America’s Greenest Theater

0
Views of the Hudson River are the backdrop to the HVSF scene. (Photos by Phyllis McCabe)

For a decade now, I’ve raved about the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. The artistic excellence of its productions rivals that of Manhattan’s Public Theater on a more modest budget. We admire the audacity of his sometimes edgy interpretations of The Bard and other classic stage works, his willingness to take risks, his priority of great acting and staging with extravagant sets and costumes, his confidence in the ability to imagination of the public.

We should always mention the frame as well. There’s no need for a stage show when the backdrop is a million dollar view of the Hudson Highlands. No one who’s ever seen a play in the HVSF tent on the grounds of Boscobel will probably ever forget that moment when the cast first appear above the rise, along with West Point, Constitution Marsh and maybe a setting sun backlights them.

Boscobel has been the headquarters of HVSF since 1988, its second year of existence. But it was still just a rental — a rental that was due to end on Labor Day weekend so the estate could be devoted to its other primary role as a fall wedding venue.

The time to renew HVSF’s lease was approaching when an extraordinary opportunity presented itself to the non-profit arts organization. It was the offer of a permanent home of his own. Now the first season of live shows at HVSF’s new home – the former Garrison Golf Course, less than four miles from Boscobel – is about to begin. Fortunately, the view from the site is just as breathtaking as the old one.

Davis McCallum, the artistic director of HVSF.

“Nobody knows that view here except golfers,” HVSF artistic director Davis McCallum said while touring the new site in May. Ahead of us, as we stood where a new permanent theater tent will be erected in 2023 or 2024, stretched an expansive view north of the iconic gap where the Hudson River crosses the Highlands, with Storm King on the left and Breakneck Ridge on the right. The tent opening behind the stage will point towards Breakneck, and there is a small mound which can be used in the same way the topography of the Boscobel site was used to shield the cast from view until the viewer is ready for the dramatic, “otherworldly entrance.”

“We’re going to maintain that signature moment as actors emerge from the landscape,” McCallum explained.

The new tent will be slightly smaller and lower than the old one, better ventilated, with wide overhangs that will provide rain protection during intermissions. Fewer poles will be needed to stand, which means there will be no more seats with obstructed views. In other respects it will resemble its predecessor, with a three-quarter thrust stage, sandy floor and “a real sense of acoustic intimacy between audience and performers”.

The space will remain the kind of informal setting that nurtures the spontaneity of outdoor summer theater – what McCallum calls “the opposite of the Shakespeare museum.”

As redevelopment plans for this site are still undergoing the permitting process with the Philipstown Planning Board, the 2022 theater season is taking place under the auspices of a Special Event Permit. No new permanent construction can begin yet.

The familiar white tent from the old site sits temporarily on flat ground on a former tennis court adjacent to the golf course’s clubhouse. The grassy slope next to it is suitable for picnics, although it is not positioned to take full advantage of the panorama. But the place where the new tent will be set up and the three picnic lawns surrounding it are only a few steps away.

To get there from the new rain-permeable parking lot—located on an old fairway and much closer to the action than the Boscobel grounds—visitors will take gently winding, ADA-accessible paths through a meadow native wildflowers. Land that was once a monoculture of closely mown grass, regularly treated with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, is returning to its natural state.

“We have the ambition to be the greenest theater in America,” McCallum says. “A golf course is anything but green.”

How did this eco-responsible transformation take place? Much of the credit must go to Christopher Davis, the philanthropist who donates 98 acres of the 200-acre golf course he owned to HVSF. Although he keeps a low public profile, refusing to be interviewed for this article, Davis and his family have been a major force for environmental conservation in the Hudson Valley for decades. Her grandmother, Kathryn Wasserman, was something of a legend. The daughter of a suffragette, she rode across the Caucasus Mountains in Russia in the 1920s, earning her doctorate. in Geneva, and married a wealthy investor named Shelby Collum Davis who would become Richard Nixon’s Ambassador to Switzerland. She started painting and kayaking in the 90s after a broken hip forced her to give up tennis. She voted for Norman Thomas, snubbed Donald Trump and lived to be 106. At 100, she donated $20 million to Scenic Hudson, where her grandson was a longtime board member, to save the banks of the Hudson River from development.

Chris Davis carried on the family’s environmental tradition and still sits on the board of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, which will manage the acreage of the former golf course that will not be owned by HVSF. These lands will be subject to permanent conservation restrictions.

The rolling fields are part of the beautiful property.

Chris Davis had purchased the property in 1999 specifically to keep it from being subdivided for condo development, and since then has operated the golf course at a loss” as he sought adaptive reuse consistent with its conservation values. that could be maintained as a community asset,” says McCallum. “He was a patron of the Shakespeare Festival for many years, but his real interest is in conservation and environmentalism. He is truly driven to want the Hudson Highlands experience to be accessible to more people.

While the new HVSF site and adjoining property will not be a public park in itself, residents will be able to continue to use its trails for passive recreation such as dog walking and snowshoeing. No longer constrained by Boscobel’s schedule, HVSF will be able to continue its performances in September and October, including matinees for “buses full of school children”, according to McCallum. “It gives us chances to do things that we never could have done before.”

Access will be improved both for people with disabilities and those who previously did not have the opportunity to enjoy live theater for socio-economic reasons. “We’re reimagining this as a cultural campus so that everyone in the Hudson Valley feels like what was once a golf course is a place they can come with their families,” says McCallum. The tent, grounds and pavilion could host community events when not otherwise in use.

Part of the generous package Davis has bestowed on HVSF is ownership of the clubhouse, restaurant and events, which hosts approximately 130 weddings a year. The organization will create a for-profit subsidiary to manage these businesses, the revenues of which should be used to sustain the theatrical activities.

“The holy grail of nonprofits,” McCallum says, his face alight with wonder. “Nothing like this has happened in nonprofit theater for several generations.”

Stone carvings can be found throughout the property.

The clubhouse known as The Garrison, which houses the Valley Restaurant and World’s End Bar, will allow theater patrons to dine onsite before a show. In recent years, HVSF has had to house its cast in motels in Fishkill for the season. Eight accommodation units on the clubhouse floor can be used as accommodations for guest artists.

The building can also host residencies and winter arts training and be used by community groups on weekdays when no events are taking place. HVSF’s 10-year plan – not included in the site plan currently under review by the township – envisages the construction of additional artists’ quarters, a rehearsal barn/costume store and a small indoor theater which would be usable all year round. “America’s first LEED Platinum purpose-built theater,” boasts McCallum.

But above all.

For now, audiences can get tickets to three different productions during HVSF’s first season at its new location at 2015 Route 9 in Garrison, at the intersection of Snake Hill Road. The very first show will be a production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, with a very unconventional cast: the headstrong teenagers will be played by HVSF’s oldest stage veterans, Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson, who happen to be also be married. to one another. It opens on July 7 and will continue until September 18, in repertoire with Mr. Burns: a post-electric piece by Anne Washburn, with music by Michael Friedman. Davis McCallum will direct. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopian tale told around a campfire, started with the retelling of an episode of The Simpsons.

Both plays will take a two-week hiatus in mid-August to host a national tour leg of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company production. where we belong by Madeline Sayet, directed by Mei Ann Teo. It is a solo performance by Sayet, a woman of Mohegan descent, exploring the relationship between Shakespeare and colonialism.

Ticket prices for all three shows range from $10 to $95. To order or learn more, visit https://hvshakespeare.org.

Share.

Comments are closed.