When Fort Salem Theater opens its doors this summer, it’ll be under new management and with a different array of programming.
That’s thanks to long-time theater professional Kyle West, who purchased the historic theater in the Washington County town of Salem last summer.
“Because of the pandemic, both my husband and I realized our jobs were up in the air and we had some flexibility so [we started] looking at theaters. Falling in love with Fort Salem was something that we checked off the bucket list a lot more quickly than we thought we would,” West said.
The Cape Cod native has been involved in theater from a young age, both on stage and off. For the past three decades, he’s worked as a producer, director, choreographer, designer and performer and his work has been seen everywhere from New York to Arizona. West has also worked on the marketing and social media teams for dozens of Broadway national tours and as the concessions manager for Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre.
He and Jared, his husband, moved to the Capital Region from Dallas last year after purchasing the theater from Jay Kerr.
“I have grown up and always lived in bigger city areas. So when I came and visited Salem, it was really my first time even considering living in a smaller town, but the charm instantly won me over,” West said.
Some of the credit also has to go to Kerr and all the restoration work he’d done on the theater, said West.
“Jay . . . beautifully restored the space so that was not hard to fall in love with, and there’s just something really incredible about the level of support and enthusiasm in a smaller community that I really hadn’t found in the bigger cities. That was just really magical and made it very easy to decide on,” West said.
The history of the building, which was initially a First Presbyterian Church, runs deep. Construction began in 1774, though it was stopped when patriot forces moved in and converted it to a fort. They built a stockade and barracks, hence the name Fort Salem. In the ensuing years, the church was rebuilt and lost to fires several times. Some charred timbers remain in the basement as a testament to the building’s history, according to Fort Salem’s website.
It first became a theater in 1972, after William Drohan, a summer resident of Salem and part-time thespian, took it over and replaced the altar with a stage. He produced some of the first theatrical productions in the building. Several years later, in 1979, he sold it to the director and actor Quentin C. Beaver, and Fort Salem became a thriving summer stock theater, producing family-oriented musicals, comedies and occasionally, dramas.
Then, in 2006, Kerr purchased it and built a cabaret space, renovated the main stage and replaced the seating with seats donated from Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. The main theater has a capacity of 200 and the cabaret space seats about 65.
Although it was disappointing that he couldn’t reopen the theater directly after buying it, West said the extra time gave him a chance to connect with community members about the programs and productions they’d like to see on stage and how they’d like to be involved. During those conversations, West said that those who grew up around Salem longed for the days when the theater had a summer stock program, with large, family-friendly musicals. In recent years, the theater focused on smaller, cabaret shows. West plans to focus on musicals at first, leaving plenty of room for growth.
“I am excited to offer something on stage for everybody,” West said. “We will do musicals, we’ll do some familiar plays, some new works but we’re even excited to try out maybe a comedy night. Again, we want to bring people together once it’s safe to do so and find something that everybody will love because there’s just so much to the arts.”
Two musicals planned
This summer, Fort Salem will present two musicals, starting with “The Marvelous Wonderettes” from June 18-27. Set in the 1950s, it follows four girls who are asked to perform at their high school prom at the last minute. The first act features period songs like “Mr. Sandman” and “Stupid Cupid.” Then, in act two, the girls meet again a decade later for their high school reunion.
“I know the community’s going to love it. My only fear is that we might have to [stop] people from singing along, which is a great problem to have,” West said.
Following that, from July 23-Aug. 1, will be “Next to Normal,” a contemporary musical about a family coping with loss and mental illness.
“It’s written with influences of pop and rock and roll. The characters just look and feel like people we would meet on a normal day,” West said. “So we’re really, really excited about that story. I think it’s something our audiences haven’t seen.”
Running a theater of his own, not to mention in the midst of a pandemic, hasn’t come without obstacles.
“I think our biggest challenge was getting to a place that we felt comfortable inviting people back in and building a plan that we knew didn’t just sound good and look good on paper but that we could actually implement on a daily basis,” said West.
Through an online training program, he became a certified COVID-19 compliance officer so he could better plan and prepare to open the theater. He’s also planning to have other team members go through the training.
At this time, the main stage will open at 33% capacity or 65 seats. Even with loosening restrictions, West will keep that capacity limit.
“I felt that because I announced to our audiences that we would only be selling [tickets] at 33%, even if the state changes the allowances and deems it safe, I feel that I’ve made a commitment to my ticket-buyers. They purchased based on that understanding and if that’s what they were safe with I don’t dare put them in a situation that they didn’t sign up for,” West said.
He has also selected productions with small casts — “The Marvelous Wonderettes” includes four actresses and “Next to Normal” includes six actors.
“That was a big part of our planning process. In fact, these are not the first titles I picked, not because I don’t love them but because initially, we were thinking about opening the doors with some big famous musicals . . . ‘Annie,’ ‘The Music Man,’ something that could have tons of people from the community involved. But once we thought about our COVID compliance plan, we wanted to make sure we could be safe backstage and throughout the rehearsal process,” West said.
The fewer people in the cast, the easier it will be to socially distance and run health checks.
Another challenge has been on the financial end, keeping the utilities up to date when they’re not able to generate an income.
“We’ve had people that have already started buying tickets, so that has been huge,” West said.
They’ve just gone through the first part of the audition process, which was done virtually, and West said they’re excited to meet more members of the community as the season starts up.
“People have reached out so supportively everywhere from Salem to Albany to Vermont and I know people love the Fort Salem Theater and are excited to support us. We’re really eager to put names to those faces and actually be active members of the community. We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” West said.
The Fort Salem Theater is located at 11 East Broadway. For more information visit fortsalem.com.
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