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Theater on a Bridge: A Look into America’s Most Unique Theater

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By Sarah Cramer

The Bridge Theater, WhitehallThe Bridge Theater, often hailed as “America’s Most Unique Theater” is currently administrated by the Arts and Recreation Commission of Whitehall. Even though the actual structure was closed last year due to safety concerns, the ARCW knows that the show must go on. They moved their stage to the nearby Cooke’s Island Resource Center and have opened for the 2010 season. Managing Director David Mohn, Artistic Director Martin P. Kelly and Board Member Marge Mohn were happy to sit down with me and talk about ARCW, the theater and reminisce about “things we haven’t thought of in years” (Kelly). Besides talking about Benedict Arnold, the Battle of Valcour, downtown Whitehall and the past heyday of theater review, they gave me an inside look at what ARCW does and shared plans for the future.

TFG: How did the Bridge Theater get started?
David:
Actually we had a group, a downtown business association. It seemed like the only things we wanted to talk about at meetings were positive things. Then Ray Faville said, “Look, we have to get an attraction here to draw people in” and the group suggested a theater. The Bridge over Lock 12 had been shut to traffic so Faville suggested looking at the bridge. Working with the Department of Transportation and various grant-making organizations, we managed to redesign the interior and start an annual show.

TFG: How many people fit in the theater?
Martin:
Theater style, the bridge can seat close to 100 people, fewer for a cabaret with tables. We’ve had people come through the canal on boats, even couples sailing around the world come to our theater. They came into a little village and found a theater—a theater on a bridge. We don’t know of any other bridge theaters in the world.

TFG: So when did the bridge shut down? Do you have plans for moving the stage back there?
David:
In June 2009, the bridge had to close, ten days before we were supposed to open for the season. The DOT has to do an inspection every year and usually it’s in April but it was late last year. We had to make a fast decision so we moved to our Cooke’s Island facility on Main St. We haven’t given up on the bridge; we now have to get quotes in for how much it would cost to stabilize the bridge. Meanwhile, our alternate plans are here.

TFG: So what’s going on at this location (Cooke’s Island Art Center) right now?
David:
You had to see this place in the beginning. Just overgrown, with propane tanks floating around. So little by little as we can get money, we’re fixing it up. Like this room we’re sitting in, this has all been redone.
Martin:
Last year when we found out we had to leave, the community turned out and in a weekend we moved everything—lights, sound, even the air-conditioner. We really had to wing it (last year). But the audiences that came adapted to it. We’ve modified it now… We’ve redesigned the set to fit here. We can probably fit upwards of 60 people here with theater style seating. We get to the point where we can almost do a show in a phone booth. Theater is theater, as long as people come.

TFG: Oh, could you tell me more about this year’s show?
Martin:
About four or five years ago, Marge mentioned something about the Underground Railroad because there was a lot of interest in Southern Washington County. In ten years, we’ve done a lot of historical plays. I came up here and found that in Whitehall, Benedict Arnold was a hero; he put together his ships here. From that point, I wanted to do historical theater here.

This year’s play is set in 1847, which was the year of the Irish potato famine and a lot of Irish were immigrating. It’s called Crossroads to Freedom because we have several sets of people seeking freedom, slaves and the Irish, and they meet briefly then go their separate ways. In Whitehall, we have many different places that participated in the Underground Railroad. Especially if you could hop a boat here, you were better off. For a student of American History, it’s an interesting place. I’ve also done Cases on the Canal, a comedy to illustrate the Prohibition Era when an awful lot of liquor would come through here. I wrote another play based on that in which actors from that show shoot a movie in Whitehall because they can’t find a location on the Erie Canal. These are kind of tongue-in-cheek histories but the others are more serious. So that’s my fascination, honestly. I feel like I’m a resident, even though I’m not. It’s a place where you can capture all of these things.

TFG (to David): So how did you get involved in the theater?
David (shrugs):
Just by luck, when I met Martin. Martin wrote this beautiful play, Victory and Defeat about and I was asked to go and see the show at luncheon theater on the canal in 1998. And that was my first exposure to Martin. I’ve only been doing this for twelve years, before that I was an electrical engineer.

TFG (to Marge): And you?
Marge:
My background was in private, non-profit management. Here I helped form the Washington County Tourism Bureau and, again by chance, became the director. And I do this because he’s my husband (laughs).

TFG: I read on your website that you have workshops as well. How do you decide what to offer?
Marge:
We have quite a number of artists in Whitehall and they all want to share their knowledge. We have also have an ongoing, continuous Tai Chi workshop. That has blossomed into other Tai Chi classes. I went to a free class at Glens Fall Hospital almost 4 years ago and then offshot that to here. So now we have it here year round. A friend of mine took that Tai Chi class and did another class at the senior citizens center and now she runs a class every Tuesday about Health and Balance. She teaches in Ft. Meyers, FL as well when she goes down there.  So this is one of the programs that has really grown.

TFG: So what other events does ARCW have?
David:
We not only have plays but also beautiful Musical Reviews and Martin’s been a master at that. We have cabarets where we seat people at little round tables and serve light refreshments.
Marge:
We just finished a wonderful weekend where on Sunday we had our Summer Soiree. About twelve restaurants pitched in and donated hor d’ourves and we had nine or ten different wines. It was a joint venture with Skene Manor and we hope it becomes an annual thing. Everyone donated their time, which was very good. We had entertainment as well and donated flower arrangements. This was really a class act.

David, Martin and Marge end by giving me details about their upcoming productions. The theater’s summer season will close with four performances of “Crossroads To Freedom” on August 13th, 14th, 20th, & 21st. All performances will be staged on the porch of the Cooke’s Island Art Center and have a curtain time of 7:30pm. Tickets are $19/adults; $17/senior citizens/students under 18; $11/children under 12. A fall series is currently being planned and has an anticipated start date of September 4th. For more information, call 518-499-2435/0687 or email bridgetheater@verizon.net.

–Sarah Cramer is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.


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