'Secret weapon': At 10, White Heron theater pushes forward with Nantucket as inspiration, haven and star draw

·11 min read

Ten years in and a pandemic later, leaders at the White Heron Theatre Company on Nantucket are cautiously optimistic that 2022 has become a watershed moment in a good way.

Since coming to the island in 2012, artistic director Lynne Bolton and other officials have created a theater building (to replace a giant tent), a professional Equity company and a national reputation. They are creating a theater education program as well as a larger new-play development program with a pipeline to theaters elsewhere.

“Bright future,” “sustainable” and “financial stability” are phrases White Heron officials use when talking about the next 10 years — as long as the recent shortages of housing and workers don’t get in the way and COVID-19 concerns remain manageable.

Patrons at the close to 100-seat White Heron Theatre on Nantucket await a recent performance of the thriller "Dial M for Murder."
Patrons at the close to 100-seat White Heron Theatre on Nantucket await a recent performance of the thriller "Dial M for Murder."

A big part of the overall rosy outlook is due to the closing in June, after years of planning, on a refinanced 35-year loan for the remaining debt from the $7 million theater building.

That new loan, thanks to Nantucket’s Hingham Institute for Savings, Bolton says, cut the mortgage payments in half and relieved a huge amount of financial pressure.

“For the local bank to come in and help us do that, it’s huge,” she says, talking about the relief of the loan helping the theater “turn a corner” after its first decade. The loan “really lays out a future that’s very bright and exciting for us to make (the theater) really sustainable.”

Money is still certainly on everyone’s minds, and there’s little time to rest.

The theater has so far raised $3 million in the silent phase of a new capital campaign, Bolton says, and plans to start public fundraising this fall with as much as $7 million more as a final goal. The plan is to create an endowment divided into thirds going forward – to support new educational programs, developing new work, and then the theater itself.

Recognition from afar

Already, White Heron has seen its profile rise with recent grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the national Shubert Foundation, with more grants sought. Bolton had first co-founded White Heron in New York City in 2004, but it was after she moved White Heron to Nantucket as an incubator and producer of plays that the company blossomed.

“I think it does take 10 years to get established so that people are able to know that you are sustainable and viable,” she says of the recent recognition. “Getting both national and state grants have really made a difference for us over the years.”

One accomplishment of White Heron Theatre Company's first 10 years was building and opening its $7 million theater, and a capital campaign has begun for an endowment that would in part help sustain the 100-seat theater.
One accomplishment of White Heron Theatre Company's first 10 years was building and opening its $7 million theater, and a capital campaign has begun for an endowment that would in part help sustain the 100-seat theater.

Beyond its theater season — which has included sold-out shows this week of “Dial M For Murder” —  White Heron also has hosted comedy and music events. Newly named resident director Mark Shanahan credits Bolton’s vision for making the just-over-100-seat theater building on North Water Street a downtown cultural hub.

“What Lynn really accomplished building a theater in downtown Nantucket — a community space and not another T-shirt shop — is something to be commended,” he says. “People seem very grateful to have a community space to gather. … It feels wonderful (this year) to fill the place again with audience members, but also with artists, because so many actors, designers and writers for the theater have been sidelined for so long.”

Luminaries on stage

A late-July gala kicked off the opening night of “Dial M,” a stage and more comical version of what people best know as an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, starring acclaimed Broadway actors Celia Keenan-Bolger, Isabel Keating and Mark Price. They are the latest in a line of high-profile actors that White Heron has attracted to the island.

Other stars working there in the past decade include Rachel Brosnahan, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judith Ivey, Justin Kirk and Marsha Mason. Plays by Will Arbery, Joe DiPietro, Samuel Hunter and Meghan Kennedy have been developed at White Heron and gone on to professional productions elsewhere.

Review: Will a murder plot be unraveled? Cleverly done 'Dial M' brings Broadway stars to Nantucket

John Ellison Conlee, a theater, TV and film actor and Keenan-Bolger’s husband, starred at White Heron in the one-man “The Half” earlier this summer. The area premiere got enough interest from off-island commercial producers, Bolton says, that it may become the first show White Heron transfers and produces in New York City on its own.

Tony Award winner Celia Keenan-Bolger, right, and Kavin Panmeechao are two of the stars drawn to Nantucket for White Heron Theatre Company's current production of "Dial M for Murder."
Tony Award winner Celia Keenan-Bolger, right, and Kavin Panmeechao are two of the stars drawn to Nantucket for White Heron Theatre Company's current production of "Dial M for Murder."

“I think we have a unique place here on the island where we have a very sophisticated audience and have the ability to attract really superb actors and directors, but we're off the grid enough that these new projects aren't reviewed by The New York Times, for example,” she says.

The “incredible artists … can take the text and bring it to life and we can do something of value, we hope, and then it can go forward. It’s important that it doesn't just end here. We want to have some contribution to the American theater, and new work is really the way to do that.”

What work is done at White Heron and by whom is also a treat for audiences, Shanahan notes.

“There's so much that you can do (on Nantucket) in the arts, on top of everything else that is competing for attention, that I'm thrilled that people think that the plays are done well and are valuable,” he says. “They can't believe how lucky (they) are to see these actors on this stage, and I feel the same way. To go into a (100ish)-seat theater and see actors of this caliber in such an intimate environment is a rare thing.”

The lure of Nantucket

Part of the attraction for the high-profile names involved is, well, Nantucket itself. Bolton acknowledges the island as sort of a “secret weapon” for White Heron.

“The people who don't know (Nantucket) can't believe what a magical island it is, what kind of a place they're visiting,” Shanahan says. “They take to the island and fall in love with it.”

