On October 23rd, 1979, Merrimack Valley residents were treated to a production of The Passion of Dracula at University of Lowell’s Mahoney Hall. The production was the first presented by a brand new entity called Merrimack Regional Theatre (now Merrimack Repertory Theatre).
As the dedication of performers, staff, volunteers, donors, and audiences over the next 40 years and 263 plays have shown, the world’s most famous vampire was far from the only passionate one in Lowell’s theater community.
On October 23rd, 2018, Mayor William Samaras hosted a reception at Lowell City Hall in honor of MRT’s 40th birthday, celebrating the theatre’s unique contribution in providing entertainment, education, and an artistic home to more than 2 million Merrimack Valley residents over the last 40 years.
“We are gathered here to celebrate the 40th anniversary of MRT, and that truly is a wonderful thing,” Mayor Samaras said, “it took a lot of hard work and dedication to get to this point.”
In appreciation, the mayor officially proclaimed October 23rd as “Merrimack Repertory Theatre Day” in the City of Lowell. The proclamation was presented to Nancy Donahue, the first president of MRT’s board and the theatre’s most steadfast champion over the past four decades.
As MRT details in their history, Mrs. Donahue was instrumental along with Lowell resident Barbara Abrahamian, director Mark Kaufman and actor John Briggs–a trio that had formed the “Committee for Legitimate Theatre in Lowell” back in 1978. In February 1979, MRT was formally incorporated leading up to its debut performance later that fall.
The ensuing years have seen the theater reach numerous milestones and accomplishments, including moving into its current home, Lowell Memorial Auditorium’s Liberty Hall in 1983.
In 2012, the company underwent a $750,000 renovation. The lobby was refurbished, and an accessible modern box office was completed, closing the decades-old basement ticket booth. The theatre reopened as the Sage Bank Lobby and the Enterprise Bank Box Office in the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre. The post-renovation grand opening featuring then Mayor Patrick Murphy and City Manager Bernie Lynch drew a crowd numbering over 200 and was covered in the original Room 50 Blog.
Over the years, MRT has seen its share of great leaders both artistically and in the front office. Kaufman and Briggs served as the company’s first artistic directors from 1979-1982. They were succeeded by Dan Schay (1982-1989) and David Kent (1989-2001). Charles Towers served as MRT’s artistic director for nearly 15 years beginning in 2001. Current artistic director Sean Daniels began at MRT in 2015. Bonnie Butkas became MRT’s executive director in 2017, following Elizabeth Kegley.
One of the hallmarks of MRT these past 40 years has been the theatre’s collaborative involvement in the Lowell community. The rise of the theater coincided with the city’s renaissance and served as one of the first major additions to Lowell’s status as a artistic hub in the region.
One such example of community engagement came in 2014 with the east coast premiere of Michael Golamco’s award-winning Year Zero about the Cambodian-American experience. That production was paired with several workshops, panel discussions, and film screenings and a partnership with Angkor Dance Troupe, which began a three year residency at the theater immediately following Year Zero’s run.
Recent years have seen other new forms of outreach including the innovative audience immersion program, The Cohort Club, which offers members of the local community unprecedented access to the creative process from start to finish.
The Patriot Program is MRT’s unique approach to establishing a network of artists associated with the theatre. The program is designed to benefit playwrights, directors, actors, designers, and others from across the theatre field, as well as enhance MRT’s network of collaborators.
The company has also hosted Young Company, the youth program which allows students in middle and high school to tell their own stories through theatre. The one-of-a-kind program for middle and high school students starts with a two-week summer session working with leading theatre artists from around the country, then continues through the following spring with invaluable access to the inner workings of professional theatre at MRT.
Earlier this year, MRT honored their former board president, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas at the group’s 39th Anniversary Gala.
October 23rd’s reception featured a brief speaking program by Mayor Samaras and City Councilor/former Mayor Jim Milinazzo, a longtime supporter and former board member of the organization.
“You can go anywhere, really in the northeast part of the country, and certainly in New England, and people know about the Merrimack Repertory Theatre,” Councilor Milinazzo remarked, “it is really important to have that quality of production here in the fourth largest city in the Commonwealth.”
Mayor Samaras then handed over the podium to the evening’s honoree, Mrs. Donahue, who was quick to share the credit,”Its due to all of you people here today who have been involved for so many years. As Jim says it was 40 years ago and we were all young and crazy and didn’t quite know what we were doing–but having a lot of fun–and a lot of stress, but we’ve made it 40 years.”
She continued “I can’t thank enough the thousands of people who it has taken to keep this thing going for over 40 years. It’s not easy, it takes money, it takes effort, it takes persistence, there’s a lot of tears and a lot of laughter. But overall, its worth it in the end.”
The reception concluded with the presentation of the proclamation to Nancy Donahue.
MRT’s representatives were also introduced in the council chamber at the start of that evening’s city council meeting.
The 40th Birthday celebration at City Hall is just one of many events celebrating MRT’s 40th season of productions. This season will feature seven shows including the world premiere adaptation of Jack Kerouac‘s lost novel “The Haunted Life,” a coming-of-age story set in Lowell of college student Peter Martin and his relationship with his conservative father.
The season kicked off with Native Gardens, which ran from September 12 to October 7th, and was Written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Giovanna Sardelli. The birthday celebration in the midst of the comedic Murder for Two‘s run from October 17th to November 11th.
Upcoming shows this season are:
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon Nov. 28-Dec. 23
Slow Food, world premiere by Wendy Macleod Jan. 9-Feb. 3
The Heath, world premiere by Lauren Gunderson Feb. 13-March 10
The Haunted Life, world premiere by Jack Kerouac, adapted by Sean Daniels March 20-April 14
Cry It Out, by Molly Smith Metzler April 24-May 19
For more information on Merrimack Repertory Theatre and its 40th anniversary season, visit www.MRT.org