arts and entertainment

Cape May Theater: Through the Looking Glass

Posted 5/19/08
by Susan Zipper

Cape May, NJ - - Standing behind Stage Right, I could hear, but couldn’t see, an actor speaking lines. I had come in the back door to pick up a theater ticket and inadvertently had walked into a rehearsal.

Down front was Director Michael Carlton, concentrating on the play. He was sitting, chin in hands, on one of the plush new seats newly installed in the Robert Shackleton Playhouse, home of Cape May Stage.

Some thirty-five years before, I had also walked in on a play rehearsal in Cape May.

It was one of my first days exploring the then rather sleepy and magical little town.

Stopping in City Hall, I heard voices coming from the auditorium. I peered through the heavy glass-paned doors and saw a colorful group milling around on the stage. I took a seat in the audience section and sat back.

Alice in Wonderland at City Hall

A few weeks later, I joined the dozen or so individuals who were valiantly attempting to survive a desolate winter at the shore in the 1970's by “putting on a show.”

The production, quite fittingly, was Alice In Wonderland.

Our acting group grew and Cape May City Hall's cavernous old auditorium served as a home for community theater until about 1985.

Sandpiper Players

During those years, a number of professional people including the legendary Gardner Howes, Adrianna Warner and Peter Vernon produced and directed yearly plays like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” “ Happy Birthday,Wanda June” “Dylan” and “The Drunkard.”

The group named itself the Sandpiper Players and lots of people from town were either in the plays or in the audience.

In the late eighties, actor and director Michael Laird led an effort to formalize community theater in Cape May. The Sandpiper Players became Cape May Stage.

Cape May Welcome Center

The city granted permission for Laird and the group to produce theater in what was then known as the Welcome Center, at the corner of Bank and Lafayette streets.

Originally built as the Cape Island Presbyterian Church in 1853, the building became the Episcopal Church of the Advent from 1900 through 1950.

As the community grew, the wooden structure changed to an informal community center of sorts - a wonderful, if slightly dusty, location for local meetings, dance parties and a few memorable wedding receptions.

The city began using the building as a Welcome Center to provide information, directions and restrooms to an ever growing tourist population.

For a time, Laird’s Cape May Stage shared the space, folding the beige metal audience seats and stacking them in corners, just in time for an antique show or bridge club to set up in the very same spot.

Sadly Michael Laird died a few years later. But with the support, talent and hard work from many individuals, his shared vision grew to become a reality.

Robert Shackleton Playhouse

In the last couple of years, Project Encore and it's amazing team of volunteers has labored to restore the old Welcome Center, renamed The Robert Shackleton Playhouse.

First, major exterior improvements were done. Then, this past winter, the interior was painted, floors refinished, houselights installed, and real theater seats and risers put in place.

After a ribbon cutting-ceremony in the courtyard in front of the building on May 22, the 20th season of Cape May Stage begins in the long awaited theater.

For the moment, the Metamorphosis is complete.

It would be no surprise if I caught a glimpse of a rather old Cheshire cat reappearing in the audience.

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