One of those people is Keenan-Bolger, who in 2018 starred in “Private Lives” with Conlee at White Heron. "When you’re an actress and you’re also a mother, much of your experience in the theater is defined by the guilt of having to abandon your family while you go make a play,” she said in an emailed statement. “What’s been especially moving about my time at White Heron is being able to bring my 7-year-old somewhere we probably never would have traveled otherwise. So not only do I get to make art with extremely talented and accomplished artists (including my husband), I’ve also gotten to have beautiful experiences and adventures with my family."

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Nantucket’s centuries of stories have also served as theatrical inspiration.

An island native is at the center of White Heron’s biggest jump into new-play development: Through last year’s NEA grant, theater officials are currently helping to develop a musical about Nantucket pioneering female astronomer Maria Mitchell that Bolton hopes will be on its stage next summer. The creators have worked on-island and continue writing and developing in New York City, with a current cast of 10 people.

New York-based writer/director Mark Shanahan, whose family has had a Nantucket home for decades, was recently named resident director of White Heron Theatre Company on Nantucket. He has directed several shows there and premiered plays about the island.
New York-based writer/director Mark Shanahan, whose family has had a Nantucket home for decades, was recently named resident director of White Heron Theatre Company on Nantucket. He has directed several shows there and premiered plays about the island.

New York-based writer/director Shanahan, whose “A Sherlock Carol” (a Holmesian take on Dickens) was a hit in New York last year and will play there again and in London this fall, has been behind other island-inspired work. He is directing “Dial M” after years of working with the company and sheltering on the island during the pandemic in a nearly lifelong family home.

A few years ago, he wrote “A Nantucket Christmas Carol” (a local spin on the Dickens classic) that will be reprised on stage for the holidays to close out this 10th-anniversary season. Shanahan re-created the show as a radio play in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 scare with none other than Oscar winner Christopher Plummer as the narrator — possibly Plummer’s last role before his death.

Shanahan also created a series of radio ghost stories based on Nantucket lore and his new play this year was aimed at a family audience — a push he wants to continue in his new position. His “See Monsters of the Deep,” based on a real island incident from the 1930s, premiered in June as a family-friendly entertainment choice.

People have seemed relieved this summer to return to the theater, he says — with optional masking — and his play partly made them look at what we’ve all been through in a new way. “It's really a play about confronting our fears and it was a play very much rooted in the pandemic, of trying to deal with something that you couldn't see and overcome it in many ways, to be brave,” he says.

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Shanahan says he’s pleased that “See Monsters” is also getting talked about for productions off the island. “It's always important to build plays and new work in the American theater that will have life all around the country,” he says, with the Nantucket locale as a bonus.

New educational programs

White Heron’s plans to develop new work also intersects with educational projects.

The company has already been part of filmmaker Jay Craven’s immersive college semester of movie-making around the island, with White Heron last winter helping with acting workshops and serving as a hub for the dozens of students from multiple colleges who lived there for the spring semester.

Bolton says they hope to use that model — which uses the empty Nantucket Yacht Club for housing and the Nantucket Culinary Center for meals — for White Heron’s own immersive winter theater residency program, too.

There was a pilot program for that in June, and White Heron plans to hold more student residencies this winter as a way to bring pre-professional actors together with the theater’s staff as well as professional New York actors, directors, agents and casting agents to “learn about how to work in the business.”

The lobby of White Heron Theatre on Nantucket during the intermission of a recent performance of "Dial M for Murder."
The lobby of White Heron Theatre on Nantucket during the intermission of a recent performance of "Dial M for Murder."

Officials were encouraged, Bolton says, by the diversity of the students who applied, and want to be able to offer scholarships, through one of the new endowments, to many of the students involved. They also plan to bring the lessons to students at Nantucket High School who are interested in continuing in theater.

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Diversity and offering opportunities to Nantucket residents, she says, is also paramount in planning for another project. The company already holds a play-writing program with island students, with their 10-minute scripts read by professional actors in a free and popular gala program held during the Nantucket Book Festival in June.

A new “Step Aside” musical project for next spring, as part of a "Poetry in Motion" collaboration with Nantucket Ballet, would create a movement-oriented piece about two African American tap dancers from 1930s Los Angeles.

While applying for NEA funding, White Heron will start that project anyway, she says, and is hoping to attract a diverse group of students and adults through working with other island organizations. The project teaches self-expression and language through movement, she says, and includes workshops with New York actors as well as tap and movement classes.

“What I really want to do is attract those groups of kids students who wouldn't otherwise come out,” she says. “Nantucket has a very diverse year-round population … and we really want to be able to engage people who live here year-round to be able to feel that they have a place, a source of self-expression and a way to join the arts community.”

Staging ‘Thurgood’

Topical issues and inclusion are part of White Heron’s mission to make theater not just entertainment but art that affects people and makes them think about their lives and those of people around them, according to Bolton.

Case in point is the final show of the summer, George Stevens Jr.s “Thurgood,” running Aug. 22-Sept. 1, about the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, with theater/film actor Earl Baker Jr. bringing his family for a first-ever Nantucket visit while he takes on the title role.

Bolton, who will direct, says she has been happy with the positive reaction she has been getting for “telling the story of a really amazing man.”

“It seemed like the right play for the times and I’ve been very gratified to see that the sales for ‘Thurgood’ are off the charts,” she says. “I thought this was going to be our little play that’s going to talk a bit about the world, the Supreme Court and what it means to be an American and our responsibility to democracy and all of that. Now a surprising amount of people are very energized about Thurgood, and I'm so pleased.”

Contact Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll at kdriscoll@capecodonline.com. Follow on Twitter: @KathiSDCCT.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: White Heron theater uses Nantucket for inspiration, haven, star power