Newburyport group wants show to go on at state park

Boston Globe
James Sullivan

NEWBURYPORT — The pastel walls inside the gatekeeper’s house at Maudslay State Park tell the four-decade story of Theater in the Open. Posters from past shows — “Mother Goose,” “The Wind in the Willows,”

“Alice in Wonderland ” — hang above the old theater seats that rim the living room where the company rehearses.

Known as the Forester’s House, it’s an enchanted home for Esme, the toddler daughter of artistic director Edward Speck and his wife, Cailin McFarland. Since the late 1980s, when then-governor Michael Dukakis established the state park here, Theater in the Open has made its home at the gateway to the former Moseley estate, with an office and a residence for the artistic director under the same roof in the 1903, two-story residence.

This month, however, the theater’s board of directors will learn the fate of its bid to become the property’s official curator. Members have known for years the day would come when they’d be obliged to submit a competitive proposal for the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s ongoing Historic Curatorship program. The deadline for applications was Jan. 12.

The curatorship program seeks private partnerships to ensure continued maintenance of landmarks on state property. The DCR puts a premium on bidders’ plans for preservation, with benefits to the community being secondary.

The original agreement with DCR involved upkeep and maintenance in lieu of rent. The agency has calculated a fair market value of $515,000 over the course of a 20-year lease, to be paid into the preservation and improvement of the property.

Theater in the Open, with its popular summer workshop for children and its year-round slate of productions, has provided a beloved cultural diversion for generations of families. Speck and Kelly Shea Knowles, the theater’s executive director, said they’re reasonably confident about their bid.

“We’ve made massive improvements to this house,” said Knowles, sitting in the kitchen after a December matinee of “A Nutcracker Panto!,” a whimsical version of the classic holiday tale performed for students at Firehouse Center for the Arts, also in Newburyport.

Besides knowing the building “inside and out,” she said, “We provide an immense public benefit that directly benefits DCR, as well. We bring a lot of folks to Maudslay, and a lot of our kids fall in love with the outdoors.”

One of them was the young Edward Speck, known to most as Teddy. As a boy growing up in Amesbury, he was a regular in the theater’s summer program. At 14, he was entrusted with fashioning a Dr. Seuss-style ax from papier mache for an Earth Day production of “The Lorax.”

“The adults said ‘good job,’ ” Speck said, “and I still remember the power of that.”

Soon he was acting alongside the young adults in the company, some of whom were living in the gatekeeper’s house. The creative atmosphere grabbed him and wouldn’t let go.

“I had a wild dream of living here,” he said, showing a visitor around the house.

After studying philosophy at the New School in Greenwich Village in New York, he returned home and to the theater. Now 34, Speck was named artistic director in 2009.

When he moved in, the gatekeeper’s house was in some disrepair. It needed a new furnace and gutters, and the old stucco was crumbling.

At the time, Speck said, the theater was in the red. “I learned how to make stucco,” he recalled, “and I trapped 12 squirrels.”

The theater community rallied to work on the restoration. “The former artistic director came back and stared reglazing the windows,” Speck said.

Under the guidance of founder Anna Smulowitz, Theater in the Open began as the Newburyport Children’s Theater in 1979. Theresa Linnihan, who’d been involved from the beginning, moved into the house in 1987 as the organization’s first artist in residence. Knowles, a former marketing professional, assumed her “dream job” as Theater in the Open’s executive director in 2014.

State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives recently submitted a formal letter of support to DCR on behalf of Theater in the Open. The Newburyport Democrat said she appreciates that the theater presents shows free of charge: “You can see high-quality performances in this inspiring setting. The organization attracts so many different demographics, across generations and classes.”

The possibility that an interested party could outbid the theater for the gatekeeper’s house is one reason the senator believes terms of the curatorship program should be reconsidered.

“I would urge the state to look at this on a case-by-case basis, not have a regimented formula that would put an organization like Theater in the Open at an objective disadvantage,” said O’Connor Ives.

The organization has thrived in recent years. With a typical staff of 30 or so, the summer camp has grown to accommodate an average of 250 kids each year. Maudslay Is Haunted, the theater group’s annual Halloween tour in the woods, has become a local tradition, and Theater in the Open has added programming such as a February vacation workshop. The summer workshop expanded last year for the first time to a second campus on adjacent land belonging to the Arrowhead Family Farm, which dates back to the Colonial era.

When the farm’s proprietor, Dick Chase, heard his neighbors were looking for more space, he was quick to offer his land.

“It’s a family farm,” he told Knowles. “We’re supposed to have kids running around.”

Dance and art classes were held there last summer, and “Farmer Dick” had the children picking squash and sharing fresh raspberries.

Now, with the possibility of losing the gatekeeper’s house looming, Knowles and Speck have discussed the possibility of moving the whole program to Arrowhead. If their bid is not accepted, Theater in the Open will have 60 days to move out.

“It would be a very sad day to walk out these doors,” Speck said. But after years of impermanence, he said, there’s a clear upside: “This is the best opportunity we’ve had to plan our future around this house. We can find another home, but we don’t want to.”

Edward Speck and Kelly Shea Knowles on stage at the property used by Theater in the Open in Maudslay State Park.

Edward Speck and Kelly Shea Knowles on stage at the property used by Theater in the Open in Maudslay State Park.