During the June 2011 St. Peter’s Fiesta, people packed TheCape Ann theater in the old Blackburn Tavern for the opening of a creative piece called “Greasy Pole, the Musical.”
The show launched local director Henry Allen’s The Cape Ann theater, affectionately known as The Annie — and spotlighted Allen’s style of community theater, focusing on plays about Gloucester past and present.
But that kind of production couldn’t sustain the small black box theater. Allen says he’s closing The Annie’s doors by Sept. 1 and taking his show on the road as Henry Allen’s North Shore Folklore Theater Company.
Allen said he will base the new company out of Gloucester and bring his productions, from “Greasy Pole” to the “LobstahCrackah” ballet, which debuted last winter, into the community at venues around the North Shore.
Leaving the theater is about business and not about heart, Allen said, adding that if he had the resources to run the company out of Blackburn Tavern, he would.
“I’m caught between relief and a knot in my stomach for what we’re losing,” Allen said.
Monday, Allen sat at the corner of a small table covered by an orange and brown patterned cloth. He’s an idealist, passionate and amiable, something halfway between an artist and a teacher.
The table sits in what used to be a “junk room” in the first theater in the Blackburn Tavern. A wall had cut across where the concessions counter is now; Allen knocked that down, and opened up the room up for meetings and as gallery space for young artists. Three large, wooden doors lead into the black box, which has housed a musical, Allen’s annual Tragabigzanda theater festival and shows by young playwrights.
Allen took over the space in February 2011 when he signed on to lease the space from the ownership partners, Blackburn LLC, headed by Ab Khambady, Carlo Barbara, Robert Villa. The Annie had its grand opening that April, and a few months later, showcased “Greasy Pole,” Allen’s first major production on Cape Ann.
Some 2,000 people saw the show over the two weeks — almost all of whom, he said, weren’t the theater-going type. And some came ready to fight with a newcomer putting their heritage on stage.
“Greasy Pole, the Musical” covered 80 years of Fiesta history.
“They came with their sleeves rolled up ready to rum me out of town if it was insensitive,” Allen said.
But, the show worked — and drew a great response.
“He did something that I could never do,” said Gordon Baird, local actor and musician who had run the former West End Theater in the same space off and on for seven years, “He got regular Gloucester in there.”
Allen’s project celebrated Gloucester’s culture, Baird said, and brought people who wouldn’t show up for a play normally. But that can only happen for so long, he added.
Baird said that when he ran a theater out of that space, he looked for niche audiences — groups that would come back to see dance, music, or theater performances. Regular Gloucester, he said, doesn’t come to the theater often.
“That’s the bane of his profession, and the beauty of his profession,” Baird said.
Allen didn’t charge admission for productions at The Annie. He said he was writing for the community at large, not just for the crowd who could swing $30 to $50 tickets for a show. His shows asked for donations.
Donations don’t always cover the rent, said Allen. While he could keep up the building for $5,000 a month, he said he couldn’t compensate his staff. Running The Annie was a volunteer effort for Allen and his young production staff.
He said he wanted to give them a chance to earn a living wage doing what they love to do, rather than fighting for time to do their art. It would have taken around $260,000 to do that. But for a theater company, Allen said, that’s a drop in the bucket.
“I wish I’d been able to do that,” he said.
Leaving the Annie is a bittersweet goodbye for Allen. It gave teenagers and children in Gloucester a place to create, he said, and a place to belong to. When they found themselves at the Annie, they found who they were, he added.
But taking the North Shore Folklore Theater out on the road weaves his productions in closer to the community they’re about, Allen said. He said he’d like the next Tragabigzand festival to run in City Hall, and Murder on Rocky Neck, the Opera, to play on Rocky Neck.
For him, the traveling theater company fills the same void the Annie did. Before he opened the Annie, Allen said, he noticed a lack of historical or folklore theater on the North Shore. That’s what he’s dedicating his work toward.
“The stories of people of this place,” Allen said, “are being lost with the people who carry them.”
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenGDT