Good Life

A room of their own: Nittany Theatre ready to open summer stock season on refurbished Boalsburg barn stage

Kristi Branstetter who is playing Patsy Cline, sings one of her tunes as she rehearses for the Nittany Theatre’s performance of “Always, Patsy Cline” at the Boal Barn.
Kristi Branstetter who is playing Patsy Cline, sings one of her tunes as she rehearses for the Nittany Theatre’s performance of “Always, Patsy Cline” at the Boal Barn. CDT photo

Dave Saxe has a barn and now he’s going to put on a show.

The notion isn’t as quaint as it sounds, especially considering that the Boalsburg-based barn in question has been retrofitted with LED lighting, luxury seating and Broadway-quality microphones. So resist the urge to picture Saxe in his parents’ backyard with a bucket of paint and an old lantern.

At a recent rehearsal, sitting comfortably in a tall, blue director’s chair, Saxe watched actress Kristi Branstetter belt out the opening number from “Always, Patsy Cline,” the inaugural show of the first summer season for Nittany Theatre at the Barn.

The fledgling theater troupe is the latest tenant of the rustic space formerly known as the Boal Barn Playhouse, the one-time home of State College Community Theatre and for the next few weeks, at least on stage, a reasonable facsimile of the Grand Ole Opry.

Branstetter, clad in Patsy Cline’s bright red dress with white fringe, tied the illusion together for the rehearsal audience of stage hands and technicians bustling about the barn.

Saxe sat toward the rear of the theater, positioned in front of several rows of seats that were salvaged from the defunct Garman Opera House on Christmas Day 2013. He gave a broad smile as Branstetter came to the end of her tune.

It’s only the first song of the show — but it’s taken a long time to get there. Saxe is appreciating every moment.

“Every day at the Barn is a wonder, a thrill, a privilege, an honor,” he said.

And he should know. “Always, Patsy Cline,” is the third show that Saxe has directed under the rafters of the barn, the first two under the auspices of State College Community Theatre.

Making space

It was radically different space then — starting with the seating arrangements.

The configuration of the old barn favored a theater in-the-round approach, with chairs positioned against every wall in the room so audiences had an unobstructed view of the action taking place at the center — a layout that left limited potential for sets and other theatrical staples.

As a director, Saxe’s mind often wandered to innovations or changes that could be made to the theater.

“I think a lot of people did, but we had small voices,” Saxe said

During the rehearsal for “Always, Patsy Cline,” that voice took a high-pitched Southern twang as the stand-in for the character of Little Jimmy, the announcer who welcomes the titular character on stage — a space that used to be occupied by rows of chairs.

The Nittany Theatre group transformed the barn into a 3/4 thrust theater, with a stage that can be extended out into the audience. Saxe said that this model provides more creative opportunities, especially with regards to set complexity.

“This gives directors the chance to stage things in a traditional way,” Saxe said.

A community answers

Melissa Brannen, Nittany Theatre’s company manager, watched Saxe’s directorial vision come to life — and it brought tears to her eyes.

“This is a dream that I didn’t think would happen,” Brannen said.

Her association with the barn stretches back almost a decade, when she began acting in community plays there. When Saxe called in 2013 and told her he wanted to get the place up and running again, she thought he was crazy. Still, she couldn’t get the old theater out of her mind.

“When I was performing in other venues, it just wasn’t the same,” Brannen said.

Restoring and revitalizing the theater became the massive undertaking she feared it would be — but she hadn’t counted on the level of generosity displayed by theater lovers within the community.

Vendors and electricians donated their time, and the Penn State wrestling team helped to remove seven layers of odoriferous carpet so the cast and crew had a place to gather free from olfactory assault.

Volunteers also helped to remove three trailers’ worth of junk from the barn’s bottom level, which now houses the troupe’s costume department, prop room and the shop where they construct sets.

Saxe’s son Andrew, who serves as the theater’s technical director, helped to install the theater’s LED lights, which last for 55,000 hours and generate no heat — a big selling point when performing summer stock.

“I’m just so proud of all of the people that have come and helped,” Brannen said.

An uplifting legacy

As company manager, Brannen has been responsible for establishing the professional theater company’s infrastructure, evaluating ticket systems, navigating credit card processing and overseeing web page development. She said that the effort of getting Nittany Theatre at the Barn on its feet has been all-encompassing for everyone involved.

“We had to get people that were super, super committed,” Brannen said.

One of those people was stage manager Katie Carriero, who said that everyone in the troupe has been working well together to get the job done.

It helps that “Always, Patsy Cline,” is a two-woman show, which Carriero said she believes will give the team time to find their footing in the newly refurbished barn.

“The show is going smooth, but I think if it were a more complex show it would be harder,” Carriero said.

One thing that has remained constant are the names sketched in marker on surfaces throughout the barn. Signatures from cast and crews past adorn the stairwell leading up the loft, the walls of the basement — generally anywhere there was a blank surface.

“When discouragement creeps up then you pause to read some of the messages left on the walls of the theater over the years, messages from generations of actors and barn dwellers, and the old barn and its marvelous legacy lifts and inspires you,” Saxe said.