June 16, 2013

A barn-turned-theater in Berwick thrives

Since 1972, the quaint Hackmatack Playhouse has thrived in an idyllic setting in Berwick, complete with a herd of bison out back. complete with a herd of bison out back.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BERWICK — You know the cliche, the hardest working man in theater?

click image to enlarge

Michael Guptill, below, took over the Hackmatack Playhouse from its founder – his father, S. Carlton Guptill.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick.

Additional Photos Below


WHERE: 538 School St. (Route 9), Berwick

WHEN: Season opens Friday with "The Hound of the Baskervilles"; "The Sound of Music," July 10-27; "Les Miserables," July 31-Aug. 17; "Driving Miss Daisy," Aug. 21-30.

TIMES: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday

TICKETS: $10 to $25

INFO: 698-1807 or hackmatack.org

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Bison graze in the field behind the century-old barn in Berwick that in 1972 became the Hackmatack Playhouse.


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