The New Classics Company performs original works and reimagines timeless dramasBy Lisa Cavanaugh • photography by julia cumes
For the past two summers, the 130-year-old guyerbarn in downtown Hyannis has been transformed into a vibrant, intimate theater by New Classics Company. This June through August, it will again be the home of this young troupe dedicated to staging original works and re-imagining timeless dramas. Founding members Matt Kohler, Justin Gray and Brett Burkhardt met as theater majors at New Hampshire’s Keane State and pledged to follow their creative passions after graduation. Kohler is a Cape Cod native who urged his friends to try their hands at building their own theater company. They have since been joined by fellow Keane alum Greg Parker and a merry band of actors, stage technicians, writers and designers who together have entertained sell-out crowds each summer. Cape Cod Magazine recently sat down with this quartet of ebullient artists to learn what it’s like to perform for Cape audiences, create theater in a barn and become part of the arts scene in Barnstable.
Can you explain the genesis of the New Classics Company?
Brett Burkhardt: We all made a promise on graduation day that within five years, we would come together and try to make theater happen.
Justin Gray: Matt finagled us a couple of spaces around town, and we picked out “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” since it seemed easy.
BB: We wanted to create new classics … and make classics new.
What’s it like working at the Guyer Barn?
JG: I’m continually amazed by how supportive the HyArts Campus is. We’re given a place to independently explore our creativity.
BB: The barn is such a blessing. And people stop by all the time, which gives us a chance to talk about what we do.
Greg Parker: We are in the perfect spot for exposure, and as a result, have gained a huge following over the last couple of years.
How are Cape Cod audiences?
BB: Very supportive! The community is full of energetic youth and nostalgic souls that enjoy the entertainment and humor we have to bring.
JG: Cape Cod audiences are fantastic. They do love to come at the last minute, though.
Matt Kohler: It’ll be 10 minutes before the show and the place will be empty. Then two minutes before curtain, the seats are filled! Crazy!
JG: It’s awesome when you see the same people coming back again and again.
What’s it like to work in downtown Hyannis?
JG: I still can’t believe we get to work in such a beautiful location. People are always envious when I tell them that we’re one block from downtown in one direction and one block from the harbor in the other.
MK: It’s great to have so many local businesses around. They’ve grown accustomed to seeing our faces. We’ll pop in every other week with a new poster and they’re always happy to help out.
How do you transform the barn into a stage space?
JG: We really try to blur the lines between the stage space and the audience space. In that way, the barn is kind of perfect for us, because there is no specifically designed designation.
MK: I don’t know what it is about the barn, but when we get in there, there is just the feeling that anything can happen. For our first full production there, we created a playground with a sandbox, swing, monkey bars and 14-foot-tall chain link fences. It’s just a blank canvas that we can play with and I love that!
How do you divide up the creative work? Who has to take out the garbage?
BB: It’s divided up by our interests and talents. If we really want to produce something, we just do it. We’re a team, so we always step in to help where needed.
JG: If one of us has an idea for a project and it interests the rest of us, then we run with it. Production-wise, we all sort of naturally gravitate toward different areas. Matt’s really great at building sets. I’m pretty skilled at assembling sound designs.
BB: I pour my focus into props, which are primarily crafted out of “found material.”
JG: I’ve never seen anybody more skilled with cardboard than him.
MK: We always have so much cardboard. I blame Brett. I usually take the trips to the dump.
JG: I like to joke that I’m an artistic director who also paints the floor.
GP: Last summer, we all did a little of everything. I ran our improv workshops, which were an absolute blast.
Improv nights are great. How did the improv idea come about?
BB: I was a part of an improv group in college. It’s a lot of fun, and I saw an opportunity for more free events for New Classics. Who doesn’t like comedy?
MK: It evolved over the summer and we’ve kept it up with local talent for the rest of the year. Every week, we rehearse with new games, ideas and twists. The troupe we have right now is really passionate about it.
How do you recruit new members of your troupe?
MK: There are seven “core” members, but we have many more volunteers and friends who come in to help build, work, paint and run the box office. We had at least 40 different people involved last summer.
BB: We want everyone who sees one of our shows to feel like they are a part of our New Classics family. All it takes is the right attitude and a passion for theater.
MK: Recruiting people is pretty organic. Usually it’s a friend of a friend who comes to a show and we convince them to never leave. Sometimes it’s someone we’ve haven’t met before. We never let them leave either!
How does Matt get everyone to move to the Cape each summer?
JG: Charm? To be honest I don’t really know.
MK: Charm for sure! It’s always an adventure getting everyone down here and ready to play in the barn.
GP: I was so passionate about this group that I drove from New Hampshire three days a week last summer.
BB: The environment is creative and inspiring, and the barn itself is a godsend.
What’s in store for audiences this summer?
BB: Spaceships, pirates, improv, 24-hour plays, movie screenings, staged readings.
MK: Silliness! Silliness galore! Except for Justin’s show, that’s more like “Seriousness. Seriousness galore.”
JG: I’m currently writing an untitled play with my girlfriend inspired by her work as a music therapist in hospice care that I’ll be directing.
BB: This summer is going to be unlike anything we’ve done before.
MK: It’s gonna be a busy, busy summer again, but it’s gonna be worth it!