The Founding of Festival Theatre and the Promise of The Best of Broadway
No fewer than 300,000 people over the past 30 years have attended a New Bedford Festival Theatre production at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. In addition to supporting the arts, these audiences patronize many downtown New Bedford hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars before and after performances.
While it seems impossible to imagine downtown New Bedford without the Zeiterion at its heart, only 40 years has passed since the restored theatre reopened and live performance returned to its stage regularly for the first time since 1923.
New Bedford Festival Theatre Founder Armand Marchand and Artistic Director George Charbonneau have been involved with presenting live musicals at the Zeiterion since the theatre reopened in September 1982 with Shirley Jones: In Concert (Marchand was Jones’ dining companion for the welcome dinner the night prior).
Shirley Jones with supporters and Mayor and Mrs. John Bullard in 1982
Marchand and Charbonneau’s association with the Zeiterion began in the summer of 1983. At the urging of Zeiterion Board Member, Attorney Thomas N. Buchar, they transferred their successful production of Jesus Christ Superstar from New Bedford High School . Buchar believed that beyond bringing in national tours and high profile performers, the Zeiterion should provide an outlet for local talent to perform on its stage. He invited Marchand and Charbonneau to be a part of the team in the summer of 1984.
Jesus Christ Superstar 1983
From 1984-1989, the Zeiterion under Executive Director Robert A. Freedman produced 15 summer musicals with Marchand and Charbonneau as Co-Directors and a full staff of theatre professionals creating Broadway-quality productions in New Bedford. Freedman recalls “Many New Bedford and area residents began asking me if during the summer, the Zeiterion might be able to have musicals. Since there were no real touring musicals [in the summer months] it would have to be up to the Z to produce the shows itself.”
Jesus Christ Superstar was followed in 1984 by a production of Grease, but it was A Chorus Line in 1985 that really put the summer productions on the map. In 1983 A Chorus Line became the longest running musical in Broadway history and by 1985, it was still five years away from closing. Marchand recalls, “we had received the rights…very few people had received [the rights] at that point; it was still running on Broadway, that’s very unusual. It was a landmark production, everybody showed up. It was amazing, because we had done a couple of musicals for two years before that, but nothing hit like A Chorus Line, and rightly so; it sold out seven performances over two weekends.”
A Chorus Line 1985
Freedman says “An important element in the success of A Chorus Line was Armand and George recommending we hire Clay James as the choreographer. He did an amazing job and it was very fortunate that such a consummate professional was part of the team.”
In 1986, the Zeiterion co-produced their summer season with American Musical Theatre, Inc,. and Producer Charles S. Peckham. Camelot, The Pajama Game, and Carousel were presented for four performances each, using a local ensemble directed by Marchand and Charbonneau, combined with principal performers from American Musical Theatre’s home base in New London, CT.
Peckham was doing for New London’s Garde Theatre what Marchand and Charbonneau were doing for the Zeiterion. United by their shared love for musical theatre during this collaboration,the three men built a level of trust that found them often advising on one another’s productions. Peckham would remain a large influence on Marchand and Charbonneau for many years following his untimely death of brain cancer in 1987.
Freedman saw the impact that the summer musicals could make on the community “Our ability to produce these shows gave us activity during a time that the theatre mostly would be dark. It kept the community engaged. We also housed some of the actors in people’s homes, so we created this connection with the shows in the community… It was our statement that we could have quality productions that would keep the feeling in New Bedford that we were in touch with Broadway and New York.”
Freedman was a guiding force for Marchand. “Little by little, he would hand things off to me, and I became more like the assistant producer”.
Guys And Dolls 1989
In the autumn of 1989, Freedman left the Zeiterion and the remaining creative team for the summer musicals entered into a verbal contract with the Zeiterion, agreeing to be available for the summer of 1990 and the three shows chosen: South Pacific, The Pirates of Penzance, and La Cage aux Folles.
In January of 1990, without notice, the Zeiterion decided to no longer produce summer musicals. Marchand and Charbonneau, along with Musical Director Don Vasconcelles, Choreographer Clay James, and Lighting Designer Suzanne Lowell were shocked and dismayed at the sudden shift from the Zeiterion. Marchand points to the successful 1985 production of A Chorus Line and the subsequent musicals including CAROUSEL, WEST SIDE STORY and 42ND STREET that had us questioning the decision to cancel the Summer Musical Season.”
After the Zeiterion made the decision to cancel its 1990 summer season, there was a chance professional summer theatre would leave the Whaling City for good.
Marchand and Charbonneau weren’t sure how to proceed. A chance meeting with Lowell in Boston in early February of 1990 planted the seed of what was to become a 30 year legacy in New Bedford.
Artistic Director George Charbonneau pictured in his award-winning role of the emcee in the Zeiterion Theatre’’s 1987 production of “Cabaret”
Marchand recalled the meeting with Lowell, “She just came up to me sobbing because she had turned down several possible contracts for the summer with the idea that she was going to be working with us for all three months of June, July, and August. So she was the one that made me resolve to do something about it and to pursue our options.”
Speaking about why he felt it was important to keep summer theatre at the Zeiterion and, particularly, in New Bedford, Marchand said, “… it was important to me to maintain the staff we had built for the Z from 1983 forward. I had worked with those people, they were a magnificent staff. A lot of the people that we were friendly with felt that they could not go a summer without musical theatre going on downtown. And it was my intent that the musicals would add to the cultural landscape of Greater New Bedford and the SouthCoast. To me, it wasn’t a wise decision on the part of the Zeiterion board at the time.”
