Build it and they will come

WHAT opens its new Julie Harris Stage
By IRIS FANGER  |  June 11, 2007
Jeff Zinn and Julie Harris

The drive out Route 6 past the Orleans rotary gets ever more twee as the landscape changes to the scrubby pine and sandy margins of outer Cape Cod. So it’s even more of a jolt — as you pass the clam-roll stands, 1950s motels, and souvenir shops — to come upon the behemoth building adjacent to the local post office that’s the new home of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. “It’s pretty rare that you have an opportunity to build a new theater on an empty piece of land,” says Jeff Zinn, WHAT’s artistic director. “We’ve built the theater we wanted to work in.”

Founded in 1985 by six actor-director-aspiring playwrights, WHAT has prospered by presenting edgy dramas rather than the usual summer-stock fare of musicals and Neil Simon. The shows were mounted in an unheated, storm-gray shack at the edge of Wellfleet Harbor that holds just 90 persons. Patrons in the front row could rest their toes on the stage, and when it rains, the toilets overflowed into the lobby.

But under Zinn’s leadership (co–artistic director Gip Hoppe resigned last year but returns to direct this season), WHAT has raised almost $7 million to build a new theater — a leap of faith for a village that numbers 3000 souls come winter. Named the Julie Harris Stage in honor of the 81-year-old actress and Chatham neighbor who has served as sometime WHAT performer, honorary board chair, and avid fan, the space opens next Thursday with Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, which Trinity Repertory company just presented in Providence.

Zinn is positively gleeful as he leads a hard-hat tour of every cranny of the almost-finished space — and that includes the ladies’ room. Designed by architect John Freeman, the theater connects by bridge to administrative offices on the second floor above the post office. In the performing space itself, 200 seats will be installed on two small balconies and a half-circle-shaped incline stretching up from a stage that’s 33 feet wide by 36 feet deep, with 20-foot wings on either side. Carpeting covers the concrete floors, and the lighting and sound systems will be state-of-the-art. “We don’t have all the toys we want,” says Zinn, “but we have enough to have fun.”

The Julie Harris Stage has received private and public funding that includes a grant from the US Department of Agriculture to provide cultural programming in rural communities; it also has a 40-year mortgage. Still, Zinn says WHAT will continue producing in both of the company’s spaces, and he wants to build a year-round education program as well as to rent to local groups. “We’re optimistic there’s a market for aseason from May to November. The Cape is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.”

The Clean House | Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater Julie Harris Stage, Rte 6, Wellfleet | June 21–July 21 | $29; $14.50 student rush | 508.349.WHAT

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