Underneath a tent on a bright summer day, Company Theatre’s co-founder Zoe Bradford, enthusiastic and smiling, has a lot to celebrate. The award-winning Company Theatre is as busy as ever as they prepare to open their 40th season with beloved musical, Ragtime July 27. Click here for more information and tickets.
Zoe reflects on how Company Theatre has evolved over the years and her extraordinary vision for the future which goes well beyond their 2.3 acres in Norwell, Massachusetts.
Sleepless Critic: Congratulations on Company Theatre’s 40th anniversary. Even in the last five years, so much has happened from the upgraded, painted theatre with new seating to new, original productions. Please tell me more about that.
Zoe Bradford: Now that the theatre is beautiful, we’re envisioning the potential of our outdoor property. We’ve done a lot with Academy of the Company Theatre (A.C.T.) having an expanded outdoor stage and new pavilion. Our growing summer program is currently at capacity with 200 kids. Not only do we need more space and with everybody addicted to their screens, I believe in getting kids outside. We now have a path to the pond front and we’re holding classes there for water coloring and creative writing.
Freedom for creative expression has been the key for me, so I know it is the key for them. It’s why I desperately wanted my own theatre and thank God it happened. It’s not stimulating to work in the confines of another person’s building or organization. That’s one of the draws here.
SC: The original musical Paragon Park took place in 2012. Are there any original shows you are working on?
ZB: Michael Hammond and I loved working on Paragon Park together and we want to do another one. We’re bookending our 40th anniversary with the start of Ragtime and ending summer to summer with a revival of Paragon Park in 2019 as opposed to the season running January to December.
Paragon Park will be the pinnacle of our 40th celebration with a wonderful night of dinner and dancing at Nantasket Beach Resort in Hull. Preceding that will be a VIP cocktail reception where guests can go on the Carousel and ride the ponies if they wish. Then we’ll trolley to the hotel for celebration and fundraising.
We’ll also have an outdoor VIP cocktail reception before opening Ragtime and featuring the Model T Ford, which is integral to Ragtime’s story. It looks like the real thing, built exactly to scale. Bob Grazioso, who has since retired from technical director but is still active at Company Theatre, built the Model T Ford when we did the show in 2003. The Ford Motor Company wanted to buy it from us, but we kept it because we wanted to do the show again.
SC: When you revive a show like Ragtime, what kind of changes do you make?
ZB: Life happens. My thinking has evolved from 2003 to 2018 just from life experience and I have approached Ragtime differently than I did then. We have three actors reprising their roles and 40 cast members who all feel it is a different experience than last time.
We did Ragtime in 2003 because there are strong, underlying themes of racism in the early 1900s and our attitude was thank God this is all behind us. Now this show has never been needed more. Shockingly, things have gone backwards and we have to speak out. Being a huge sympathizer of Black Lives Matter and having a black adopted daughter puts a lot of things into perspective.
Back then, immigration was sort of in the forefront of the news, but not like it is today. The show is about immigrants, which is about America and coming to America.
My passion lies in great storytelling. Ragtime is a prevalent, uplifting show with three beautiful, intertwining stories involving a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, a New Rochelle family, and jazz musician Colehouse Walker Jr. who buys the Model T. It’s a moving, relatable show about family, choosing family, and acceptance. It also has a brilliant score and we have a fifteen piece live orchestra. In my long theatre career, Ragtime is one of my top three shows. People will leave feeling good.
SC: Period pieces can be difficult from costuming to the fine details and Ragtime must be a monster to put together.
ZB: It’s challenging, but we have our costumer Bree Plummer. We would love to have her as a resident, but she is also a teacher so we get her when we can. I work with a great team of designers including Ryan Barrow and James Valentin to make the most beautiful show possible. We love period pieces because we can make it interesting.
I’m trying to let others set design because people have to carry the legacy on just in case. I probably won’t ever retire, but will let people take over certain aspects. As I let some things go, I plan to write more.
SC: Spring Awakening also took place in the last five years, another daring show.
ZB: I didn’t cut it, though it was handled carefully. Though it happened in a different era, the themes are also relevant today and people need things they can relate to. I also love a good score. Steve Bass came on in 2016 and we’ve made him our resident Music Director and may keep him on indefinitely. He’s a young, brilliant pianist and has his PhD from the Conservatory.
SC: You once said you chose popular shows that sell, but in the last few years, The Company Theatre has been delving into unchartered waters a bit. Last year was haunted with Carrie the Musical and Lizzie Borden.
ZB: It’s financially difficult to do that, but we are trying to give the young people what they want. Lizzie Borden went well because people love local history and some said they have been to her house. A gruesome tale, but it was also a nice psychological thriller.
We changed a little how we choose our shows, but we still have to please our general audience and offer something for the family, something mature, and our team knows their demographic well and what will be successful.
I’m passionate about big musicals and there’s nothing like the thrill of a live orchestra. People in the professional theatre world, mentors, and colleagues say they will put eight pieces in here and do a lot of synthetic and prerecord. You can make a lot of money that way, but we can’t do that. Michael Joseph said that is standard while he was here and we’ve maintained it.
SC: What shows do you still dream of doing?
ZB: I’d love to do Wicked, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I’m also waiting to do Mamma Mia! We’ll get to it. It’s all about rights and I’m sure there are new shows coming out that I’d love to get my hands on.
As a non-profit, whatever comes in has to support what we are doing and help us be self-sustaining. Grants, gifts, and tax deductible donations are the key. We have better opportunities for community support such as new packages for corporate sponsorship due to having higher end computer capabilities, a better website, and a brand new ticketing service that allows people who wish to support us to advertise.
SC: What has been your most challenging musical?
ZB: The Wizard of Oz because the movie is a masterpiece and any derivation from the film would be a disappointment for those who truly love it. People would fight me on that, but if you take on The Wiz, you can do what you want because no one has a preset notion of it. The Wiz was recently in Boston and the star of Ragtime portrayed the Wizard.
SC: What advice would you give someone taking on a business in theatre or similar?
ZB: It’s highly competitive. Know your vision, don’t give up, and try to think of something that someone else hasn’t already thought of. Be fresh and original when you can and make sure people know of your existence without being obnoxious about it. We still struggle with it. Some people say they didn’t know a theatre is here.
SC: What do you envision for the Company Theatre’s future?
ZB: We have to keep growing and in our 40th year, we are finally setting up the Legacy Fund. Our money rolls in and out with the tide as any non-profit would, but we’re actively fundraising to ensure another 40 years and beyond.
For the last ten years, I’ve wanted to design a new logo. I remember sitting at a little drafting table back in the 70s and hand drew it when we didn’t have any money or resources.
With art being cut in classrooms and attending theatre in Boston can be so expensive, we’re looking to keep this going so it’s accessible for everyone and expand. I can see us taking on more property and A.C.T. quadrupling over the next ten years. We’re not a community theatre anymore, but a year round professional and we’ll evolve again. We provide many jobs for people, but the other part of my vision is to create more jobs for artisans in the area. The more people that are working and inspiring people, the better.
Click here for tickets or call the box office at 781-871-2787. Located at 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts, click here on how to support the Company Theatre and be sure to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.