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Places, Please! 14 Small Towns With Big Theaters

PHOTO: Maltz Jupiter Theatre

Craving great theater without the hassle of the big city? Check out these big-time small-town venues all across America.

New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles aren’t the only go-to’s for primo theater. A surprising number of small towns have long been lauded for their professional productions, many serving as Petri dishes of experimentation and even debuting a Broadway production or two along the way. Here are some of the best.

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PHOTO: Barter Theatre/Billie Wheeler
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Barter Theater

WHERE: Abingdon, Virginia

What do you do when you open a theater in the midst of the Great Depression? Charge 35 cents or the equivalent for the price of admission, of course. That’s what Robert Porterfield schemed up at the Barter Theatre in southwest Virginia, which explains why that first season in 1933 cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a collective food gain of over 300 pounds. You can’t get in any longer with beans or a live hog, but what hasn’t changed is the quality of production. The Barter Theatre is famed far and wide for its off-Broadway productions as well as its independent plays.

INSIDER TIPAt least one performance a year gives a nod to the theater’s heritage, with donations accepted for a local food bank. Furthermore, the first performance of every production is offered as “Pay What You Can,” as a way to make theater accessible to everyone.

 

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PHOTO: Joan Marcus
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Bucks County Playhouse

WHERE: New Hope, Pennsylvania

Many an actor has cut his or her teeth at the Bucks County Playhouse: Angela Lansbury, Liza Minelli, Grace Kelly, and James Earle Jones among them. But that’s not all. This rustic playhouse, established in a converted grist mill in 1939, is also where Broadway show hopefuls have debuted (including Neil Simon’s first play, Come Blow Your Horn; Barefoot in the Park starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashbury). Recently renovated, “America’s Favorite Summer Theater” promises year-round world-class productions of new and classic plays and musicals, as well as live music, a storytelling series, and fun community programs.

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PHOTO: Rob Ross
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Williamstown Theatre Festival

WHERE: Williamstown, Massachusetts

Summer in Williamstown means time for some good old-fashioned star-gazing. In this case, it’s onstage, where some of theater’s finest stars take part in some of the nation’s best live theater. We’re talking the Tony Award-winning Williamstown Theatre Festival, with recent regulars including the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Marisa Tomei, Sam Rockwell, and so many more. The actors love it because the outside-the-box approach means new takes on classics, with bold, edgy productions and fun opportunities, such as late-night cabaret. They don’t call it “WTF” for nothing.

 

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PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski
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Goodspeed Musicals

WHERE: East Haddam and Chester, Connecticut

Twenty-one: That’s the number of Goodspeed productions that have moved onto Broadway, 15 of them receiving a coveted Tony. They use a developmental approach, so be prepared for outside-the-box, original new musicals alongside the classics. Audience input can alter dialogue, costumes, songs, even entire scenes (totally part of the fun). Six productions are offered each season between April and December, three at the gloriously historic Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam venue and at the Terris Theater in Chester.

INSIDER TIPPre-order your intermission drinks at the Porch Bar before the show. Patrons are given a location assignment where they will find their cocktail ready and waiting at the end of Act One.

 

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PHOTO: Stratton McCrady
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Shakespeare & Company

WHERE: Lenox, Massachusetts

The Bard is at his best at the hands of this lauded troupe of actors, which has produced some of the nation’s finest Shakespeare since 1978. The year-round schedule includes latter-day takes on Shakespeare as well as contemporary plays and new works. Come on a sunny day and enjoy a picnic at one of the tables scattered around the property.

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PHOTO: McCarter Theater Center
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McCarter Theatre Center

WHERE: Princeton, New Jersey

First stop: McCarter Theatre Center on Princeton’s campus. That’s the thinking of many a Broadway hopeful that has debuted here, including Our Town and You Can’t Take It With You. It all started in the 1930s when Princeton’s Triangle Club created the playhouse for homegrown productions; Jimmy Stewart made his stage debut as a sophomore on opening night. It separated from the university in 1973, finding a niche for itself as an all-around performing arts center, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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PHOTO: Jenny Graham
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Oregon Shakespeare Festival

WHERE: Ashland, Oregon

What started as a local Fourth of July event in 1935 (with tickets costing a dollar) has grown into one of the world’s most famous, Tony-award-winning celebrations of everything Bard (plus classics, new plays, and musicals). In this small town in southern rural Oregon, thousands of people flock during an eight-month season every year for up to 11 plays by a variety of playwrights, performed on three stages.

