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WHAT’s Going On! Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater Celebrates 40 Years

Kim Crocker and Julie Harris in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (2000)
Photo: Bob Tucker 

It was the summer of 2000 and the celebrated actress Julie Harris was starring in a production of the drama The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s (WHAT) former home right on the harbor for which its named. WHAT’s current producing artistic director Christopher Ostrom remembered that Harris liked to show up early to prepare for each performance. Then a fresh out of Boston University production designer, getting to work with the legendary Harris was a thrill. Each night he would learn so much from watching a master present her craft. But on one particular evening he would receive a lesson from Harris on what it truly takes to run a successful theater. As Harris arrived in Wellfleet from her home in Chatham, Ostrom saw her get out of her car carrying a mop and a bucket. Not props in the show, he asked her what they were for. “Well no one’s cleaned the bathroom and the audience deserves a clean bathroom,” said Harris according to Ostrom. And then Harris, winner of five Tonys, three Emmys, and a Grammy, an Academy Award and BAFTA nominee, as well as an inductee in the American Theatre Hall of Fame, went on to scrub the theater’s bathroom before delivering another knock-out performance.

“That’s when I saw that producing theater is an all hands on deck pursuit,” says Ostrom. “Everyone has to roll up their sleeves and get it done.”

Former Producing Artistic Director Jeff Zinn, late Board President Carol Green, and the late Julie Harris breaking ground for the new Julie Harris Stage (2006) 
Photo: Rick Grossman

Celebrating its 40th anniversary now, WHAT is well-settled into the sparkling theatrical space it moved to in 2007, which houses the stage named for Harris, as it embarks this week on its 2024 season with a production of Smart, about the good, the bad, and the ugly of technological advancements in our lives. WHAT continues the spirit of “ a summer theater that doesn’t do summer theater,” says Ostrom, quoting the longtime, former artistic director Jeffrey Zinn. Adventurous, daring, and fearless, taking risks and presenting the unexpected is at WHAT’s core. While just a short trip down Route 6 from Provincetown, a town with a deep and internationally known theatrical legacy often credited as the birthplace of American theater, WHAT and its respected compatriot Harbor Stage Company, continue to present and maintain a tradition distinctly Wellfleetian. Indeed, the theater scene in Wellfleet does not rest in the shadows of the spotlight shone on Provincetown nor is it directly dependent on the legacy founded by the Provincetown Players.

“Wellfleet is such a unique community,” says Ostrom. “The arts are part of daily life here. It’s a very smart town. And it’s not risk adverse. Audiences here are ready for anything. They’re so receptive. We’re able to do what we do because of the strong support from the community. They’re so dedicated to us, to theater, and the arts. They take such joy in supporting the arts.”

The cast of Straight White Men (2022) 
Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer

As Harris’ mop and bucket illustrated, the work of life in theater is indeed tough, a reality often hidden by the magic it produces. Each and every performance, on any stage, is a little miracle, considering all that it takes to put on a show. And the loss of a performance space is an artistic tragedy. Ostrom notes that the dark days of the pandemic were terrifying for theaters and indeed many did not survive. But looking around Cape Cod and the Islands, Ostrom points out that to his knowledge not one theater closed, testament to the great support for the arts in the region that they, including WHAT, could come out the other side of a global calamity intact and able to produce relevant, cutting-edge theater again.

For its 40th anniversary season Ostrom chose plays that speak to our times, often with humor, as laughter can be as thought-provoking as tears or tension. After the June run of Smart by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, WHAT offers a smoke-induced romp with Reefer Madness The Musical, inspired by the 1936 cult classic film adapted by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, followed by David Auburn’s Summer, 1976, which explores the unlikely friendship of two mothers. And closing out the season is an autumnal run of the world premiere of Liberty Talks! by Fermin Rojas, all about the Statue of Liberty sharing her thoughts and memories as well as her hopes for the country’s future.

“We like to do plays you’re going to be talking about on the drive home,” says Ostrom. “Plays that you’ll be talking about over coffee the next morning.”

Ruby Wolf and John Evans Reese in This Is Our Youth (2018) 
Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer

This season is built on the foundation layed by folks like Harris, Zinn, former artistic director Jeffrey George, and Gip Hoppe, one of WHAT’s founders. Ostrom sees the future as bright for the storied cultural institution. Since its inaugural season with productions of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and David Mamet’s American Buffalo, WHAT has presented new works and new ways to look at classics. Taking chances is in WHAT’s DNA.

“We’re growing and evolving, but we’re never losing sight of our founding vision and legacy,” says Ostrom. “There’s such a solid creative community on the Outer Cape. It’s what makes us so resilient.”

Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) is located at 2357 State Highway Route 6. For more information call 508.349.9428 or visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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