This Month’s Featured Article

55 Years Old and Mac-Haydn Theatre is Stronger Than Ever

By Published On: May 31st, 2024

“It was start a theater or drive to Alaska,” Linda MacNish said of the decision she and Lynne Haydn faced before opening The Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY.

Mac-Haydn is the flagship of live theater in Columbia County. In 1969, seeing a professional musical meant either going to New York City or attending a rare tour stop in Schenectady.

Haydn was an aspiring actress and director and MacNish managed performers and had started the city’s first luncheon theater, when they met in New York. Their shared wish for somewhere for people to get experience in musical theater led MacNish to muse, “Where I grew up would be perfect.” 

In the beginning

They drove back roads looking for a place to say “We’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show.” Not finding one, they rented space on the Chatham Fairgrounds. In the cattle judging ring. They reminisced, “We started every season on our knees,” using scrapers to remove residue from the cows. 

New York auditions brought in a small core of performers. The ensemble were local people with a passion and ability for musicals honed by high school music teacher J. Lyman Congdon. 

MacNish’s father, Preston, built a stage in two sections to be moveable. The audience sat on borrowed folding chairs. All of it had to be carried in and then back out in one busy night when the season ended. The performers joined in, singing their way through Chatham’s Main Street as the piano was trucked to its winter quarters.

At the end of that season, enough people asked “Will you do this next year?” that they decided to do it again. And more after that, until the ninth summer, when the need for a longer season for financial feasibility, and the number of things to move, made looking for a permanent home imperative.

Another search revealed property with several acres and a large building just outside Chatham Village, and at the end of the 1977 season, Mac-Haydn moved in. 

Volunteers worked several months to reconfigure a factory into a theater, dressing rooms, lobby, and costume shop. Parking areas, driveways, and a terrace were bulldozed into existence and bathrooms added. The old façade and counter from Chatham’s old post office became the box office. The Crandell Theatre was upgrading its seats and donated the old ones.

During the rush to finish construction, performers would put down hammers to rehearse a number, then go back to building the space. Despite consternation that all might not be ready, in June, 1978, Fiddler On The Roof began Mac-Haydn’s tenth season, the first in its own home. That was followed by Man of La Mancha, featuring The Impossible Dream, which MacNish and Haydn considered the theme song of the venue.

Non-stop schedule

To coin a phrase, “summer stock ain’t for sissies.” One new company was told, “even if this summer shows you that this business is not for you, it has done its job.”

On the fairgrounds, shows rehearsed for six days and then ran for one week. For several years, costumes and props were the part-time jobs of volunteers; with staff added as the productions grew. 

The new space enabled going to a two-week schedule, including days off, but the season is still a non-stop round of opening one show and then starting another the next day.

Everyone just smiles when patrons stop at the end of the season to say, “Now you can relax until next summer!” 

By then, plans have already started, with an audience survey, calls to royalty houses, and lining up cast and crew. Setting shows and hiring go on all winter. Auditions, which used to bring in stacks of resumes and take days in New York City with long lines of hopefuls, now start with digital submissions, from which people are chosen for call-backs. Trips to colleges to view talent are made, and zoom interviews with technicians done. 

Clean-up and fix-up projects at the theater and numerous cast houses go on through spring. A new company arrives, and another season is underway.

“Stars of tomorrow at Mac-Haydn today!”

The original purpose of having “the stars of tomorrow on the Mac-Haydn stage today!” has been fulfilled many times over, with people going on to the ultimate dream of Broadway, theaters and tours around the country, movies, and television. Several Mac-Haydn alumni are now running their own theaters. 

A partial list includes Broadway and movie star Nathan (we knew him when he was Joe) Lane, who ended his 1976 season at Mac-Haydn with the quip to MacNish, “So, what am I? Chopped liver?”

Lovely Paige Turco made a bored man sit up and straighten his tie with a dance move in front of his seat; she went on to star in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and on television in roles in The Agency, NCIS, and Blue Bloods.

Monica M. Wemitt came across the street to the fairgrounds to join the ensemble in Oklahoma. She’s had a host of roles since then and she will reprise her Mother Superior in Sister Act. She was featured in Hello, Dolly! touring and on Broadway with Carol Channing; in Liza Minelli’s Radio City Music Hall concert and tour; and as Madame de la Grande Bouche in the first Beauty and the Beast tour. 

Others from early summers include Chathamite Joe Howard, star of public TV’s MathNet; J. Lee Flynn, Clay in State Fair; Ted Keegan, the title role in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway; and Frank Lopardo, who played leading roles at the Metropolitan and opera venues around the world.

  From more recent years, Ashley D. Kelley, whose powerful voice and comedic ability shone as Sylvia in All Shook Up, just finished the leading role of Storyteller 1 in Broadway’s Shucked, as well as singing in a feature role on Ghosts.  

