The Who, What, How, and Why of WHAT
For a time, the Outermost Cape Performance Company appeared in theatrical productions at the Catholic Church in Wellfleet. Gip Hoppe, Dick Morrill, Kevin Rice, Dan Walker, Vicki Shepard and Laurie Swift worked as OCPC until they lost both their performance space and their acronym, which some thought stood for either a confederation of Soviet states or a compulsive disorder.
The group, understanding that theater is, in fact, a compulsive disorder, changed its name to WHAT. The company moved into the paint can and kitchen appliance-strewn rooms next to Uncle Frank’s on the harbor beach. The actor/carpenters knocked down walls and put on their first show. Actor Bobby Rosser recalls, “I come from New York, and when I first came to Cape Cod, I saw an ad that this place called WHAT was doing Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. I thought, ‘How dare some small theater company presume they can do Rhinoceros?’ So I went to see the show. At first, I couldn’t find the theater. When I did find it, I took one look at the building and thought, ‘Maybe I better go home.’ But I didn’t. I bought a ticket and was floored by what I saw. The only problem was that there was a cutout of a window on the set, and every time a car went by, the headlights flashed in our eyes.”
Jeff Zinn sees the first play of the season, Greater Tuna. Zinn joins the company and directs the last play of the season, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. He had made his off-Broadway debut as “Danny” in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity In Chicago, and his Broadway debut in The Suicide with Derek Jacobi. Zinn made his film debut as John Travolta’s legs in the iconic opening scene of Saturday Night Fever (you could look it up).
Actor Jerome Davis recalls, “I spent three of the most wonderful summers of my life in Wellfleet in the early nineties. The energy and enthusiasm of the people at WHAT was combustible. Jeff’s drive and political awareness, Gip’s humor and his passion for his subjects… and all the wonderful ‘regulars’ at that little gray box of a theater on the harbor make it a place that I return to often in memory.”
WHAT produces several World Premieres by playwrights Gip Hoppe, David Rabe, Michael Klein, Kevin Rice, Frank Speiser, and The Five Lesbian Brothers. New England Premieres included plays by John Patrick Shanley, Paula Vogel, Sam Shepard, Mac Wellman, and Tracy Letts.
WHAT receives the prestigious Eliot Norton Award for “Establishing a Beachhead for Serious Theatre on Cape Cod.”
Jeff Zinn announces a Capital Campaign for “a permanent home for Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and a year-round cultural center in Wellfleet.”
The company offers New England Premieres by Carter L. Lewis, Eve Ensler, and Lee Hall, and a World Premiere by Gip Hoppe.
WHAT receives an Eliot Norton Award for “Outstanding Production by a Small Visiting Company,” when Gip Hoppe’s A New War is transferred to Boston.
Stephen Russell, an actor with the company since 1987, begins WHAT for Kids, writing and directing hits like, The Three Sillies, The Very Sad Tale of the Late Mr. Stiltskin, Xenia Hedgehog’s Academy of Etiquette for Naughty Boys and Girls in Nine Convenient and Easy Lessons, and Daisy Crockett, Frontiersperson!
Boston Magazine chooses WHAT as “Best Theater” in its annual “Best of Boston” issue. Shrewdly, do not point out the distance between Boston and Wellfleet.
In June, WHAT dedicates its new state-of-the-art, 210-seat theater with three gala opening nights. Jeff Zinn directs the first play, Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House.
On Saturday, June 23, a gala opening night features a cheering ovation for Julie Harris as she kneels onstage, kisses her hand, and slaps the floor to dedicate the Julie Harris Stage.
The WHAT Award for Outstanding Artistic Contributions to the Theater is given to playwright John Kolvenbach on opening night of the world premiere of his new play, Fabuloso. Stephen Russell writes and directs a WHAT for Kids hit, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, based on a Russian fairy tale. WHAT experiments with combining live theater and filmmaking. Jeff Zinn filmed chilling and comic sequences for Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman. Brendan Hughes used video to make it appear that actors Robert Kropf and Brenda Withers walked offstage and directly into Wellfleet Harbor.
-Dan Lombardo, WHAT Dramaturg