Documentary Highlights Magic & Sacrifice in Orleans Summer Stock Theater

Liz Argo works with actors to re-enact her childhood memories for the documentary
courtesy Argo Productions - Liz Argo works with actors to re-enact her childhood memories for the documentary "Stagestruck: Confessions from Summer Stock."

On one hand, Orleans filmmaker Liz Argo’s new documentary, Stagestruck: Confessions from Summer Stock, is the story of a classic theater family, forced to make tremendous sacrifices to live up to that age-old show business battle cry, “the show must go on!”

And on the other, is the tale of a bygone era on the Cape, when summer stock theaters sprang up in barnyards from Falmouth to Provincetown to entertain the newly minted post-war middle class, people from Boston and New York who contentedly sat on bales of hay while college-age thespians performed under the stars.

In Argo’s family, summer stock was a way of life. Her parents, Betsy and Gordon Argo, created and ran America’s first summer stock theater-in-the-round, the Orleans Arena Theatre, in what used to be the Orleans Town Hall and is now the Academy Playhouse.

More than just a tale of wild parties and steamy backstage relationships, the film gives an insider’s look at the hard work, incredible personal growth and deep sacrifice that also went into the old-fashioned enterprise of family-run summer stock theater.

Argo, one of three children who grew up being tucked to bed by various actors and stagehands, said she got used to communal living at an early age.

Those were the days...

Stagestruck: Confessions from Summer Stock reaches the national spotlight with the broadcast television premiere on WGBH Channel 2 on Thursday, July 12 at 9 PM.

Additional air times are on WGBX-Channel 318 on Saturday, July 14, at 1 AM, 7 PM and 10 PM; on WGBH-Channel 316 on Monday, July 16, at 9 AM, 3 PM and 8 PM; and on Friday, July 20 at 11 AM.

“We ate with the theater company in a communal dining room. We’d help out the actors and actresses, and they became our surrogate family,” she said in an interview last summer, while raising the funds needed to obtain the rights for film clips of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock and Patti Page’s song “Old Cape Cod.”

All in the family

The one-hour film captures all the hard work and sacrifice as well as the thrills and experimentation of the summer stock lifestyle. To make the story come alive, more than 50 actors and actresses re-enacted scenes on the grounds and stage of the Academy Playhouse.

Though primarily a film about the summer stock theater phenomenon, Argo’s personal story takes center stage.

“I made the film because I questioned the sacrifice we all had to make. I’m such a workaholic because I grew up with this big burden of ‘the show must go on,’ ” she said.

In a revealing interview with her mother, Argo discovers a common thread of dysfunction: herself as a daughter trying to prove herself to her mother.

“In many of these great artistic ventures, it is often because you’re making up for something that was missing in your own life. We need to recognize that as part of being an artist,” Argo said.

The financial difficulties faced by creative people are another parallel between Ms. Argo and her mother. A re-enacted scene in the film shows Ms. Argo’s recently divorced mother firing off typewritten pleas for financial backing to keep the theater afloat one more season.

Argo said she saw herself doing the same thing over the 10 years it has taken her to almost single-handedly produce Stagestruck.

The end of an era

In 1976, Betsy Argo closed the Orleans Arena Theater. Actors were no longer willing to spend the summer sleeping in a moldy basement; insurance requirements made it nearly impossible for seasonal theaters to stay in business. And neither Argo nor her brother or sister was willing to carry the baton into the next generation.

Despite the personal fallout, the filmmaker is the first to recognize the importance of theater in small communities. A revealing interview with author Kurt Vonnegut—a close friend of the family before his death in 2008—touches on the critical role of theater and storytelling as the typical American family becomes more and more fragmented.

“People would work this hard for nothing. And they would, because that’s theater,” Vonnegut says in the film.

For Argo, making the documentary has been something of a catharsis.

“The story of the theater is one of sacrifice and teamwork, and the extreme growth that takes place. We need to hear that in America now more than ever, when we live in such isolation. In this time of economic need, it will help people recognize that if they open up, and learn to live with a little less, they will get more out of it,” she said.

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