Renovations have begun on Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Theater, thanks to a private donation made to Shauna Kanter’s VOICETheatre company, which is looking forward to using the building as its upstate base, but to also be shared with other performance groups. The addition of air conditioning, heat, and insulation will make the small theater comfortable in summer and extend its use to spring and fall seasons for the first time since it was built as part of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, over a century ago.
“This was a generous donation,” said Jeremy Adams, executive director of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, which owns and administers the Byrdcliffe properties. Although he declined to disclose the amount of the gift, he called it “pretty significant for an organization of our size. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. There will be so much more opportunity for local theater troupes and other community events.”
The opportunity is key for VOICETheatre, which was founded in 1988 and has toured extensively in the U.S., France, Germany, Palestine, Israel, and the U.K., performing a range of plays, from classics to cutting-edge pieces written and directed by Kanter, often with political themes. In recent years, the economics of New York City theater had relegated the company’s regional performances to a series of venues in Woodstock and a church basement in the West Village. Last year, the church decided it would no longer host theater, and Kanter told one of her donors in Woodstock how upset she was to lose the space.
The woman suggested basing her company at Byrcliffe, where the group had performed previously, but Kanter explained that the lack of heat in the building limited its use to the summer. “We can fix that,” the anonymous donor replied, and the renovation strategy was launched.
When other fans found out about the project, said Kanter, “They came on board without my even asking. They said, ‘I will give you money. I want to see this happen.’ It was a tumbleweed experience — when you have some success, others recognize the momentum.”
It took eight months of negotiation for VOICETheatre and the Woodstock Guild to hammer out an agreement on their collaboration. The Guild still owns the building and plans to make it available for use from April through December, shutting down in the winter months when maintenance expenses are high and audiences scanty. Kanter praised Adams for having the vision to see the project through. “A lot of people would’ve said it’s too difficult, and would’ve given up, but he was right there with me.”
The Guild is taking the opportunity to make needed repairs. Along with the stage and seating area, the stage-left dressing room will be insulated, heated, and air conditioned. Adjustments at the rear of the performance area will allow actors to cross backstage without having to go outside the theater. Now that the two organizations are in partnership, they plan to apply for funds to make further changes next year, weatherizing the lobby and the stage-right dressing room as well.
Having a solid base will enable VOICETheatre to gradually expand its local offerings. This summer, there will be only one production, Our Country’s Good, based on a Thomas Keneally novel about a play performed by prisoners in one of the first penal colonies in Australia. The show opens in July. Committed, as ever, to educational outreach, Kanter is setting up scene-based workshops in local schools to address the problem of bullying.
A three-week theater camp for high school students is planned for next summer. Despite local opportunities for children and teens to perform at New York Conservatory for the Arts, Paul Green Rock Academy, and the New Genesis Productions Shakespeare program, Kanter finds a gap. “There are kids who want to act but don’t want to do musicals, rock, or Shakespeare, and there are kids whose families don’t have the money for those great offerings. We’re going to offer scholarships.”
Next year, Kanter hopes to produce two plays, and three the following year. She looks forward to doing her spring reading series at the theater instead of having to seek other venues. Other performance companies will still have access, and the Guild is working on a strategic plan that may include implementing its own programming in the space, said Adams.
This summer, the lobby will display memorabilia from the different theater, dance, and opera companies that have performed at Byrdcliffe. “So far we have lots from River Arts,” said Kanter. “More is welcome. We want to include posters, props, photos, pieces of scenery that folks have saved from previous shows. All are welcome to be included.” The exhibit is being curated by artist Any Cote. In the future, Kanter hopes local artists will curate exhibits that visually illustrate the themes of the productions.
Musing on the service the renovated theater will provide, Kanter said, “I grew up in the theater. My dad worked on Broadway many times. I trained as an actor, then started directing. What’s happened is that I’ve been pushed out of New York City. It’s happened to thousands of people. You can stay in the city and have a home, but it’s got to be in a church basement.” She recalled the days where there were 50 shows on Broadway each year, in theaters that have been torn down and replaced with Starbucks or clothing boutiques. “At one time, the city was the only place to be if you were going to work in the theater. Now, because of the economic reality, I see that for my students there, most of their energy goes into paying the rent. By 40 or 45, if you haven’t made it big, life is extremely difficult. Woodstock has come up with the answer.”
Being based upstate, Kanter believes, will also enhance the quality of theatrical work. Instead of two or three weeks of rehearsal, she will be able to afford five weeks. She will also be able to hire Equity actors from New York City and the local area, as well as paying some non-Equity actors. She remarked, “This change is big for us.”
With actors coming up from New York City to perform, hosts are being sought to house performers for a night or two during the theatrical season. To offer a room, to provide material for the historical Byrdcliffe Theater exhibit, or to make a donation to next year’s renovation fund, contact Shauna Kanter at [email protected]. For more information on VOICETheatre, see https://www.voicetheatre.org. To learn more about the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, visit https://www.woodstockguild.org.