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PHOTO: Lauren Rogers Parker
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Blackfriars Playhouse

WHERE: Staunton, Virginia

It’s not just about Shakespeare’s plays at Blackfriars. It’s about the Shakespeare experience. Just like in the Bard’s days, in the world’s only reproduction of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, the stage is simply set, all the lights are on, and actors perform magnificently, sometimes taking on several roles (and singing at intermission). The best seat in the house are the on-stage stools, where you’re in the middle of the action. As one director explained, the audience not just at the show but in it.

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PHOTO: Goldfishbutt via Wikimedia Commons, [public domain]
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Paper Mill Playhouse

WHERE: Milburn, New Jersey

If it plays at Paper Mill, you can bet it has eyes on Broadway. For many a Broadway play has made its debut at this historic playhouse in the little town of Milburn, about 25 miles outside NYC. That goes for actors, too. Anne Hathaway, Tony Danza, Mickey Rooney, Carol Channing, Gene Wilder, Betty White, and Patrick Swayze are just some who have taken the stage here. Hands down one of the nation’s top theater companies, it received the 2016 Tony Award for Regional Theatre.

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PHOTO: Seth Freeman
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Contemporary American Theater Festival

WHERE: Shepherdstown, West Virginia

The last thing you might expect in this tiny mountain town on the Potomac River, about 90 minutes from DC, is a nationally acclaimed theater festival. But there you have it, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, drawing thousands of theater-goers every summer. And it’s not just any theater, but edgy shows, highlighting the freshest, newest, and best in American every year. Six plays are produced each season.

There’s theater going on in town even outside the festival season. Be sure to check out the programs for Black Box Arts Center and Shepherd University Plays and Musicals.

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PHOTO: Alicia Tannery Donelan
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Maltz Jupiter Theatre

WHERE: Jupiter, Florida

A relative newcomer on the regional theater block (opening in 2004 in the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre), the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has quickly made a national name for itself. They’re all about the classics here—musicals, comedies, plays—but want to stretch your mind as well. That’s why you may see puppets appear during The Wiz, for example. The theater is currently undergoing a massive renovation to double its size (qualifying it for pre-Broadway and national tours) and to add educational opportunities. This one clearly is dreaming big!

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PHOTO: Frenc | Dreamstime.com
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Clarksville Little Theater

WHERE: Clarksville, Indiana

Another oldie but goodie, this community theater has been serving southern Indiana and Louisville metro since 1947. In the early days, productions took place at a school; that changed with a new theater in 1953, where they still perform. It presents five productions each season and a children’s production in summer.

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PHOTO: Dave Munch
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Chautauqua Theater Company

WHERE: Chautauqua, New York

You can bet the productions—ranging from classic to contemporary to brand-new—will be mind-blowing in a place that has valued learning and culture for well over a century. Indeed, the Chautauqua institution has long been serving up effete programs during its summer-long season, and even though theater was brought in only in 1983, it too has established itself as world-class. What’s really interesting, though, is that 20 emerging artists mix with internationally famous actors, designers, directors, and writers, making it one of the country’s finest training programs as well.

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PHOTO: Gary Ng
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Ogunquit Playhouse

WHERE: Ogunquit, Maine

What began as a small summer theater in 1933 in a converted garage by the beach has grown into one of the region’s most important performing arts centers. The stars have long been drawn here (Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Lloyd Bridges, and Vivian Vance were some of the earliest to perform), but a new era began in 2006, with the conversion to a musicals-only format and extension to a 22-week calendar (five to seven blockbusters between May and November, with a special holiday show in December). Sold out performances, critical acclaim, only the most talented directors, choreographers, and actors. It’s regional theater at its best.