The Barn as farm…
As the centerpiece of the Boal Estate in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Nittany Theatre at the Barn began its life in c. 1880-1890, as the service-barn at the hub of a working farm where it was used to store the estate’s hay and provide a home to the estate’s horses, cows, sheep, chickens, and other farm creatures. The Boal family settled the region for which the town Boalsburg is named. The fourth generation of the Boal family, Col. Theodore Davis Boal, married a descendant of Christopher Columbus and brought the Columbus Chapel to the Boal Mansion from Spain in 1909 including an admiral’s desk said to belong to Columbus himself. Boalsburg originally was on the main road for travelers from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, the Boal Estate tavern housed travelers. Today, the Boal Estate grounds are also home to the Pennsylvania Military Museum, as well as the headquarters of the Civil War reenacting unit, 3rd Pennsylvania Light Artillery Battery B. By the 1930’s the estate’s aging barn was retired from farm service, but its value to the community was only just beginning…
The Barn as setting for a “most unusual theatre”
When the globetrotting Pierre Boal retired from the diplomatic service following World War II (among his many posts, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua and also Bolivia), he was determined to fashion the family’s Boalsburg estate into a regional museum to display and interpret his family’s extensive collections of treasures and artifacts. By chance, at a dinner party at the American Embassy in London, Mr. Boal met the young, fetching, and very English, Lillian Dickson-Major, a stage and film actress, model and lover of history. Obviously taken in by her charms, Mr. Boal offered Lillian a job on the spot, insisting that she come to America, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania to be specific, to serve as the first curator of the new Boal Estate Museum.
Arriving in 1953, Lillian immediately set to work assembling, cataloging, and preparing the estate for museum service. In surveying the whole of the estate, Lillian took one look at the emptied Barn and immediately recognized its potential as the site for a “most unusual theatre.”
The Barn as “theatre for the space age”
At the same time Lillian was musing over the Barn’s conversion to a performance space, theatre theorists throughout the country (and at nearby Penn State University) grappled with dilemma of the state of live theatre seemingly adrift in a world infatuated with television and magnificent 70mm Technicolor motion pictures. How could live theatre survive?
These futuristic theatre theorists, that included Penn State professors, concluded that the aging model of expensive cavernous venues needed to be rethought and remodeled into more efficient (and economical) spaces for modern live theatre… Appealing to the roots of classical theatre, the arena stage was revived from its ancient Greek and Roman roots. Also known as theatre-in-the-round, innovative producers launched these new enterprises wherever there was the will… So, just as Lillian found the Barn an ideal venue for theatre, the space inside the Barn was also ideally suited for the conversion from a 19th century bank-barn to one of those new theatre-in-the-round venues for the space age.
Willing to offer the Barn for theatre, Pierre and Lillian invited a contingent of Penn State professors and theatre specialists to make their plans. To close the deal, Pierre Boal, leased old Barn to the newly formed Centre County Theatre Association for the generous sum of $0 as a means to invite and encourage culture and theatre in Centre County. Entrusted to oversee the construction of a state-of-the-art arena theatre, the CCTA brought life to Lillian’s vision of the Barn as “a most unusual theatre.”
At the same time the Centre County Theatre Association was searching for production companies to take to the new Barn stage, a local community theatre group had been in search of inexpensive performing venues for its members. Although the group was saddled with increased expenses to operate its leased venues in town, its leaders quickly agreed to mount a couple of shows at the Barn to “experiment” with the Barn’s new staging featuring the “space age” theatre-in-the-round configuration.
After several years of preparations and construction, a state-of-the-art space-age theatre opened at the Barn in the summer of 1959. With the CCTA producing, the Cold War’s, Broadway play, “Tovarich” was selected as the first production at the Barn. Records of the period also note that the show was also “an experiment” to see if the community would patronize a barn for summer theatre…” While the results did not surprise Lillian or Mr. Boal, the theatre community was happily encouraged… And so, for the next three generations of near sixty years, audiences in Happy Valley enthusiastically embraced summer theatre at the Barn.
America’s Summer Stock Theatre…
While the community theatre company let the old Barn go dark after a long run… this was not to be the end for old Barn. Inspired by those who bravely dared to convert a barn into theatre for the space age sixty-five years ago, Nittany Theatre at the Barn took up the noble cause to realize (again) Lillian Dickson-Major’s dream, breathing new life into this little historic community treasure, this “most unusual theatre”…
In the merging the best traditions of good-old fashioned summer stock theatre with state-of-the-art technology, Nittany Theatre remodeled and enlarged the Barn’s stage areas to feature a ¾-thrust arena stage with proscenium arch. In merging the best of both worlds of theatre, the house is stocked with 99 seats retaining all the charm and intimacy that made the Barn uniquely legendary in Happy Valley. In addition, to enhance audience’s experiences, brand new state-of-the-art LED lighting and Broadway quality sound systems were installed.
In the modest quest to restore additional historical treasures of Centre County, starting with the Barn, Nittany Theatre also reclaimed 29 deluxe theatre seats from the recently-demolished 19th century Garman Opera House in Bellefonte. Once a stop on the vaudeville circuit (1880s into the 1920s), the Opera House was damaged by fire and razed in 2014. On a recue mission, Nittany Theatre staff managed to secure (and restore) these wonderful seats for the Barn. So, if a patron is feeling the spirit of Houdini (who once played the Garman back in the day), smile — you are part of history!
Finally, to capitalize on the wealth of talented performers in our area, Nittany Theatre partnered with nearby Penn State’s School of Theatre to include Penn State’s up and coming young professionals as a vital part of the Barn experience, sharing the stage of this beautiful little theatre with local seasoned actors, creating a perfect “town and gown” theatrical collaboration bound to lift up audiences and blow them away with the best possible theatrical experience possible!
And to the future, for Happy Valley and the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, this one-time “theatre for the space age” is here… and it’s right in your backyard… at Nittany Theatre at the Barn, America’s Summer Stock Theatre in Pennsylvania’s oldest arena-barn theatre!
Additional Historical Information on the Boal property:
The Boal Mansion Estate, which dates to 1789, is a National Registered Landmark (added in 1978). As part of the estate property inventory, the National Register of Historic Places citation describes the barn: “currently used to house a summer theatre [sic]… this cross-gable frame [bank barn] has rectangular louvered windows, two ventilator cupolas, and a round stone silo.”
The Boal Mansion Estate is also listed in the Pennsylvania Inventory of Historic Places as maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.