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The Depot Theatre in Westport, NY. Photo: Depot Theatre
The Depot Theatre in Westport, NY. Photo: Depot Theatre

How bingo built the Depot Theatre

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It was a series of bingo games at a historic train depot that spawned a community theatre and eventually professional theatre in Westport. The Depot Theatre is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year with two world premiere musicals and opportunities to mingle with world-class theatre professionals. Following the success of the musical romantic comedy "Route 66" earlier this summer, the Depot Theatre opens "Funked-Up Fairytales" on August 9.

Todd Moe spoke with managing director Angel Wuellner, who used to work in theatre in New York City before relocating to the Champlain Valley and the Depot Theater. They talked about how professional theatre in Westport grew from funds raised during community bingo games.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

Angel Wuellner: Looking at the long history of the Depot, I am a new addition. This is my second season with the Depot Theatre. And what was really great about coming up here is that I worked at the union for professional actors, which is where the Depot gets all of their actors, in New York City before I moved here. And when I started telling the actors that I had gotten this job here, their immediate response was, “Oh! the Depot Theatre is wonderful. I’ve worked there, my friend has worked there, everyone has had a great experience there, the artistic director is wonderful, it’s gorgeous,” and they just kept gushing.

The thing is that theatre people will find something wrong to say even if there isn’t anything wrong, so for them to only have wonderful things to say about the Depot Theatre, the expectations were very high coming in. And to be able to be here for the 35th anniversary really shows the long history of the Depot and how much people are really are invested: the theatre community and the North Country community.

Todd Moe: So have you looked back at the history of the theatre and kind of explored some of those early years and some of those first productions?

AW: The great thing about the Depot is that it can only exist at this train station. It couldn’t exist anywhere else. So the thought that Carol Buchanan, who is the founder, that in 1979 she looked at this train station and saw a theatre, and so with the Westport Historical Society she raised money, they held a bingo every week, and that was how they paid for a theatre to exist within the old railroad station.

And so the experience here has always been something that could only happen here. And when the train comes by, the actors wait onstage for the train to go by. It’s an experience that only can happen at the Depot Theatre in Westport that no one else is experiencing. And so the thought that she somehow saw that, there’s no way that Carol had any idea that it would grow to the level that it is, that we have the professional actors. That it started out as a community theatre with local actors, but because they had access to professional actors that were local, it just organically became something bigger than she ever had in mind.

TM: It may be a silly question, but I assume that some of the actors actually come up on the train to Westport from the city?

AW: They do! That’s the beauty of it that they can just get on the train in Penn Station and take it straight to the Depot, they step off the train and they are in the lobby of the theatre. So when they get off the train and they say, “So when do we get to see the theatre,” we say, “You’re here!” So they always get a big kick out of that. And it makes it a lot easier since most of them don’t have cars obviously, that they can just come right up here. We give them a couple of bikes and they get to enjoy the beautiful surrounding areas.

TM: I remember being at a production there years ago of, I think it was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and during the intermission was when the train pulled into the station. It was like perfect timing. You know, the intermission started, in pulled the train, and it was almost as though the train came in on cue.

AW: It sometimes feels like that. The first show we did last year, the actors had been here before and so they knew about the train in advance. And it was a world premiere musical that some of the actors had written. So they actually wrote a song for when the train would come through. So when the train came during the show, they would play the song about the train and the audience just went crazy because everybody was in on the joke together. It was wonderful.

TM: I suspect that, you know, you’re looking back on the theatre’s history this year, thirty-five years, but do you also look ahead, two years, five years, 10 years, what you’d like to see at the Depot?

AW: Well I think that we’re figuring that path out now. And the Depot has such a long history of doing musicals. And that’s really something that our audience has always loved and people love seeing musicals, especially in the summer. Its entertainment, it’s enjoyable.

And so finding a way to take- the Depot has already done those musicals that everybody has already seen; if you look back at our history we’ve done “My Fair Lady” and “Music Man” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” So what we can do now is bring new musicals that have a future beyond what you already know of them, and our audiences get to be the first people to experience these musicals.

It’s been great for the writers and for our actors to be a part of this experience hands on from the ground floor. And it’s a really special place that the Depot can fill in the evolution of a piece. So it’s honoring that tradition of musicals, but now finding a way to make it something new and fresh for all of the people coming through our area every summer.

The other great thing about celebrating an anniversary is that you get throw lots of parties. So we have our annual gala prepared for August 10 at DaCy Meadow Farm. And that’s obviously, every year it’s clearly a celebration, but this year we get an excuse to have lots of extra fun stuff that we don’t normally have. And it’s during “Funked-Up Fairytales,” so I’m sure there will be some fairytale happenings happening around it.

And then just if people want to come by they can just give us a call at our box office. But other than that we’re just really looking forward to continuing the success of this season already and the success of 35 years. Any theatre would be honored to be around for 35 years and the fact that this one exists and is so supported by the local community is amazing.

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