Pultneyville, a small community about 25 miles east of Rochester on the edge of Lake Ontario, has seen a lot of history. And, perhaps appropriately for a place that is a hamlet, a lot of that history is theatrical history.
Any visitor to Pultneyville soon notices that the hamlet has a focal point, at the intersection of Lake Road and Route 21 (Hamilton Street). It's a small but handsome and well-kept white frame building with a stone foundation, the typical nerve center of a 19th-century American community. Walk up the front steps and through two sets of big wooden double doors, you enter a large, plain room with a high ceiling, wooden floors, tall windows, a balcony – and a stage that has seen almost 150 years of play productions on its boards.
Gates Hall was built in 1825 as a non-denominational church, which it remained for about four decades. The site started its use as a theater in 1867, which, the town claims, makes it the oldest continuously active community theater in America. The tradition started with the Pultneyville Players, who presented dramas and comedies in the building called "the grand lady" for nearly a hundred years.
Jump ahead almost a century to the summer of 1961 and the creation of the Pultneyville Civic Light Opera Company by Jean Cooper, a graduate of the Ithaca College School of Drama, and her brother-in-law David Cooper, a Sodus English teacher. The Coopers announced a summer production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore" as part of Pultneyville's Sesquicentennial.
Despite predictions that no one would want to watch a show in an un-air-conditioned hall in midsummer, let alone perform in one, "Pinafore" was a hit. Summer G&S became a Pultneyville tradition during the town's annual Homecoming celebrations in mid-July.
The shows are produced on a shoestring budget but performed with gusto. The casts include experienced returning local actors of all ages, high school and college students who live in Wayne County or the general area, and G&S fans from Rochester who brave the heat to perform their favorites. (The hall, which seats about 80 people, is comfortably air conditioned now, but wasn't until quite recently.) The presentations are still informal, still focused on fun, and still pack the house.
There's equally enthusiastic participation in the more recently formed groups that perform at Gates Hall. In the 1970's, the Gatesinger Company, Ltd. was created to produce Broadway musicals, from old favorites like "Irene" and "Oklahoma!" to newer, edgier shows like "Ordinary Days" (a musical about life in New York immediately after the World Trade Center attacks) and, coming next spring, "Company." The Gatesingers have won numerous TANYS (Theater Association of New York State) awards for their performances and productions.
In 1984, a YouTHeatre group was formed. Currently including kids in six area schools, as well as homeschoolers, YouTHeatre puts on annual shows like "Into the Woods" and "The Pajama Game", and just started rehearsing this November's production, "Footloose." (The stage version is more family-oriented than the 1980's movie.)
There's also a group of "goodwill ambassadors" called The Entertainers, a younger version called The Junior Entertainers, and the revived Pultneyville Players, who present non-musical productions.
Gates Hall is a New York State Historical Site, and the Pultneyville Historical Society (which holds the deed to the building) sees that renovations and refurbishments, such as air conditioning and a modern lighting board, co-exist with the historic integrity of "the grand lady." The building is filled with theater mementos, from old hand-painted signs advertising G&S operettas to the signatures left by decades of cast members in the lighting coop above the stage.
The Gates Hall theater groups boast loyal casts, production people, musicians, and audiences. Many of them performed at Gates Hall as a child or young adult, and returned, sometimes with their children.
Karen Nail and Nan Hanna-Paquin are co-directors of the Gatesingers' YouTHeatre production, "Footloose." Both were involved (as director and choreographer) in last summer's "Iolanthe," the latest in a long string of summer G&S credits for each of them. Nail is also honorary chair of the Gatesingers' board of directors, and Hanna-Paquin chairs the Artistic Review Committee.
Hanna-Paquin's acquaintance with Gates Hall goes back to that first "HMS Pinafore," directed by her mother and her uncle. She remembers that for the set, "we found two life preservers and stuck them up with tape. Voilà – 'HMS Pinafore'!" After taking part in numerous summer shows, she returned to Pultneyville in the early '90s to direct and choreograph and has since, she says, "done all of G&S six times through, I think."
Karen Nail first performed in Gates Hall as a shy junior high school student in 1977, and was immediately hooked: "It was as if I immediately found lifelong friends I had never met." Since then she has performed and directed in many shows; "Footloose" is her first YouTHeatre production. She still finds the atmosphere welcoming, adding, "We had 40 kids audition, from age 12 to 12th grade, an amazing turnout – and we are amazed at the level of talent."
YouTHeatre gives a chance to high school students who, as Hanna-Paquin says, "may not be chosen for their own school shows, but can learn outside school in a real theater setting." For example, "Footloose" kids will not only sing and dance, but they'll also be learning theater crafts from experienced actors and production people. Says Hanna-Paquin: "We tell them, 'If you're serious and disciplined about music and theater, we're pleased to have you.'"
"There are very few opportunities for live theater or other cultural activities in Wayne County," says Nan Hanna-Paquin. "Here we have an affordable venue, a teaching tool for young performers, and a place where more experienced performers can ply their craft."
"We work with really great people of all ages, who can't do enough to help make a show a success," says Nail.