Mention theater and one thinks of ingenious sets, eye-catching costumes, lilting music, and dancers and actors par excellence. A chicken coop does not automatically come to mind. But it was precisely in such an avian residence that Montville’s Barn Theatre first began in the year 1928.
Mountain Lakes, in the early 1900’s, was a small lakeside community known for its rustic beauty. Drawn by its physical charms, many artists gravitated to the borough, giving it, according to a published history of the Barn Theatre, “its early reputation as a cultural (and somewhat bohemian) community”.
Arthur Stringer, a local playwright, was one such creative personality in town. He, along with some other individuals, founded the Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild (as the Barn was originally called) and when Mrs. Jennie Robertson of Mountain Lakes agreed to lease the stone building on her property that had previously been used to house chickens, to them, the group felt that it had found the perfect place to roost. It was a palatial henhouse by any standard, and with the addition of some benches, a stage, and some other modifications, it was soon ready for opening night.
Over the next more than two decades, the Guild weathered ups and downs, finding themselves on the streets after Mrs. Robertson passed away in 1943 and her property had to be sold. Following ten years of homelessness, during which time, they performed “on the road”, the group eventually found itself a new home: an old, run-down building on Route 46, a structure whose red color gave the Guild a new name that stuck: the Barn Theatre.
Alice Mahler, a Denville resident, is an actress who has had the longest association with the Barn of any person alive today. Mahler remembers the time when it was located on Route 46, and described it as being “a family enterprise” in those days with “the husband, wife, and children” of members participating in the venture. “[People] loaned their beautiful furniture and costumes [for shows] and the productions were very nice”, the 83-year old Mahler said.
When the building on Route 46 was also sold in 1960, a search for yet another home began which culminated two and a half years later with the discovery of the piece of property in Montville where the Barn currently stands.
Perhaps what distinguishes the Barn from other local playhouses is the caliber of talent that it has attracted over the years. Mahler herself was described by Lillian Miller, a Lake Hopatcong resident and another Barn veteran, as “a very interesting, very bright woman, [and] an excellent actress”.
And then there are people like Jay Mills, also a Denville resident, who, in his 35 years at the Barn, has been involved with at least seventy shows and has directed thirty of these. Like Mahler who had a professional pianist for a mother, Mills had a father who did vaudeville and orchestra, providing some proof that there might be a gene for performing talent after all.
There have been others who have used the Barn as a conduit on their way to “bigger and better things”, in Mills’ words. In more recent years, there have been local talents like Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski who performed at the Barn before finding fame on Broadway.
At 74, Mills is still an active member of what he refers to as the Theatre’s “core group” and becomes especially voluble when reminiscing about his years there.
Miller who produced many of the shows that Mills directed described it as a place where age is never an issue. It is one of the few places, she said, where a friendship can exist on an equal footing between “a sixteen year old and a sixty year old”.
She cited the 2002-2003 production of the musical “Ragtime” as an example of a show when the “entire group bonded and really got along”.
Despite such chemistry, there has been bad blood between group members in the past. Mills conceded that there was “backbiting” and Miller said that personality clashes were not uncommon. These, after all, were highly talented individuals, often with “large egos”, Mills said. “The other thing to remember”, he added, “is that [these people] are not getting paid”.
And that’s what makes the dedication of the core group even more remarkable – the fact that they are all volunteers. People like Mills have roughed it out since the sixties when the place had no air conditioning. Mills said he remembers thinking that he would “pass out” during one performance when he had to wear a wool cape as part of his costume.
There are lighter moments that make it all worthwhile. Miller recalled the time when they needed a goat for one of their plays. She was responsible for driving the animal over every night for rehearsals, even chasing it down once when it attempted a getaway. After all the effort involved in transporting the goat, Miller said laughing, its part was ultimately nixed because the woman in charge of bringing it on stage could not overcome her fear of the animal.
The group has had to handle certain scenes carefully in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of a not entirely liberal audience. Mills recounted the time they did “Steambath”, a play about a group of people who find themselves in an afterlife of a different sort: a steam bath where “God”, Mills said, “is a Puerto Rican towel attendant”. A bodysuit and the clever use of some previously shot video footage projected onto a set wall helped them get around the live “topless’ scene called for in the script.
At other times, however, the Barn Theatre has appeared to be a trailblazer of sorts with its selection of plays. During the 1972-73 season, the theater staged “Boys in the Band”, a brutal yet sympathetic treatment of homosexuality, an uncomfortable topic, in those years, for a public medium.
Ultimately, Mills said, the story of this small community theater, which had its origin in a henhouse and which survived homelessness and other forms of adversity over the years, was the story of “love and perseverance”. “There is a lot of passion here”, he said.
Amid all the elements that make the theatrical business what it is, – missed cues, forgotten lines, blizzards on show nights, malfunctioning sets, irate actresses whose language could make a sailor blush, budget constraints, migration of talent – there is one thing that is clear to the people at the Barn: the show, they all know, must go on.