A meeting of the former Zeiterion production team took place in February 1990. During the meeting, the group realized they would need a producer. Marchand elaborates: “I announced at the meeting ‘We have to find a producer,’ and everybody in the room said, ‘Armand you have to be the producer!’ My first inclination was to leave the room, get in my car, drive away, and keep driving until there was no gas left because I could not see myself in that role at that particular point in time.”
While Marchand knew for the sake of his colleagues and for summer musicals in New Bedford he had to take on the role of producer, “I didn’t see myself as the producer, but I knew we needed one. I was already missing Robert Freedman as a mentor and friend, because I relied on him. You rely on the boss to do it all, I mean to frame things, to decide what’s important and I leaned on him.”
New Bedford Festival Theatre Founder Armand Marchand in 1990 at the company’s founding
It was a former City Solicitor under Mayor Fred Kalisz and former student of Marchand and Charbonneau, Attorney George Leontire, who suggested that Marchand set up his own theatre company.
To become a non-profit company it necessitates choosing a board of directors, to fill his board, Marchand chose a group of people who were not only friends that had supported the musicals at the Zeiterion, but had been advocates of the performing arts in New Bedford and brought with them a unique perspective of their own experiences in the community. The first boards of directors included Leo J. Schick, Clement Blais, Deborah Dunlop, Sheila Martines Pina, Priscilla Demers, William Reed, Edward Silva, Diana Henry, Kathleen Goes, and Steve Ferreira.
Founder Armand Marchand and Artistic Director George Charbonneau during the Zeiterion Theatre’s 1988 production of “Anything Goes”.
Before their work Co-directing musicals at the Zeiterion, Marchand and Charbonneau were known locally for their award-winning productions emanating from the New Bedford High School Drama Club. So, from the start, it seemed a given New Bedford Festival Theatre would have theatre education as a main component of its overall mission. The Festival Theatre Apprentice Program, now known as the Summer Academy, provides practical experience in the theatre for high school aged students from all over the South Coast. The Summer Academy gives its participants the ability to work side by side with and attend masterclasses by seasoned theatre professionals in areas such as performing, stage management, and design. Many former Summer Academy participants have gone on to major in theatre at colleges and universities across the country and many have built successful careers in the performing arts.
Rehearsals for La Cage commenced at the beginning of July 1990 and proceeded smoothly amidst the sprint to opening night. One person who knew how much was riding on the production for Marchand was choreographer Clay James. He found Marchand in the theatre’s green room after the final dress rehearsal. “He said, ‘Armand, I don’t think we’re ready. We need a couple more days.’ And I said, ‘Well, Clay, we don’t have a couple of more days. The opening night audience is coming tomorrow night.’ And he said, ‘This show could fall apart right in front of your very eyes.’ I said, ‘Well, thank you for such inspiring words.”
At 8:00 PM on July 26, 1990, Festival Theatre’s inaugural production of La Cage began. After almost five months of blood, sweat, and tears, Marchand and Charbonneau looked on from the back of the theatre as music director Don Vaconcelles raised his arms to begin the opening notes of the Prelude. Everyone involved in the production took a deep breath; they were about to find out if their dream had paid off…
And it did, in spades.
In a manner of speaking, Festival Theatre began in 1983 when Attorney Thomas N. Buchar and Robert A. Freedman created professional summer musical theatre in New Bedford. After six years when the Zeiterion chose to abruptly cancel the summer series, and with no other course of action, Armand Marchand and George Charbonneau willed Festival Theatre into existence along with a group of plucky supporters, and saved summer musicals from falling into obscurity; beginning a 30-year legacy that continues to entertain audiences and provide support for local businesses.
Former Executive Director of the Zeiterion Theatre Robert A. Freedman
When Freedman was asked how he feels knowing that he shepherded into existence summer musicals at the Zeiterion from 1983-1989 and how they have continued on uninterrupted for 30 years after his departure he said “I was very concerned when I left whether or not the Z would continue the summer productions. Someone new coming in to run the Z might not have had the producing experience that I brought to the position. And indeed, that was the case that the Board decided against the summer shows. So I was really grateful that Armand and George picked up the ball and ran with it and have done an amazing job. As incredibly proud as I was to work with them during my years at the Z I am so happy they created a successful theatrical company that has provided wonderful opportunities for the people in New Bedford to see some great performances.”
After a long illness, Zeiterion board member Attorney Thomas N. Buchar passed away in September 1993.
After departing from the Zeiterion in the autumn of 1989, Robert A. Freedman went on to successfully manage the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, CA, and Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater, FL, where he retired in March 2013. He continues as a consultant for non-profit organizations around the nation.
Lighting designer Suzanne Lowell went on to found a company, Suzanne B. Lowell Lighting Design, providing special event lighting in the Greater Boston area.
Clay James, choreographed most of the Zeiterion summer musicals as well as La Cage and Festival Theatre’s 1991 production of Hello,Dolly!. James continued to choreograph around the country and began a career as an associate professor of theatre and dance at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Don Vasconcelles repeated his duties as musical director for Festival Theatre’s formative productions, ending with the 1993 production of Evita. He later became Headmaster of New Bedford High School, a position he would hold until his retirement.
Armand Marchand and George Charbonneau retired from New Bedford Public Schools in June2001 where they produced a total of 60 plays and musicals. Since their retirement, they have devoted themselves entirely to Festival Theatre, presenting a total of 41 musicals. After Festival Theatre’s 2019 production of Mamma Mia, Marchand passed on the role of Executive Producer to Wendy Hall who, in 1990 at 17 years old, appeared in the ensemble of La Cage.
Artistic Director George Charbonneau and Founder Armand Marchand being honored in 2015 by Dr. Divina Grossman, chancellor UMASS Dartmouth
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New Bedford Festival Theatre Inc. is a registered 501C(3) Non-profit organization. All donations are tax deductible.