Jelani Alladin was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for originating the role of Kristoff in Broadway’s Frozen. Ryan Vandenboom is currently moon-walking MJ on Broadway and was a featured dancer in the movie Hail, Caesar. Aneesa Folds (Deloris Cartier in Sister Act) sang on Broadway in Freestyle Love, The Supremes.  

Stage manager David O’Brien worked on Broadway productions of Cats and Wicked, plus years with the tour of that show. Thomas Gates’ numerous credits include stage managing Waitress.

Jeff McWay, sound designer straight from a Missouri high school, is back on the road after a long run as assistant and head audio on tours of Book of Mormon, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Mamma Mia.

People with major credits, including Broadway, often are heard in Mac-Haydn shows.  

The show must go on…

As the saying goes, “The show must go on.” Performers have gone on stage holding a script because they were taking over last-minute for someone ill or injured. Over the years only a few times (not counting, of course, 2020) have shows been canceled; Hurricane Irene was one of those. 

A favorite story is when a thunderstorm knocked out power to the fairgrounds during the first act of Oklahoma. It was raining so hard that no one in the audience wanted to leave. Cars at the several doors shone headlights at the stage, flashlights lit the music, performers dashed under umbrellas, and the show went on. At the finale, as the whole cast sang the rousing “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A! OK!” title song, the lights came back on.

A few years ago, another power failure scrapped a performance of The Wedding Singer. Using acoustic instruments, emergency lights, and lots of flashlights, the company gave patrons who stayed a ‘talk and sing through’ of the show. They were given a standing ovation.

Striving for excellence

Both founders have passed away, MacNish in 2002 and Haydn in 2018, just two days before the opening night of the 50th season. 

Producing artistic director John Saunders was ready to step in. First at Mac-Haydn as a performer in 2001, he performed, directed, and worked with Haydn: “She usually called in October or November to talk about shows. This one was different; she said if I could come for the whole summer, ‘that would be good’.”

Haydn needed “someone who would preserve the mission and take it forward. I have a good knowledge of the genre, musicals, so it felt organic.” He spent “a couple of summers seeing things from behind her desk, time to observe how the institution ran, and formulate a game plan with what I could do to tighten it up.” 

Saunders feels the theater is pushing forward and striving for excellence in every department. “The addition of live musicians alone is huge!” Citing a new scene shop building, upgraded sound equipment, and painting inside and out, he added “improvements to the facility is a big part of my journey here.”

Some things will never change, he reassured. “The welcoming family environment is a distinguishable trait. There’s still the friendly face.” A huge mission is to stay accessible, “We are really fighting to keep live theater affordable to all, with the highest caliber entertainment.”  

Asked about plans for the future, he took a beat before saying, “Whew – Okay!” Modernizing is high on the list. Roofing repairs and bathroom expansion plans are in the works. A pipe dream is to build a full campus on the property, to include housing and costume storage.

“I want to develop new works, nurture a new musical,” Saunders ended with. MacNish and Haydn had looked through scores of manuscripts towards this shared dream. 

Call It Love, written by MacNish, was part of the second season. “An original show, in one-week stock,” she and Haydn would say afterward, “What were we thinking!”

Classic and contemporary musicals

Each season includes classics from the ‘Golden Age’ of Broadway, newer shows as they became available, and rarely presented yet thoroughly enjoyable gems, with a mix of plots and musical styles. 

Smash successes Les Miz, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys were scheduled the instant their rights were released. Countless requests for Phantom of the Opera, still not available, brought the substitutes Phantom and Phantom of the Country Opera, neither of which ever played on Broadway, but both have their own delightful stories and music. L’il Abner, Copacabana, and She Loves Me are just three of the seldom-staged treasures done over the years.   

This summer’s line-up includes drama and dancing in West Side Story, comedy and inspiration with Sister Act, and the still timely commentary of 1996’s Rent. Elvis will be in the building in All Shook Up, and a musical mixes with Shakespeare in Something Rotten. The Fantasticks is the world’s longest-running musical; MHT alumni Christine Long is one of dozens of actresses who played Luisa, The Girl in the off-Broadway run. 

“Look at what you’ve done”

Bonnie Estes Drowne, at Mac-Haydn for numerous seasons, reminisced, “The founders put people first, that they worked there second. We were invited to be part of something bigger than ourselves.” 

MacNish passed away during a run of Crazy For You. Audiences were told to think of her when they heard a line in the show that certainly pertains to both she and Haydn; determined, brave, and caring women who nurtured their dream of a stage where people creating all parts of musical theater could grow and flourish: “Look at all you’ve done for us. Look at what you’ve done.” •

To learn more about the Mac-Haydn Theatre and its upcoming season please visit