Summer lineup includes a mainstage production, comedy festival and children’s theater
By Tara Mae
In theaters all over Long Island, the house lights are dimming and seats are waiting to be filled.
In Port Jefferson, Theatre Three is officially reopening with its children’s theater musical The Adventures of Peter Rabbit on Saturdays from July 10 to Aug. 14; the annual, albeit abbreviated, Long Island Comedy Festival on July 9 and 10, and a special production of The Fantasticks from July 16 to Aug. 15.
When the pandemic closed the theater’s doors last March, all programming moved online and plans for reopening began. “We spent pretty much every day for a year, talking about what we would do when we reopen: if this happens, we’ll do this, if that happens, we’ll do that. We were trying to wrap our heads around the guidelines,” said Jeffrey Sanzel, Executive Artistic Director. “The vaccine was the big first step, then the shifting capacity. It’s an ongoing process, still in progress.”
Through its virtual program “Off-Stage/On-Line,” Theatre Three produced theater throughout the lockdown with audiences attending via Zoom. After putting out a call for original short works to be produced as online plays, Sanzel received approximately 1600 submissions. The last play debuted on June 20. Still available through the theater’s YouTube page, the plays range from 5 to 22 minutes and feature 85 works, 76 playwrights, and 156 actors.
As it invites the public back in, Theatre Three is invoking popular productions to engage its audiences. The Adventures of Peter Rabbit was chosen to relaunch the children’s theater because of its familiarity.
“We do it every year,” said Sanzel. “We thought it would be a great show to reopen the children’s theater, it’s very popular and great for all ages.” All of the theater’s children’s plays are written in-house, according to Sanzel. “I write the book and frequently the lyrics. I also work with other composers.”
Theatre Three’s first in-person special event will be the Long Island Comedy Festival, now in its 15th year. Comedian Paul Anthony, founder and director of the festival, started it at Theatre Three. It has since expanded across Long Island.
“Theatre Three is one of the most iconic theaters on Long Island. We perform at pretty much every theater on Long Island, but Theatre Three, which was originally built as a vaudeville house, has an incredible history and all the elements you could ever want from the theater. Comedians always compliment the acoustics; there is something about the acoustics and feel of the theater, you feel like you’re in Manhattan. On top of that, I have never worked with a more supportive group of people,” said Anthony.
This year, the theater is having a condensed version of the festival. “We normally present two weekends of the Festival —one at the beginning of the summer and one at the end,” said Sanzel. “We thought it would be a fun, upbeat way of welcoming people back to the theatre.”
For the theater’s first live mainstage production in approximately 16 months, Sanzel chose to present The Fantasticks. The longest running musical, it played for 42 years off-Broadway and is an allegorical tale about two fathers who trick their children into falling in love by pretending to feud.
“We wanted to open with something that has name recognition and strong artistic value, but is incredibly entertaining. It has a beautiful message, it has a small cast, and it’s not tech-heavy. We selected it at a time when we did not know that we could open to full capacity,” Sanzel said. “We’re coming out of the pandemic, strong but bruised by the world. I thought that was part of the message of the show. It also has a glorious score … I knew that I could put together a very strong cast. I knew it was the right time. It’s manageable as we’re reopening.”
Sanzel sought out actors with whom he had previously worked, reaching out to individuals with existing connections to Theatre Three. Meg Bush, of Stony Brook, found that returning to the theater was like coming home. While she was growing up, her mother acted in children’s theater and she took acting classes at before making her official stage debut in Theatre Three’s annual production of A Christmas Carol.
“I’ve been an actor since I was 18, when I did all the touring productions, some mainstage productions, and all of the children’s theater. Jeff breathes life and beauty and humor into each show he directs and moments in between too. He is the life and soul of theater; it’s impossible not to be drawn back. It’s a family,” she said.
While Sanzel had artistic and practical reasons for choosing The Fantasticks, Bush, who plays Luisa/The Girl, views this particular play as both an example and emblem of what makes live theater culturally and emotionally important. “Theater is such a beautifully organic way of producing compassion in everyone who is willing to experience it. We can step into another’s shoes, and open our eyes to the experiences of everyone around us,” she said. “It can be so enlightening and such a gift to see the world outside of our own minds and understand people at their core, without reading it on a page or seeing statistics.”
Steve McCoy, who plays El Gallo/The Narrator, also has a long history with Theatre Three. Already working as a professional actor, he first appeared onstage in Kiss Me, Kate. Later, when he was exploring the production and administrative elements of creating theater, McCoy took a job as associate artistic director, a position he held for seven years before he returned to acting full-time. “I still consider Theatre Three to be my home away from home. I can’t think of a more appropriate and amazing place to get back on stage. It has literally saved my life at times,” he said.
The reopening of Theatre Three is a chance for audiences and performers to reconnect with each other in a way the pandemic prevented. “Theater offers great adventure, which we have been lacking for at least the past year,” said Bush. “It’s such a gift.”
Theatre Three is located at 412 Main Street in Port Jefferson. All seats for The Adventures of Peter Rabbit are $10; Long Island Comedy Festival tickets are $35; and tickets to The Fantasticks are $35 adults, $28 seniors, and $20 students. To order, please call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.