What You Need to Know About Gretna Theatre

A Spotlight on Gretna Theatre with Michael Philip O’Brien

Each summer, Gretna Theatre brings a full season of Broadway-caliber performances to the historic Gretna Playhouse stage. Experiencing a show in the open-air Playhouse amongst the quaint cottages and sounds of birds, there’s truly nothing quite like it… But how did the theatre ever come to be? And why, of all places, are these shows happening in the middle of a forest in Lebanon County? And where do broken hearts go? Okay, you’d have to see “The Greatest Love for Whitney” for that last question, but in talking with Michael Philip O’Brien, producing artistic director of Gretna Theatre, we got some answers to these questions with a behind-the-scenes look at America’s oldest summer stock theatre.

Q: What’s the history behind Gretna Theatre?

A: Gretna Theatre was founded in 1927, making it the oldest continuously operating summer stock theatre in the country. The theatre did go through some iterations of other producing models, though. Around the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the theatre operated as a regional circuit and many famous people came to perform for the summer, including Charlton Heston, Suzanne Somers, Sally Struthers, and Bernadette Peters.

Then in 1994, there was a blizzard that hit, and that was when the roof collapsed. They did a big fundraiser, though, and rebuilt the Playhouse by the next summer, and it’s been going ever since.

The Gretna Playhouse, home of Gretna Theatre, Gretna Music, and the Original Mt. Gretna Cicada Music Festival.

Q: What is a summer stock theatre?

A: A summer stock theatre is a theatre where you do multiple shows throughout the three to four months of the summer. It’s mostly defined by the time of the year and the fact that shows are happening kind of concurrently and on top of each other. There are a lot of ways you can do that though. Some companies do it more in rep, where you rehearse one show and perform another show at night, with a company of actors that stays for the whole season. For us, we approach it more like a regional circuit, where—for the most part—every show has different actors and different production teams.

A shot from “Matilda”, which was featured by the theatre in the summer of 2022.

Q: The theatre presents Broadway-caliber performances. Can you explain how that works?

A: So, I curate the material that we choose, and then I bring in the staff and have them weigh in too. From there, I seek out the shows and figure out what matches with what and how we want to do things. As far as the actors go, we have a contract with the Actors Equity Association, the professional actors’ union, and we hire through open auditions.

This year, for all of our shows as well as our apprentices, we probably had 700, maybe 800, submissions. This summer has a very eclectic group of shows and we tried to run the gamut of style and material so that we have something for everybody. But ideally, you know, every generation can enjoy all the shows, and that’s kind of the goal when we’re selecting the season.

Kayla Sanders in “The Greatest Love for Whitney” June, 2024.

Q: What does the theatre do in the off-season?

A: A lot of prep! It’s prep, auditions, submissions… all of that starts in December and we’re doing that through March. Then during our season, we’re basically doing what other theatres do in an eight-month span over a three-month span—we’re putting on ten shows, including kids’ shows and mainstage productions—so it’s pretty crazy.

Nattalyee Randall in “The Greatest Love For Whitney” June, 2024.

Q: What does a show day/show week look like?

A: The week of the opening, we’ll do tech days in the theatre where we do all the lights, all the sound, everything on stage, and full costumes. Those are long days, like 12-hour days. Then Thursday is our first day of performances, where we will do two shows, a matinee and our opening night performance.

For the actors, it’s a really crazy week, and then it’s performances all weekend. For the staff… it’s totally crazy as well. The whole summer is like that.

A shot from the theatre’s run of “Gypsy” July, 2023.

Q: What makes the shows in Mount Gretna so special?

A: It’s a magical place to see a live event. It’s an open-air theatre, you’re surrounded by this amazing, like, beach town in the trees, and then you get to see really great artistic works between all the organizations here. It isn’t like going into a theatre in any other place in the area.

People always worry about the weather, but my favorite time to see a show here is when it’s raining, because it makes you inherently aware that you are outside watching a show. To hear this beautiful rain soundscape behind you as you witness a performance… it makes for a very special experience.

The Playhouse has no air conditioning, but open-air seating, large industrial ceiling fans, and the shade of surrounding trees keep things cool.

Q: “Chess” with the Hershey Symphony is coming up. Can you tell us about that performance?

