A Brief History of HRC Showcase Theatre

In the fall of 1991, a group of Hudson theatre-lovers began to meet regularly at a paint store on Warren Street, with the object of performing readings of classic plays. It wasn’t long before they turned to new works by local playwrights, and relocated their enterprise to the First Presbyterian Church, and then to Christ Church Episcopal. In the autumn of 1992 the company was incorporated as Hudson River Classics, Inc., dedicating itself to both the development of new plays and the presentation of classics. Initially, the association’s stated long-term goal was to stage full productions in a permanent space. The late W Keith Hedrick, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, was elected president, while local theatre professional Laura Margolis served as the first Artistic Director.

Abandoning its early vision of a conventional professional repertory theatre company, HRC has evolved into an entity that presents staged readings of new plays selected through a playwriting contest perhaps the only one of its kind in the Hudson Valley. In 1993 Laura Margolis left to establish Stageworks/Hudson, a theatre dedicated to mounting full productions, including local and world premieres. Her place at HRC was taken by Jennifer Blood, an Associate Director and Stage Manager for the long-running soap opera “As the World Turns.” Over the next few years, owing to the influence and associations of Ms. Blood, HRC’s stages were graced by theatre and television stars such as Kim Zimmer, Kathleen Butler, and Paul Benedict, as well as Tony nominees Kathleen Widdoes, Larry Bryggman, Paul Hecht and subsequent Oscar-winner Melissa Leo. The remarkable octogenarian Faity Tuttle, who had appeared on Broadway stages with the likes of Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and Melvyn Douglas, directed or starred in several HRC productions during the 1990s.

Actors weren’t the only luminaries to come to HRC in those early days. One of the playwrights featured in 1993 was Ernest Thompson, author of the Oscar- and Golden Globe- winning screenplay for “On Golden Pond.” 

Occasionally HRC strayed from its home at Christ Church Episcopal. On August 1, 1993 it produced a reading of Matthew Locricchio’s “Fabric of a Vision,” an original work based on the writings of nineteenth-century landscape artist Thomas Cole. Prior to the performance, at the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, a proclamation by Governor Mario Cuomo declaring 1993-1994 the Year of Thomas Cole was read by Father Hedrick. 

Over time, the peregrinations of HRC brought it to such venues as the Middle School in Hudson, North Pointe in Kinderhook, the Pleshakov Music Center, Stageworks/Hudson, Time and Space Limited (TSL), and its present home, the First Reformed Church of Hudson. 

In 1993, the HRC playwriting contest (subsequently named for co-founder W Keith Hedrick) was launched. The inaugural winner was a piece by two-time Emmy nominee Michael Ryan, who later assumed the duties of Artistic Director.

IAs the turn of the century approached, new leaders stepped forward. In 1999, Father Hedrick stepped down as president, and was succeeded by Jan Grice. Then, in 2000, cabaret singer and one-time Broadway actress Florence Hayle began a ten-year tenure as General Manager, overseeing many of the details of administration of the organization, while directing or acting in an occasional production. Around the same time, Barbara Waldinger was named the fourth Artistic Director, in which capacity she continues to serve to this day. In directing virtually all HRC’s readings for the past fourteen years, Dr. Waldinger displays a unique approach. One innovation has been casting: she has gradually recruited more actors from the local upstate community of accomplished professionals, adding them to the mix of New York City-based players that previously formed the core of HRC’s actor pool.

In 1993, the HRC playwriting contest (subsequently named for co-founder W Keith Hedrick) was launched. The inaugural winner was a piece by two-time Emmy nominee Michael Ryan, who later assumed the duties of Artistic Director.

Another Waldinger hallmark has been an extensive dialogue with the playwright, via e-mails and telephone, in the weeks leading up to each reading, with a view toward fully understanding the play and the author’s intent. She then communicates her findings to the cast. There is a free and open exchange of ideas.

Finally, in staging the reading, Dr. Waldinger steers away from the conventional use of chairs and music stands, in favor of a less static performance. While adhering to Actors’ Equity Association guidelines regarding staging in this type of presentation, she ensures that the evening is an entertaining one for her audience.

The new millennium brought more changes. In 2002 the company, recognizing that it had long since grown from presenting classical plays to showcasing new ones, officially changed its name to HRC Showcase Theatre. When Jan Grice, after eleven years in office, retired from the presidency in 2010, a grateful board of directors honored him for his superb stewardship by awarding him membership for life. Subsequent presidents Don Reynolds and Robert Bisson have continued the tradition of strong and dedicated leadership. Most recently, in 2014, Sandra Gill, long a mainstay of the company, donned the mantle of the presidency.

In the past few years the playwriting contest has expanded, as the group’s call for scripts has gone national, annually attracting as many as 160 entries from which the play selection committee chooses five for readings. This year they are inviting electronic submissions, which will presumably draw more numerous entries, resulting in even higher quality scripts.

Not that the quality has been wanting so far. For example, both the 2013 and 2014 W Keith Hedrick prize-winners, Mike Bencivenga’s “Billy and Ray” and Brian Richard Mori’s “Hellman v. McCarthy” respectively, have gone on to enjoy off-Broadway runs in New York City in 2014, with a performance of the latter broadcast on PBS.

With all the growth and change, certain traditions remain immutable at HRC Showcase Theatre. Many, though not all, of the actors seen on its stages continue to be proud members of Actors’ Equity. Cast members receive their script weeks in advance, but don’t rehearse together until the day of performance, when they prepare for some eight hours (with appropriate breaks) leading up to curtain time. Volunteers provide a sumptuous post-performance reception of food and drink, followed by a spirited talk-back with the director, the actors, and the playwright, whose attendance is required as a precondition of accepting the prize offered to each of the five winning scripts. The writers often travel long distances to see their work brought to life and to hear comments and suggestions from the company’s loyal and insightful audience. Most important, HRC Showcase Theatre has remained faithful to the purpose set forth in its original mission statement: to afford Hudson Valley audiences diverse thought-provoking experiences that reflect on life’s challenges, mysteries, and triumphs.