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Sandisfield Players taking ‘Our Town’ to Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England.

The 26 cast members of The Sandisfield Players will travel from the rural enclave of Sandisfield, Massachusetts to the famed Minack Theatre, a 750 seat open-air amphitheater that juts into the Atlantic Ocean.

Sandisfield — Theatre patrons in Cornwall, England will soon get a taste of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, by way of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, when Ben Luxon and his Sandisfield Players take their production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to the Minack Theatre later this month.

On June 23rd the 26 cast members of The Sandisfield Players will travel from the rural enclave of Sandisfield, Massachusetts to the famed Minack Theatre, a 750 seat open-air amphitheater that juts into the Atlantic Ocean at Porthcurno, just four miles from “Land’s End.” The theatre’s roots were laid by Rowena Cade whose home was built on Minack Point shortly after the close of World War I. Cade, who was interested in amateur dramatics and liked to make costumes, created “one of those flukes of vision” according to Luxon, that has survived for more than 70 years. In 1929 a local group of village players staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a meadow near to Minack Point; the following year, having undertaken a production of The Tempest, the players were offered Cade’s garden by the sea as a performance venue. It is on this very rocky and dramatic point, in Luxon’s native Cornwall, that The Sandisfield Players will bring 20th century America to Great Britain through seven performances of Thornton Wilder’s iconic play, Our Town, between June 27-July 1. The Players, under the leadership of their founder and director, Ben Luxon, will be one of just 22 mostly professional companies to grace the Minack stage during its 22 week season from May through October this year.

Ben Luxon
Ben Luxon

The Sandisfield Players, as they have been coined, sprang from rather humble and organic beginnings: in 2012 Sandisfield resident and famed British baritone, Ben Luxon, was invited to direct a play in honor of the Town’s 250th anniversary. The result, according to Sandisfield Times editor Bill Price, “was a witty, charming assemblage of the town’s quirky and interesting history, written and performed by a group of fully engaged non-writers and amateur historians and would-be local actors.” This group, bound by the camaraderie that ensued as a result of hours spent together memorizing lines, rehearsing scenes and ultimately performing before a live audience, soon began preparations for two local productions of Our Town.

“[Sandisfield] is life in a small American town,” notes Luxon, who was first introduced to the Berkshires through his regular performances at Tanglewood at the height of his own singing career. “[Our Town] was the play that America had been waiting for” when it debuted in 1938, Luxon points out. “The language is very ordinary,” says Luxon who added, “[the beautiful] nature of this play is it requires no really great specific acting talent,” which was key considering the literal and figurative youth of his players. When Luxon directed this cast of amateur thespians from the southeastern most corner of Berkshire County in the spring of 2014, his sights were set on the newly refurbished Sandisfield Arts Center (SARC) and no further. Now, nearly two years later, he and his company are quite literally taking their show on the road.

Their destination, Luxon’s native Cornwall, is symbolic in itself. “Cornwall is very much like the Berkshires,” says Luxon, noting the specific beauty of both places known for their relative quiet, isolation, sprawling second homes, and booming tourist industries where locals are often driven away. The parallels are noticeable. Luxon goes on to point out that, “Cornwall is very backward; it is a very beautiful backwater” that has just been recognized by the EU as one of the majorly depressed areas in Britain. There is not much work, there is no industry, and its location–350 miles from London–leaves it rather isolated from any exposure to bustling city life. Needless to say, preparing to take their production to the Minack Theatre has been no small feat for The Sandisfield Players.

The Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England, where The Sandisfield Players will perform 'Our Town.'
The Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England, where The Sandisfield Players will perform ‘Our Town.’

There have been logistical challenges, namely that the stage at the Minack is twice the size of the SARC stage. Luxon and his players had to be resourceful when looking to re-create a stage that is 65 feet long; they were able to rent the local fire house out on the weekends and envision the Minack stage through taped sections of the poured concrete floor. Luxon has made it a priority to do “everything to prepare [his] players for what they are going to walk into [at the Minack Theatre]; their jaws are going to drop when they see that place.” Wilder’s stage directions are “implicitly followed” says Luxon, who added that any more than the two step ladders and a table and chairs would have a difficult time “competing with a view that would knock your eyes out” says Susie Crofut of the dramatic cliffside stage. Crofut, cast member and wife of Luxon, has had to wear myriad hats in preparation for this event. Organizing 26 cast members who will be in costume on stage, ranging in age from 10-79, has been no small feat. Add parents and relatives and this group swells to be somewhere in the middle 30s when all is said and done. Crofut and Luxon have been travel agents, tour directors, advisors, schedulers; really, “there’s no end to it” says Crofut of their responsibilities. Now, their attention has turned to making a program, putting together a soundtrack, preparing sound cues and lighting — all things that would be handled by a management team in a professional theatre.

The Sandisfield Art Center, home of The Sandisfield Players.
The Sandisfield Art Center, home of The Sandisfield Players.

Once on British soil, more variables will be added to the mix. Acknowledging the challenges inherent in an open-air amphitheatre, Crofut clarifies: “if the weather is absolutely a disaster they’ll cancel. But if it’s just vaguely rainy they’ll carry on.” She paints a Tanglewood-esque scene, describing how “the audience comes with their blankets and their ponchos and their flasks and their picnics.” Luxon chimes in, “one couldn’t do much [in England] if you cancelled in rain.” Asked how this pilgrimage to Cornwall will affect the future trajectory of The Sandisfield Players, Luxon is candid: “It won’t be culminating, but it is culminating for now” he jokes, candidly articulating the likelihood of needing to step back upon the players’ return from this epic adventure. “It could just finish us off!” Crofut interjects, but that seems unlikely given the nearby stage and captive audience that will be waiting with bated breath in Sandisfield upon their return.

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The Sandisfield Players are performing Our Town at the Sandisfield Arts Center on Saturday, June 18th, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Consult the Berkshire Edge calendar for information, tickets and directions.

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