A: “Chess” is loosely based on the 1972 World Chess Championships between Bobby Fischer, who was an American, and Boris Spassky, who was a Russian champion. Obviously, the characters are different from them, but it was taken from the spectacle that this event became with the dynamics of not only America versus Russia within the Cold War, but also American culture versus Russian culture.

For the performance, we’re going to have 17 performing artists—the actors—and then we have the 24-piece orchestra from the Hershey Symphony doing this incredible score. The show has rock and pop music, but also these incredible choral and almost classical-feeling musical moments when the chess games are being played, so it’s kind of a perfect match with an orchestra like this.

The constant theme is that although it’s a concert version, it feels like a fully produced theatrical experience. You know, people walk in going, “Oh, it’s a concert,” and then walk out like, “Oh, that was so much more than a concert!” So, I’m really excited about that, and “Chess” is one of my all-time favorite shows.

“Chess” will run July 11 – 20, 2024.

Q: With the theatre being located in the Lebanon Valley, what is Gretna Theatre’s role in the community?

A: We try to stay involved as much as we can within the community, and we hope to continue to do that more and more as we start to expand our program model. We do touring outreach where we go out into schools and museums. In the fall the past two years we have done “Nevermore,” which was an experiential Edgar Allan Poe event in the Chautauqua, where we used porches and such. So it wasn’t at the Playhouse, but around the Playhouse.

We also have our Family Series, which is one of my favorite programs we do. Each summer, we offer literary-based shows geared toward children ages K-6 and their loved ones. For this year’s series, we’re opening with “A Year with Frog and Toad,” and then we are bringing in Jeff Boyer’s Big Bubble Bonanza, which was a big hit when we did it a couple of years ago. After that, we’re doing “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” and then we close with “The Cat in the Hat.”

What’s exciting about the Family Series is that all of the shows that we produce in-house are based on literary works and, through support from the Hershey Company, every family gets to leave with a book from the show, so that’s really awesome! I have a seven-year-old and two-year-old, and my seven-year-old is obsessed with it.

We try to make these shows extremely affordable. It’s $10 a ticket no matter what, adults and children, and you can get a subscription for all four shows for $30. This is a program that we’ve expanded every year since I’ve been here and it’s something we will keep expanding.

“Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical” will take place at 11am on Saturday, July 20 and 27th, 2024.

Q: Here in the Lebanon Valley, we’ve declared 2024 as the Year of the Arts. Can you share a little bit about the importance of the arts to Gretna Theatre?

A: I think in general, that’s one of the things that’s so captivating about this community: the diverse artistic menu of things that happen in the summer in Mount Gretna. There’s really an incredible variety of artistic avenues that you can find here, even just at the Playhouse between the Mount Gretna Cicada Music Festival, Gretna Music, and us. It’s such a huge part of what the Chautauqua was created for, and I don’t know that the Chautauqua or Lebanon County would be the same without an artistic hub like Mount Gretna, especially over the summer.

For example, one of the things that I talk about this season is how music plays an integral part in every piece that we’re doing this year. Music impacts us as people and it’s a very important part of my life personally, but it’s also universal: everyone has some type of music that is important to them. You know, you hear a song and it transports you back somewhere in an instant, or you hear a song for the first time and then you never forget that first time you heard it. Even with “Every Brilliant Thing,” a one-person play that we’re doing in August, music is such a huge part of how the story is told. Although we’re the theatre company in the Playhouse, music is still a huge part of what we do and how we program.

A shot from the 2012 production of “Burt & Me”, which will return to Gretna Theatre June 20 -29, 2024.

Q: What’s in the future for Gretna Theatre?

A: We’re heading towards our 100th Anniversary in 2027, so we technically have three years, but we’re starting to think and plan for those things now. I’m also excited about some potential changes in the type of programming that we’re thinking of doing in the future. Post-COVID, I think every arts organization has had to adapt and start to figure out how to get used to the “new normal” as audience trends have dramatically shifted and changed, but I’m really excited about the way that we’re looking at building towards the hundredth!

About Michael Philip O’Brien – Originally from the Philadelphia area, Michael Philip O’Brien joined Gretna Theatre in 2021 after being selected from a national search. Prior to joining the theatre, O’Brien spent 17 years as the co-founder and Producing Artistic Director of 11th Hour Theatre Company in Philadelphia, where he won a multitude of awards as both a producer and performer. O’Brien is now entering his third season with Gretna Theatre.

Check out our other Year of the Arts features here!

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