Guests mingle outside the historic Hackmatack Playhouse before seeing the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” in 2017. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BERWICK — The dirt path that leads to the playhouse cuts through elegant, old farmhouse buildings and rolling, green hills where a row of big white letters, akin to the Hollywood sign, spell out its name.

From the driveway, during a rehearsal last month, singing sprinkled with fiddle breaks and laughter could be heard seeping through the wood paneling of the barn, once home to dairy cows. Now that a show is playing, the smell of freshly baked blueberry pie wafts down the road, leading patrons right to the theater’s doors.

In a couple weeks, after 50 years of welcoming audience members, the white letters will come down for good, and the Hackmatack Playhouse will close following the final performance of “Smoke on the Mountain” on Aug. 20.

For most of the summer theater’s history, the season consisted of five shows, alternating between musicals and straight plays, with one comedy and one mystery. Because of the pandemic, 2020 was the first year there was no show in the barn, and last year there was only one.

Performers rehearse “Smoke on the Mountain,” the final production at Hackmatack Playhouse. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When the theater announced its plans to put on just one show again this summer, it also announced it would be the last.

“It is difficult to run the traditional summer stock, kind of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney type of thing. There doesn’t seem to be as much call for it as it was 50 years ago, or maybe even 80 years ago before we started out,” said Michael Guptill, who took over the playhouse from his father, its founder, after his death in 1995. “Time moves on and people are entertained by different methods now.”


Carleton Guptill founded the Hackmatack Playhouse on his family’s farmstead in 1972. Photo courtesy of Hackmatack Playhouse

Carleton Guptill opened Hackmatack in 1972, after transforming the barn on his family’s dairy farm into the theater. Before then, he had been a history teacher at Oyster River High School in Durham, New Hampshire, but he had a passion for the arts. His love of song came through in constant whistling, as ever-present as the smoke from his pipe.

Driven also by a love for community, he left teaching to devote his time to summer theater by opening Hackmatack Playhouse. He didn’t run a cookie-cutter establishment but pushed the boundaries of creativity, said Michael Tobin, who first performed at Hackmatack in 1982 and continued coming back for the next 15 summers.

“He gave everyone opportunities that you normally wouldn’t get in a traditional theater setting. He would allow us to play roles that we may never have been thought of for, and to stretch outside of our comfort zone,” said Tobin, now executive artistic director of The Footlights Theatre in Falmouth.

Carolyn Colpitts, who grew up in Springvale, remembers those early days from the other side of the stage. She attended the theater’s first production, “10 Nights in a Barroom,” with her parents and their friends when she was 16, and it’s been a staple of summer for her since.

She has her favorite seats in the house – row E, F or G on the porch side of the theater, where “you can get a little breeze sometimes on those hot nights.” And she still remembers the names of the actors whose performances touched her years ago at the playhouse.

‘”(Hackmatack) brought a lot of joy and a lot of laughter and tears to us over the years, a lot of good shows,” Colpitts said. “It’s been a fixture in my life.”


Guests take their seats at the Hackmatack Playhouse before a show in 2017. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


“Smoke on the Mountain” wasn’t Michael Guptill’s first choice for the final performance, but after a series of licensing issues with other shows, the team had to rethink its options.

Director Jeff Seabaugh suggested the musical-comedy about the Sanders family, a traveling Saturday night gospel group, and the stories they tell as they take the stage at a country church in North Carolina for the first time in five years. One by one, the family members step into the spotlight to express their worries, troubles and goals in life. What the play lacks in plot, it makes up for in music, with the Sanders family performing one bluegrass gospel tune after the next. At any one time, some combination of piano, guitar, fiddle, washboard, train horn, upright bass, mandolin and ukulele can fill the stage.

Guptill, who had been thinking about doing the play for a while, leapt at the idea.

There were two reasons it was the right fit, Seabaugh said. For one, the farm this summer started hosting a live bluegrass band on its porch every other Sunday and now attracts as many as 200 visitors at a time to enjoy the music and explore the farm, which will remain in operation after the playhouse closes.

