbreaking is considering the people who have worked very hard to support this endeavor. “Millions of hours have been quietly donated by generations of townspeople, by countless amateur and professional artists, designers, playwrights, musicians, angels, technicians, grant writers, and tradespersons,” says local actor Jane MacDonald. “Ongoing support has come from local businesses, town and municipal programs, as well as state, and national organizations. Generous and loyal volunteers have provided the physical and psychic energy that has always replenished the hopes and the heart of the theatre.”
And it’s not just the Provincetown Theater that’s in disarray. Executive director Jeffry George’s abrupt departure from the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, along with the revelation that the theater was struggling financially and reducing staffing, has made its 33rd anniversary not particularly celebratory. The theater opened its season with a superlative rendering of Romeo and Juliet, and brought plays, a Jewish film festival, and its celebrated Met in HD to the stage… but had to cancel at the last minute the anticipated Yule for Fuel performances that the Lower Cape Outreach Council was no doubt counting on, a true community event by and for the community. More bad feelings.
There’s a custom in the theatre world of leaving a single lightbulb, called the “ghost light,” lit all the time onstage, a single point of illumination in a dark theater. I’m starting to worry that the long and celebrated tradition of fine year-round theatre in Provincetown and on the Outer Cape may be coming down to this—to echoes in an vacant space and a ghost light hanging alone out over an empty stage.