When Gus Kaikkonen was a MacDowell Colony fellow in the early ’90s, he couldn’t find the Peterborough Players theater.
The playwright was used to seeing theaters on main streets, not in the woods, and when a sign downtown led him along a weathered dirt road, he gave up after two miles, assuming he’d traveled the wrong way or the sign was misplaced.
Kaikkonen later found the theater when he returned to town while visiting a friend and fell in love with it. Turns out, he had been going the right way — it’s just that the 250-seat, 18th-century barn turned playhouse is pretty remote, surrounded by trees and acres of farmland.
According to Kaikkonen, the company was founded in 1933 by Edith Bond Stearns, a woman who loved the arts and wasn’t sure what to do with her old barn. It was actually her friend Mrs. Marian MacDowell, cofounder of the MacDowell Colony, who suggested she invite the colonists to perform their plays there.
“And that’s how the theater started,” Kaikkonen said via phone last week. “Colonists would come here and produce their plays in the barn.”
Kaikkonen is now the Players’ artistic director, a title he’s held since 1996, and he’s not the only longstanding member — there’s a whole slew of people who’ve been with the Peterborough Players 20 years or more, including managing director Keith Stevens and set designer Charlie Morgan, who are collaborating for the next play of the season, Annapurna, a regional premiere that kicks off July 6.
Annapurna by Sharr White follows a woman, Emma, who tracks down her husband Ulysses in a middle-of-nowhere trailer park after 20 years apart for a final reckoning. The title refers to a group of mountains in the Himalayas recognized as some of the hardest to climb. Kaikkonen will perform as Ulysses and Lisa Bostnar will be Emma.
“There’s this concept the playwright talks about in mountaineering — the commitment. When you get to a certain point, going back is not an option. You have to go forward,” said Stevens, who will direct.
Morgan is designing sets for this show, which he began building after the start of the company’s first play of the season, Driving Miss Daisy, which went on June 22. He said via phone the entire play occurs in one room heaped with stuff — books, knick-knacks, trash — with ’70s-style upholstery and a mountain view.
Today, most people in town know about the theater in the woods. A handful of company members are there year-round, but most arrive in Peterborough in early June, just a week before the mainstage season, which consists of seven shows and two second company performances from mid-June through August. Kaikkonen holds auditions in New York and Peterborough over the winter, and actors, ranging from early-20s to mid-80s, stay on site in cabins that were built three years ago with the help of local donations.
“We go from a place that has three to five people working in the building at any one time to having 35 to 40 people working at any one time. It just goes from 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds. We ramp it up really quickly,” Stevens said. “We tell the interns that when you start going downtown, people are going to look at you and say, ‘Here’s a young person I’ve not seen before — the Players must be here.’”
Patrons often come beforehand to have picnics on the flower-decked patio and landscaped grounds, and many hold subscriptions. It’s because of this community love the Players have been able to last this long.
“We really are the regional theater for this area. … Peterborough is a town that prides itself on having a rich artistic and cultural life,” Stevens said. “The fact that this organization has been here for 83 years I think speaks to the fact that it’s important to the community.”