If you rebuild it, they will come

NYCA’s renovation of Woodstock Playhouse underway

by Paul Smart
January 06, 2011 10:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo of Randy Conti (left) and Doug Farrell at the Woodstock Playhouse by Dion Ogust
Photo of Randy Conti (left) and Doug Farrell at the Woodstock Playhouse by Dion Ogust
It may have been the biggest cultural news of the year in Woodstock. The Woodstock Playhouse went bankrupt, but then was bought for renovation into a year-round space by the New York Conservatory of the Arts (NYCA), working with funds loaned by the Catskill Watershed Corporation. The place was set to be in shape for new repertory theater productions, as well as musical concerts and other events, by the coming summer of 2011.

Now, NYCA’s visionary directors, Doug Farrell and Randy Conti, are calling the upcoming months their “Winter of Transformation” as they put up outer walls, finish indoor construction and painting, provide heat and air conditioning, bring in more comfortable seating for the audience and basically do everything that the local community has been wanting to do with its rebuild of the first Woodstock Playhouse since it burned back in the late 1980s. “For the New York Conservatory for the Arts of Hurley, the year 2010 was encapsulated in the story of our spring musical at UPAC [the Ulster Performing Arts Center]: Annie,” Farrell and Conti wrote in a recent e-mail. “Just like the orphan, who more than anything wanted to know that she belonged, so much of our year followed her dream.”

The original Playhouse, in a giant old barnlike structure, was once considered one of the nation’s top repertory theaters for musicals and serious theater. Lee Marvin got his start there. Later, Todd Rundgren recorded the Band’s Stage Fright inside its warm inside space. In more recent years, the old site was revived with an outdoor performance space designed by architect Lester Walker to remind everyone of the old Playhouse, while looking forward to more modern needs. WDST-Radio Woodstock staged concerts until the lack of walls caused consternation in the adjacent residential neighborhood. Plays and children’s acts came in to roost. One season saw a massive tattoo and body arts festival center at the site; others witnessed the Woodstock Film Festival on location.

And then the economy shifted and it became too difficult to keep up with the times. UPAC started programming bigger and better acts through its new association with the Bardavon. The Bearsville Theater regained viability. So in stepped NYCA – which in its quarter-century-plus history at the site of an old camp, and later the Creative Music Studio’s legendary improvisational sessions, has helped countless numbers of local youth find their way in the performing arts – and put on some of the best big shows around, including its annual outings at UPAC each spring.

“Our board sat down with their board and discussed whether there could be a next step… and then we just continued along those lines,” Conti said recently of the route that NYCA took to take the reins for the Playhouse from the Woodstock Arts Board, which had previously run the place. “This is what we do…When you have a passion for something you can’t get enough of it.”

The two have been coy about what they’re planning as a first production, other than to note their confidence that years in the biz have given them the connections to do it well – and all while maintaining everything they do already at NYCA [see accompanying Alm@nac story]. “We’re here to enhance everything else in town and keep the Woodstock Playhouse what it is,” added Farrell.

Talks, we’ve heard, are underway with other entities, from the film festival to WDST, about bookings. And Conti and Farrell are speaking in terms of operating what would be the only major repertory house between Shadowland in Ellenville, Powerhouse in Poughkeepsie and Mac-Haydn in Chatham or Tri-Arts in Sharon, Connecticut. A new venue, in other words, is getting itself reborn.

For further information on the Woodstock Playhouse, visit or call (845) 339-4340.

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