In 1963, two young women, Edie LeFever and Eda Crist, noticed that theater productions in Woodstock always involved professionals playing the leads. They decided to create a theater group that would provide a creative outlet for the town’s many talented residents. Wanting to make their organization official, they consulted a lawyer. In his office were two other men, one from the Chamber of Commerce, who told the women that their idea would never work. “We left rather surprised and taken aback,” recalled LeFever, “and we decided we’d better get to work and present something.” The first production of Performing Arts of Woodstock (PAW) was Ionesco’s The Lesson, performed at the Café Espresso.
PAW, the longest continuously running theater group in Woodstock, celebrates its 50th year with an anniversary gala on Saturday, September 7, 4-8 p.m., at Onteora Mountain House in Boiceville. Attendees will enjoy a gourmet dinner, dancing to live music by The Phantoms, and performances of scenes from several past PAW productions.
LeFever, who is now 80 and has served as president of the board for all but a handful of years since 1964, has announced that she will retire from her position in October. She looks back with pride on the roughly 180 plays the group has performed, describing the pieces chosen as “challenging, interesting, demanding. I call what we have done ‘non-commercial fare.’ Not too many people are going to do Genet’s The Maids. We’ve done The Birthday Party by Pinter, Buried Child by Sam Shepard. And lots of original plays.”
Finances have always been problematic, since PAW eschews Agatha Christie plays and other crowd-pleasing, money-making staples of small-town theater. They rely on memberships and fundraising events to stay solvent, as well as grants, including 15 grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, based primarily on PAW’s choice of plays.
Venue is also a challenge. In its early years, PAW actors rehearsed in garages, living rooms, and basements. Performances have been held in churches, at the Woodstock Artists Association, and at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center. For 40 years, the group used the Town Hall on Tinker Street, where three times a year, they transformed the main room into a theater for several weeks. When the building was renovated in 2012, a petition with over 1000 signatures attested to the desire of audiences to allow PAW to return after the rebuilding. However, it proved impractical to put on plays in what was now a courtroom. “We did one play there, The Columnist,” said LeFever. “Regulations for the justice court are such that all sets and lights and props had to be removed after each weekend of performances.”
The community center, although not ideally equipped, has served as a substitute. The center is next on the schedule of renovation, and this time, PAW has been allowed to give input into the plans. “According to what I’ve been told,” said LeFever, “we should have a gloriously wonderful theater space, with a stage, proscenium, curtain, lighting, and storage. It’s meant to be a multi-use center but with dividers to permit two activities at the same time.”
Meanwhile, they hope to perform at the rustic, unwinterized Byrdcliffe Theater next June and at Mountainview Studio during colder seasons.
In the early years of PAW, several branches were founded: a playwriting unit, a young people’s theater, a chorus, and an international folk dancing group. They performed 21 new plays, including pieces by Bill C. Davis, Charles Dumas, Holly Beye, John Ford Noonan, and others. Fifty-one directors have guided PAW performances, with Nicola Sheara and Warren Kelder directing the most shows. Some actors nurtured by PAW went on to professional careers.
When asked to mention a favorite production, LeFever said, “I remember liking Under Milkwood a lot. It was an ensemble, and the actors also created the sound themselves. If there was rain falling, they would make sound to create the rain falling.”
LeFever’s devotion to theater contrasts with her education in political science, philosophy, and French at Hunter College. “I enjoyed it, but I needed more action,” she mused. Later she flunked out of law school. She was formerly married to John LeFever and had three children, “who I adore,” she said. Another great love is flamenco dancing, which she studied and performed in Woodstock with Mariquita Flores. She still dances, and she directs a theater group for seniors, The Comets of Woodstock, founded by Holly Beye and Ruth Craig in 1985.
LeFever, once busy with acting and directing, has in recent years taken the role of producer, which still gives her plenty of responsibilities. “If I am one leg of PAW, Ann Washington has been the other,” she noted. Washington wears many hats, including those of treasurer and set designer. Board members have thrown themselves into preparations for the anniversary gala, including Jean Fitzpatrick, Lena Adams, Kathy Miller, who will prepare the dinner, and Robert McBroom, manager of Onteora Mountain House. Decor will be designed by Barbara Roefs, and the event chair is Adele Calcavecchio, both board members. Actress Kimberly Kay will MC. Reservations close September 1.
As for PAW’s future, LeFever is confident that the leadership of the group will “continue to be true to its backbone and not to give in to choosing plays and productions in order to make money. We should stay with what our soul is really about. Other people do other things, which is great, there’s a multiplicity of things that can be done. This is our niche and the purpose I stood up for.”
Performing Arts of Woodstock presents its 50th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, September 7, 4-8 p.m., at Onteora Mountain House, 96 Piney Point Road, Boiceville. Tickets are $40 and must be reserved online at www.performingartsofwoodstock.org/ or by mail. See website for details or call 845-679-7900.