BERWICK — You know the cliche, the hardest working man in theater?
That’s Michael Guptill, producing director at the Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick, which opens its summer season this week.
Guptill is the only theater manager in Maine with a herd of bison in the back. They graze in the grass pasture behind the century-old barn on the family farm.
He’s probably also the only one who wakes every morning at 2:30 and drives 80 minutes to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Mass., just outside Boston, where he sells Arrowfarms potatoes for his day job.
On the drive home and at night, he tends to the business of theater.
“We don’t watch a whole lot of TV around here,” he said. “We’re busy all the time.”
Guptill, 59, inherited the theater and its legacy from his father, S. Carlton Guptill, who died 15 years ago. Michael’s father began the theater in 1972, tapping a passion that was sparked by University of Maine drama professor Herschel Bricker.
The elder Guptill enrolled at UMaine to study agriculture, but came back to Berwick wild about theater. He pursued both, eventually clearing the barn of milking cows, buying seats from a movie house across the border in Durham, N.H., and opening a theater on the family farm.
He named the theater for a tree that grows locally.
“He was always doing theater, one way or another,” Michael Guptill said. “We just had our 300th anniversary of the town, and for the 250th, my dad put on a pageant. He loved bringing the community together. He loved bringing people together to create something from nothing.”
The Hackmatack Playhouse presents a four-show season this year, opening with a comedy version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The season also includes the musical “Les Miserables,” which will involve a cast of about 50.
Sounds like chaos, right? Not to Guptill.
“I don’t consider it ambitious at all, because I know we can do it,” he said. “I know we can do a very good job with it, and I know it’s going to be successful.”
The other two plays to be presented this season are “The Sound of Music” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Guptill and artistic director Sharon Hilton plan the season in the winter, mixing tried-and-true shows that everybody knows with whatever they think will be popular with audiences.
The theater seats 218 people, and is full most weekend nights. Guptill wants to present an affordable alternative to the higher-priced summer theater on the coast, so his top ticket is $25.
“We try to keep it family-friendly, and we run it with a family attitude,” he said.
The plays and musicals are presented by a cast and crew of local and regional actors, many of whom are college students. All are paid.
The old white barn is full of character. The sound and lights are controlled at a suspended booth in the back of the barn, and there’s a large but not very private changing area for the actors off on a wing that used to house pigs.
The names of the cows who called this barn home are painted on the wall of what would have been their stalls: Ethel, Dottie and Lil. A photo of the elder Guptill hangs in honor on the back wall.
Hackmatack is still very much a family operation.
Michael Guptill greets patrons every night, and welcomes the audience with a quick warm-up message that usually includes a corny joke that regulars have heard a time or two before.
His son, Conor, tends to the bison herd. Guptill added them to the mix a few years ago as a way to provide healthy, lean meat locally.
The family missed having animals on the farm, and bison are a relatively easy animal to care for. They don’t need be turned in at night or in the winter; they just need fields for grazing.
The herd numbers almost two dozen. When the bison roam in the pasture nearest the theater, they make for great diversion at intermission.
Guptill’s wife, Gayle, bakes 10 blueberry pies a day when blueberries are in season, and sells them at intermission. Regulars will tell you that you’ve got to get your pie early, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Also popular at intermission are Gayle’s high-end artisan chocolates, which she makes and sells under the name Azul Chocolates.
Working at the theater makes for a fun summertime experience, said Jerard-James Craven of Dover, N.H., who serves as the theater’s technical director. He is also directing “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and will sing and act in “The Sound of Music.”
He’s been with the theater five summers.
“I just love the atmosphere here,” said Craven, a University of New Hampshire graduate. “There is a calming energy. In many theaters, you’re not going to have a nurturing environment, but this is a calm, rural area, and that comes across in the theater and what we do here.”
Said actor Nick Iannotti, back for his third summer: “It’s a wonderful place to come back to every year.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: