SALEM, N.Y. (NEWS10) – The home of Fort Salem Theater is an old church, first built in 1774 – two years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That shows just how long it has been around, but it isn’t the only significant date in the story of one of Salem’s oldest standing buildings.

2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Fort Salem Theater, a two-stage venue with a long lineage of musical theater, concerts and more. That anniversary hasn’t gone unacknowledged – even if, for its most recent owner, it came as a surprise.

“It hadn’t come up until I got a letter from the original owner’s daughter,” said Executive and Artistic Director Kyle West, who purchased the theater with his husband, Jared, in 2020. “She had read about the new activity at the theater, and shared with us how she was the one who had discovered the space as a teenager. It was an abandoned church, and the doors were unlocked, so she and her father went in and snuck around. The whole family fell in love with it.”

Upon finding out that the 50-year mark was just around the corner, the current Fort Salem family wasted no time. The theater hosted a 50th-anniversary party, inviting community members and performers from over the years to come and celebrate a vital piece of Salem history. They found some T-shirts and other memorabilia from over the years, and rang in the theater’s 50th year with a nostalgic New Years’ party.

The Wests also looked into the theater’s production history. Figuring out the first show ever performed there proved infeasible, due to a lack of complete records, but “Oliver!” is believed to be one of the earliest.

West purchased the theater in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As for so many, a major life and career decision came from a feeling of confinement while quarantining at home. West isn’t a local, originally hailing from Cape Cod and having worked in theaters from Dallas, Texas to New York City. When the theater management bug bit, the search didn’t start with Salem – but once it got there, it came to a quick end.

“We found the theater online on a Monday, flew out on a Wednesday and made an offer on Friday,” West recalled. “We were very quickly in love, and engrossed with the community.”

Once the anniversary was a known quantity, 2022’s list of shows wrapped itself around that theme. The theater held productions of some classic titles that longtime patrons woud recognize, but with their own modern twists.

One was a modern adaptation of the Jane Austen classic “Pride and Prejudice,” transformed by playwright Kate Hammel into a modernized classic. Another favorite was a production of “Grease” that brought theater performers together with those whose experience hasn’t often come to the stage.

One 2022 production is leaving a legacy just getting started. The theater hosted the world premiere musical reading of “This Old Haunt,” a show about four friends facing the ways they’ve changed while staying together at a cabin in the woods. The adaptation was written by Maggie Marie Rodgers and playwright SMJ, and directed by Rebecca Wahls, who was interviewed by Fort Salem as a prospective director to bring to town – and so, through her, the show found its first home. Following its debut, “This Old Haunt” has been picked up by Carnegie Mellon University’s 2022-23 season.

“It was really incredible, seeing something start at Fort Salem and then get some legs in the larger theater world. They’re just starting their trajectory.”

Small town, big shows

Fort Salem Theater runs two stages. One is its proscenium, a traditionally-oriented 200-seat theater, with seats all facing a main stage. The other is its cabaret room, with between 40 and 60 seats depending on orientation. There, the stage is amidst seats on more sides, creating a more intimate setting that makes certain types of show pop in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.

When the Wests became the theater’s new owners in 2020, they were prepared for some hard months ahead, as the pandemic kept people from coming out to see a show. They were prepared for the reality of not knowing when they would be able to open again. The reality they got was another matter entirely.

“For the first year and a half after we reopened, we sold out of just about every production,” West said. “We had to turn people away.”

A lot of Fort Salem Theater’s audience is local. There’s a vibrant passion for the arts in the southern Washington County community, spurred on not just by the theater, but also by nearby Salem Art Works, which hosts arts classes and community events across a campus that acts as a retreat for art students and masters alike. The theater sees plenty more visitors from an hour radius in all directions, including Cambridge, Greenwich, and other parts of the North Country, as well as across the Vermont state line.

That “arts destination” energy has been carried along by guests, like Dallas-based actress Rebecca Paige, who visited for a production of “Next to Normal.” In some cases, visiting actors have been natives returning home. The COVID-19 pandemic caused thousands in the theater business to retreat from major cities and back to their hometowns. Fort Salem has seen some come home, only to discover a whole new world of performance opportunities waiting for them. Some have chosen to stay, long past when they could have gone back to the big city.

The show never stops

Recently, Fort Salem Theater received a $30,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. For a theater with a rough operating cost of nearly $200k, that gift is enormous. That cost fuels the effort to find scripts, create sets and props, and pay all the physical hands that need to be working at all times.

And, lest it be forgotten, the building was constructed more than 240 years ago. There is any number of repairs, modifications, and renovations to be done. Ticket sales don’t cover all, or even most, of what it really takes to keep a theater running. Having worked at venues great and small, West says that problem isn’t unique to Salem – or small-town theater as a whole.

“If I’m being honest, I think every theater, regardless of location or scale, has similar challenges. We’re always seeking greater funding and trying to develop a bigger, younger audience, seeking more talent and ways we can present stronger production value. That being said, larger cities are able to justify a higher ticket cost, and a lot of the time are more likely to receive funding.”

Passing the 50-year mark is no small feat, and Fort Salem shows no signs of stopping. In 2023, the theater’s slate of productions includes “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Pirates of Penzance,” and “Spring Awakening,” to name a few.

As is so often the case, the docket also holds something with local ties. In July, it will hold a production of “Corn! The Musical.” Written by former Fort Salem Theater Owner Jay Kerr, as well as the late Al Budde, the musical weaves the story of modern American family farms and their struggles. The production sees Kerr co-direct alongside West – bringing a former theater owner with one carrying it to new horizons.

At the end of the day, the Fort Salem Theater’s success can be followed throughout the community. This past year, the theater opened a performing arts studio down the street, as a place to teach new generations of performers. West expected at least 20 students. In a town of under 1,000 people, the studio saw over 100 students in its first year – ranging in age from 3 to 73. All of those students came with their own stories, and their own ambitions for what taking the stage could mean for them.

“We’re just trying to find a little something for everybody,” said West. “We have the stage; we have the curtains; we have the lights.”

A full 2023 schedule, as well as ticket information, can be found on Fort Salem Theater‘s website.