One hundred and twenty-four years ago, a group of actors gathered at the Sconset Casino to put on a summer performance. Later this month, it’s happening again.
It isn’t the same actors, of course, and it isn’t the same performance. But, in some form or another, the Sconset Casino has been home to theater productions for as long as it has existed. For many years, those productions have been organized by On the Isle, a Sconset-based theater organization with roots in a 1940s troupe that performed comedic revues set to popular music with the lyrics changed to cover local events.
This year, they are performing an adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw — the inspiration for the hit television show The Haunting of Bly Manor — set on Nantucket. The production will run from July 27th through July 30th, and tickets are available now.
Director Carl Schmehl, who has been running On the Isle’s summer productions since the 100th anniversary of the Casino in 1999, has always wanted to do a ghost story, and felt The Turn of the Screw, with its setting at a secluded manor, was perfect for the island. He changed the play a little, including moving the setting to Nantucket, but kept the bones of James’s famous story.
But On the Isle isn’t just about putting on a play each summer. It’s about fostering community.
“Our focus has always been to really be inclusive,” Schmehl said, “because that’s really what creates community. That’s sort of what we’re about is really bringing people together”
In line with that goal, Schmehl cast this year’s production twice. Each role is filled by two actors—and not in the way that is common for many larger productions, where major actors have an understudy who can fill in if there is an emergency. Instead, there are two separate casts, each of which will perform three times, allowing more actors to take featured roles and become a part of the production. And when they aren’t onstage, the actors from the cast that isn’t performing are helping with the lighting, or the set, or the original score that Schmehl commissioned for the production, which includes soaring operatic vocals and haunting piano music.
In this way, Schmehl hopes to involve as many members of the community as possible. That, ultimately, is what he thinks makes On the Isle matter.
“It’s so important that this organization keeps going because there are so few things that build community anymore,” Schmehl said.
Over the years, he has directed plays, musicals, revues, and even a silent movie for On the Isle. But the one thing that has remained consistent is his commitment to community building. It was Schmehl who expanded the yearly summer productions from Sconset to the rest of the island, allowing the organization to draw from a wider talent pool. But he was building on a legacy that stretches back over a century.
“The community of Sconset has always been a magnet for creative types,” Kathi Loughlin, President of On the Isle, said.
It started in the 19th century when Broadway theaters lacked air conditioning and shut down during the summer. Many actors fled the stifling heat of New York City when the theaters closed, traveling to Nantucket, where they became influential members of the Sconset community. It’s no coincidence that so many Sconset streets, from Broadway to Front Street, are named after theater terms.
The actors put on performances for each other over the summer. At first, they performed at the train station depot in Sconset, but when they outgrew that small venue, they built the Casino. Beyond a performance space, the Casino was a social centre, complete with a bowling alley and tennis courts. And to this day, though the productions have morphed and changed, they have never really left.