Shandaken Theatrical Society begins capital campaign with big plans

Director Michael Koegel, executive producer Bruce Barry, and actors Gemma Clarke Sands and Stark Sands at Phoenicia’s STS Playhouse planning “Starry Starry Night.”

With a mix of businesspeople and former theater professionals now on the board of directors, Phoenicia’s STS Playhouse is contemplating a new direction for the historic community theater. The board has picked out a new name for the theater, to be revealed at “Starry, Starry Night,” a May 27 benefit featuring Broadway, film, and TV actors.

The fundraiser will serve as the kick-off of a capital campaign to fund a major renovation and


expansion of the Playhouse. The $125 tickets also entitles attendees to a pre-show cocktail party with silent auction at the Phoenicia Diner’s outdoor pavilion, a performance of five short plays at the STS theater, plus a post-show Q-&-A and a premium auction.

Board member Bruce Barry is executive producer of “Starry, Starry Night” and former director of the daytime drama Guiding Light. He is responsible for drawing a number of actors to buy second homes down the street from his residence in the Town of Shandaken. Barry and the nine actors performing at the benefit collectively represent a plethora of industry recognition, including four Tonys, three Emmys, and two Drama Desk awards.

Boyd Gaines, (Contact, four-time Tony Award winner), Kathleen McNenny (Law and Order),  Jan Maxwell (Follies, Drama Desk Award winner and five-time Tony Award nominee), and Ellen Parker (Guiding Light) all first came to town on a visit to Barry. Stark Sands (two-time Tony Award nominee for Kinky Boots and Journeyʼs End) and his wife Gemma Clarke Sands (Damage) followed more recently. Gemma, an actress and playwright, wrote an introductory skit for the show and will appear onstage with her husband for the first time.

“Coming here started out as a great escape,” said Stark, who moved to New York from Los Angeles in 2007 to work in film, TV, and theater. “When you have that kind of energy in your life, staring into space with so many people, it’s vital to get away from it and have downtime. If I’m in a show, we jump into the car after the Sunday matinee, drive up, and then we’re back in the city for the Tuesday night show. If I’m not in a show, we can be here for a whole week — but it’s hard to leave once we’re up here that long.”

Jan Maxwell said the STS Playhouse was a selling point when she decided to buy a home in Shandaken. “The community theater in my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, was definitely the spark for the passion I feel about theater,” she said. “Ten years ago, when looking for a place near

Phoenicia, my heart did a triplet when I saw the theater in town. I have very much enjoyed the productions throughout the years, and I am so happy to be involved with this important benefit.”

Other Hudson Valley residents performing are Byron Jennings (Boardwalk Empire), Robert Emmet Lunney (Fox TV’s The Exorcist), and Carolyn McCormick (Equus and Private Lives). Three of the plays, Brights, Litter, and Good Flop Bad Flop were written by Ulster County resident David Smilow, formerly a writer for Guiding Light and now a member of the upstate collective Actors and Writers. The other two plays are A Long Trip by Dan McGeehan and Fun by Catherine Butterfield.

Barry began his career as cue card clerk for the Captain Kangaroo Show, gradually ascending to the role of director. In 1977, he moved to soap opera production, working on many popular daytime soaps. He recently joined the board of STS, where he’s working with former TV producer Michael Koegel (now the STS artistic director and proprietor of Mama’s Boy Burgers in Tannersville) and former set designer and builder Michael Cioffi, who owns the Phoenicia Diner.

“We want to have something happening at the theater every weekend,” said Barry. “It can be a venue the community can use for workshops, actor workshops, writer workshops. We’re looking at a summer camp for children so kids can get taste of theater, from set building to learning lines to acting out parts. We may be doing magic shows and choral works. It will be a place where the arts can really be explored.” STS will continue to put on four shows a year, and other companies will be able to use the theater for productions.

“We’re putting a lot of effort into rebranding,” said Barry. “We’ve hired an architect. At the benefit, we’ll have renderings of how we envision the theater looking, hopefully in the near future. This fundraiser is going to be a great boost for us to move ahead with our plans.”

STS Playhouse began as the Shandaken Theatrical Society in 1976, when a group of residents wrote and performed a short play for the town’s U.S. bicentennial celebration. They had so much fun, they kept it up, producing more and more ambitious shows and finally purchasing the Odd Fellows hall on Church Street, thus becoming one of the few community theaters with their own dedicated building and proscenium stage.

“How we got to this place is on the back of all the people who have worked on this theater since 1976,” said Koegel, who is directing the plays for the fundraiser. “We would not be here if it wasn’t for all of them. But this is the first time an STS board, that I’m aware of, is not made up almost entirely of people who want to be in shows. It takes all the politics out of the board, which can focus on what a board is supposed to do — grow the organization.” Also on the board are Elizabeth Andes Bell, Shama Davis, Barry Kerr, Tori McCarthy, and Tamara Murray.

As a volunteer organization, STS has run successfully on the high enthusiasm of actors and production staff, many of them transplanted former theater professionals. However, the historic building tends to be perceived as under-utilized. Barry said a theater manager will have to be hired, along with two or three staff, to accomplish the ambitious projects the current board has in mind. And money will be required. Grant writers are already at work, and the benefit night is expected to bring in funds to get started on the renovations.

“Starry, Starry Night” will begin with a cocktail hour at 6:30 p.m. at the Phoenicia Diner pavilion. Hors d’oeuvres and wine will be served while attendees mingle with the actors and bid on silent auction items, including prizes from area merchants, theater memorabilia (such as a sailor hat signed by the cast of the South Pacific revival), and more. The show will begin at 8:30 p.m. at the STS Playhouse in Phoenicia. During the intermission, there will be a live auction of premium items, including a two-night stay at the Emerson Resort & Spa in Mount Tremper. (The Emerson is also offering a special weekend package that includes a discounted two-night stay and tickets to the event.) Other auction items include the right to have a cocktail named after oneself at Phoenicia Diner for the season; private fly fishing lessons; window washing; instruction on making drinks from Heather Ridge chef Rob Handel; a consultation with a Mohonk Mountain House gardener; and much more.

STS Playhouse presents “Starry, Starry Night” beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 27. Each ticket costs $125 and comes with a one-year membership to STS, including one ticket to each of four performances planned over the 2017-18 season, and two tickets to the STS production of Prelude to a Kiss (last three performances May 19-21), worth $120 in total value. Tickets are available at Tender Land Home, 64 Main Street, Phoenicia; Phoenicia Diner, 5681 Route 28, Phoenicia; The Peekamoose, 8373 State Route 28, Big Indian; online at; or by phone at (845) 688-1369. Tax-deductible donations to the capital campaign are also welcome.