Jennerstown theater a diamond in the rough

by Ruth Rice

The Tribune-Democrat

January 18, 2014

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JENNERSTOWN — A historical landmark and diamond in the rough, Mountain Playhouse is housed in a restored 1805 gristmill.

Founder James Stoughton discovered the abandoned gristmill in Roxbury, Somerset County, and moved it log by log through the snow to its present site along Route 985 in 1939.

"Who knew that on June 24, 1939, Mountain Playhouse would be thriving in 2014 and marking its 75th anniversary?" asked executive producer Teresa Stoughton Marafino, a member of the founding family.

Marafino credits the longevity of the theater for its ability to adopt and evolve with the times.

"One of the reasons the theater is still here is throughout the decades, the performance times have been changed as society changes. This year, the board of directors is introducing a 7 p.m. curtain time for Tuesday and Wednesday performances. The audience had asked us if we could have an earlier curtain time, and we wanted to start out with a few and see how it goes."

Mountain Playhouse is the oldest professional resident summer theater in Pennsylvania, and one of only eight left in the Council of Resident Stock Theaters.

The productions at the playhouse achieve technical and artistic excellence through the talents of its resident company of professional actors, directors and designers.

Members of Actors' Equity Association perform in all productions as they have since the theater's opening in 1939.

The theater also employs directors from the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and musicians from the American Federation of Music.

Actors audition in New York City and Pittsburgh and live in Jennerstown during the length of their acting contract, sometimes for the majority of the season.

The two-week periods in which the resident company performs one show while rehearsing the next produce a fresh, energetic staging that is characteristic of summer stock theater, and a rare experience in the United States today.

"The Mountain Playhouse is uniquely positioned to bring professional talent from across the country to this tiny, rural borough," Marafino said.

In addition, the playhouse's International Comedy Playwriting Contest, which was launched in 2002, has attracted many quality entries from around the world.

The theater is handicapped-accessible, with two sets of restrooms and an art gallery in the lobby, where the work of local artists is featured with a new exhibit opening with each new production.

In 1998, the Mountain Playhouse converted to nonprofit status to ensure its existence into the future.

Since then, with the support of patrons, corporate sponsors and foundation grants, the playhouse continues to survive and thrive despite economic challenges.