In 2012, Lynne Bolton bought a piece of land in downtown Nantucket, raised up a tent and put on a show.
Today, as then, she’s Artistic Director of White Heron Theatre Company, a New York City-founded, Nantucket-transformed, regional performing arts organization, and this plot of land on North Water Street, not too far from the island ferry, is White Heron’s home base.
Luckily, the company no longer performs in a tent. In the four years that followed her purchase, Bolton dreamed up and executed a brand-new, fully equipped, Equity, brick-and-motor, 155-seat theater with her business partner and White Heron Executive Director Michael Kopko.
But why do this on Nantucket, a lazy, hard-to-get-to, historic island off the coast of Cape Cod? Because of a completely crazy dream.
“I came to Nantucket at 15, for a summer dance season,” she says. “It was a magical summer. People have a wonderful first visit, and simply fall in love with the island. As an adult, I started vacationing here, and 20 years ago, my husband and I bought a second home in Siasconset, which led to my involvement in the island’s busy theater scene. White Heron’s move to Nantucket seemed completely organic.”
Originally, Bolton founded White Heron Theatre in New York City. Always passionate about theater, her career began in communications, including work on Capitol Hill. She married and had a young family, but, the theater bug remained. When she auditioned at Yale as an actor, legendary professor Earle Gister took note. In an unusual move, he advised her to spend time with her young children and touch base in a few years. Taking his advice, she soon enough found herself in a rigorous course of study with Gister. It was Gister, inspired by Bolton, who suggested they start a theater company. After Gister’s passing, Bolton took time to think.
She took a breath, rolled up her sleeves and moved north.
“It may be a small island, but there’s an active theater community and a highly sophisticated audience,” says Bolton. “Shows take place in various rental houses and spaces, but there wasn’t anywhere where we could build a consistent home base. When I heard about a lot that would be going for sale in downtown Nantucket, I was able to speak with the sellers before it went on the open market. They were theater lovers, liked our plans, and were interested in selling quickly.”
Bolton has persevered and elegantly contributed to Nantucket’s theater scene in the seven years since White Heron Theatre Company has been on-island. They are developing new programs all the time, including new play projects, theater education and co-productions, which complement its regular season programming.
“One of our new events is a full semester during the winter months, offered to film students from Brown and Sarah Lawrence, both known for their innovative arts departments” says Bolton. “We have 40 students on island this year. At first, we wondered if the remote location would be conducive to this age group, but we find that the students use the isolation and time with extreme productivity. We believe the isolation works to everyone’s advantage, and it also brings some off-season life to the Nantucket community.
It’s worth noting here, the Nantucket summer season is anything but isolated with a who’s who of international performing artists living, visiting or touring the island. All very much appreciated by the sophisticated summer audiences.
With a goal to produce high quality, transformative theater, Bolton looks to make partnerships where she can, and broaden her reach, collaborating with the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, one of the country’s best regional theaters and the Round About Theatre, which has a major New York City presence.
“Theaters now come to us with ideas,” says Bolton, “and we receive many more pitches than we can accept. Our reputation has grown so that, at times, White Heron holds the world premier, instead of acting as the developmental house. We are now intimately involved in the development and production of theater that is part of the national conversation.”
As Bolton’s star rises, time off becomes a luxury, and that’s certainly a drawback in a setting as idyllic as Nantucket.
“We have a running joke between us all to see if anyone can make it to the beach five times over the course of the summer,” she says. “We keep score and no one seems to win. As a quest for balance, I started swimming every late afternoon, before heading back to the theater, and the consistency of that has helped everyone know there’s a two-hour down time during the transition from producing activities to curtain.”
Bolton goes on, “Gister always said to me, ‘Making theater is all consuming, and it should be when you in the process of doing it. But, do make sure to take time away. It will feed your soul and you’ll be a better artist.’”