By Brian Donnelly
The curtain goes up, the lights shine and 180 voices go silent as the play begins.
On stage actors and actresses bring their experience working on Broadway, television or both to the Hudson Stage Company in Armonk. Backstage, area high school students play interns, supporting the show with set changes, lighting and cues.
Those teenage stage hands include Horace Greeley junior Brian Blume, 17, who helps set up and breakdown the sets and moves props and furniture in between scenes.
“It was like a Broadway play but on a smaller stage,” the aspiring actor said, just one week into the spring production of Animals Out of Paper. “I’ve been to a lot of plays and I’ve memorized a lot of plays… and to see that type of talent on such a small stage is shocking.”
Founded in 1999 by Westchester residents Olivia Sklar, Dan Foster, and Denise Bessette, Hudson Stage Company is a non-profit professional theater that has built its reputation on Broadway-caliber performances right in your backyard.
“The audiences are always saying this is as good as Broadway or off-Broadway for a lot less money, free parking and the babysitter is on a shorter clock,” said Bessette, a Cortlandt resident and actress who has performed in theater, television and film. She has appeared in episodes of Seinfeld, Law and Order and Law and Order SVU.
Since its inception 17 years ago, the company’s backyard has changed from Croton to Briarcliff to Pace University, and now to Armonk. After its latest move in 2014, it is in residence at the North Castle Public Library’s Whippoorwill Hall Theater. Each year it stages two productions, in addition to several staged readings of new works. One of the reading slots is dedicated to area high school students, who perform their own original one-act plays.
“It’s so important to build a young audience, and theater is thriving at the high schools in Westchester,” Bessette said.
Students can pay $15 at the door for any show which still has tickets available, and Bessette said she hopes kids take advantage.
Blume, of Chappaqua, said not many of his friends are into theater, but that he hopes having Hudson Stage Company nearby will change that.
“I would encourage it because I need more help; as much help as I can get,” said the stage hand, who has gotten to meet and learn from the Broadway talent that is regularly a part of Hudson Stage productions. “I’m moving walls.”
Armonk Chamber of Commerce President Neal Schwartz said his brother-in-law came from Manhattan to see a show at Hudson Stage Company, a trip “I doubt he would’ve made previously.”
“Armonk is already known for its art and some local theater,” he said, referencing The Armonk Players, a community theater group, and The Small Town Theatre Company. “The Hudson Stage Company enhances what is already available in Armonk and strengthens Armonk as a destination for the Arts.”
Like Bessette, Foster pursued theater and, after a stint on the popular soap opera All My Children, got his break in the Broadway show City of Angels. He then switched his focus to directing, which he did both regionally and internationally in London and Australia. Now, he directs many of Hudson Stage’s productions.
“What’s been heartening is that I would say probably well over 50 percent of the people that come through the door now are people we don’t know, which is a great thing,” Foster, a Croton resident, said. “So, yes it’s been a wonderful move for us.”
Both Foster and Sklar worked on ABC soap operas in the 1980s and, in fact, worked just one block apart in Manhattan, but never met until they both had moved to Westchester. Sklar met Foster’s wife in a park in Croton in 1998. Within the same year Sklar also met Bessette at a gym after overhearing her talking about her hopes to start a theater. The three met for coffee at the Black Cow in Croton and put their plan into motion.
“You’re not going to get a Neil Simon or Guys and Dolls out of us,” Sklar said. “We try to present things to the Westchester audiences that are new to them, if not brand new.”
Hudson Stage’s production in fall 2015 of Outside Mullingar was one of the first to follow the Broadway debut of the show by John Patrick Shanley.
“I really felt like great alchemy happened,” Foster said. “It was the right cast, the right physical production, the right design. And it seemed to strike the right kind of nerve with the audience because we sold out just about every performance. It was also the kind of play that we like to do: slightly off beat, well written, challenging to the audience. That was a big one.”
This fall, they will stage the American premiere of You Will Remember Me, a French-Canadian play by Francois Archambault. The play has had success both in French and in English.
“I knew I was going to be directing in the fall and I’m always looking for new plays or plays that haven’t been done,” Foster said. “So, I tend to look at what they’re doing in England or Australia, or Canada.
It’s a very unique and challenging and funny play about a man with dementia. It’s kind of a new take on the subject.”
While the show has yet to be cast, Foster, Bessette and Sklar know they’ll have one member of the current production back – Blume.
“I’m really happy to be a part of it,” he said, looking forward to working on a third production with Hudson Stage. “Even though I’m backstage and I haven’t seen it in the full production, just from looking outside my wing or the side of the stage I’m on, I know the backstory and I know the lines.”
On July 31, Hudson Stage Company will hold its annual benefit. It typically involves a performance featuring Broadway talent. General admission tickets for all plays are $35 and students and senior tickets are $30.
Visit www.hudsonstage.com or call 914-271-2811 for more information.