Billy Butler, left, performs a song alongside fellow castmates during a rehearsal of “Smoke on the Mountain.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The bigger reason, though, is the sense of family.


“This is about a family that has been through ups and downs and trials and tribulations,” Seabaugh said. “They came together to create the Sanders Family Singers, and the homespun quality of coming together as just a local little family group, and then taking that on the road and sharing their sense of family and community with their audiences is the same thing that we’re doing.”

Even though it’s her first show at Hackmatack, stage manager Michaela Pride has already felt that strong sense of family and community.

“The fact that it is has been in the family for so long, it is on the farm that they run … it kind of has more of a personal touch, and you can really tell how the family for generations have really put a lot of love into the theater and the work that Hackmatack does,” she said.

Performers rehearse Smoke on the Mountain, the final production at Hackmatack Playhouse. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It’s also Pride’s first time putting on a show in a barn. She has to climb up wooden rungs on the back wall of the theater to get to the catwalk where the director sits, and there are just as many mosquitos inside as out in the fields, but, she said, the theater feels very much that: a theater.

“It doesn’t feel like anything’s lacking, even though it’s in a barn,” Pride said.

That is, except for air conditioning. During a recent heat wave, rehearsals were temporarily relocated to the home of a former Hackmatack employee. But once they returned to the barn, the cast members filled up their water glasses, cranked up their fans and got to work.


“It’s roughing it here doing a show,” said Linette Miles, who plays family band member June Sanders. “You don’t have AC in the dressing rooms, you’re sweating, but for some reason, that just makes the team stronger.”


The last-show energy is palpable, said Pride.

“Because people know that it’s the last production, they’re really giving it a lot of love,” she said. “They’re really appreciating every single moment that we get, each rehearsal, each conversation we have.”

The cast of “Smoke on the Mountain” is significantly smaller than many of the 30- to 40-person productions of years past. The eight actors were handpicked for the last show, instead of through the usual audition process, partly because of COVID and partly to bring back certain people who have built relationships with the theater over the years.

Emily Zentis, who has been performing at Hackmatack since 2013, sings during a rehearsal of “Smoke on the Mountain.” She is one of eight cast members handpicked for the playhouse’s final production. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Among them is Emily Zentis whose first production at the theater was in 2013. Since then, Hackmatack has been home to many “special memories,” she said, most notably, when her now-husband proposed to her at a curtain call of “Les Miserables.” But the prevailing impression it will leave is how it made her feel.


“Everybody has a belonging here, and you have the comfort to know that your fellow actors or fellow production team will support you in your decisions and your choices. And you can fail epically or you can succeed epically, but you know you’re safe to do either,” said Zentis, who plays Vera Sanders, the family’s matriarch, and is also the show’s musical director.

For some involved with the playhouse over the years, the experience has been life-altering.

Alexis Dascoulias first came to Hackmatack in 1987 as a 14-year-old summer intern. Since then, she has worked for the theater, performed in an ensemble, directed “Once Upon a Mattress” and helped with the children’s summer theater program.

Guests mingle outside Hackmatack Playhouse in 2017. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In that time, the red barn has been painted white, and now actors have space to cross from one side of the stage to the other without having to go outside or duck underneath it. But other than that, she said, little has changed.

For this show, however, Dascoulias won’t be on stage or behind it, but in the audience. She now owns her own children’s theater business, Camp Centerstage, in Livermore.

“My first experience with any kind of camp or chosen theater program was Hackmatack. And now here I am, 30 plus years later, owning my own summer camp that focuses on theater,” Dascoulias said.

Tobin also credits Hackmatack with launching his career. He took his experience at the playhouse and went on to New York, where he found success as a director and actor before returning to Maine and opening Footlights. But his appreciation for the theater is sentimental too.

“​​I’ve heard from so many people, not only who work there, but from longtime patrons and from people who knew me from the playhouse. They all said the same thing: It’s magical. It’s true summer stock theater. It’s a feeling that you don’t get in any other theater. And I think that’s what people are going to remember,” he said.

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