A History of Calliope Productions (1982 – 2023)
OverviewOver the past four decades, Calliope Productions has presented 226 full-length main-stage theatre productions, 93 pre-teen youth theatre shows, and more than four dozen other performance events (mystery dinner theatre shows, one-act revues, talent shows, music performances, music halls, and staged readings), in fulfillment of our mission to present affordable, high-quality theatrical productions for audiences and provide performance opportunities for both adult and youth performers in central Massachusetts.
OriginsCalliope Productions was founded in February of 1982, by Dave Ludt and Kathy Ludt from Shrewsbury, and John Leslie, from West Boylston, three veteran community theatre performers in the Worcester area who were looking for more frequent and more artistically rewarding performance opportunities in Central Massachusetts.
Calliope’s first show was a production of the 0ff-Broadway musical revue STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW, written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. It was presented as a dinner theatre show in a function room at Nick’s Grill, on Goldstar Blvd., in Worcester, Mass., for five performances over two weekends in May,1982. The Ludts used a credit card to pay for the up-front costs for the royalty and music rental fees and provided a guarantee that a minimum number of meals would be purchased to cover the rental of the performance space.
The performers in this three-person show were Dave Ludt, Kathy Ludt, and Sally Holden. John Leslie was the musical director and pianist, Sue Miville played percussion, Ed Holden (Sally’s husband) operated the house lights, and Grace Leslie (John’s mother) ran the spotlight.
Audiences for the first weekend were sparse. The opening night audience consisted of only eleven people – two of whom were theater reviewers. Although a favorable review of the show by Marilyn Spear in the Worcester Telegram sparked a slight increase in audiences for the second weekend of performances, total attendance for STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW was significantly under the minimum needed to break even, and Dave Ludt spent his summer vacation from teaching employed at a factory in Worcester in order to pay off the credit card debt for Calliope’s first show.
Nevertheless, buoyed by the positive feedback received from those who attended this production and encouraged by Barbara Downer, the music director at the First Parish Unitarian Church of Northborough (where Dave and Kathy sang in the church choir), the three co-founders of Calliope proposed staging a fall production of JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS that would be co-produced with the First Parish Church in the Parish Hall next to the church building at 40 Church Street in Northborough.
The First Parish Hall, a former military chapel at Bradley Military Field in Connecticut during World War II, had been disassembled and transported to Northborough in 1947, and rebuilt to serve as a temporary church for the First Parish after our original church building had burned down two years earlier. The First Parish Hall had a raised stage, a small balcony, and a kitchen, and it could seat 200 people on folding metal-and-wood chairs. It also had an old upright piano that was in fairly good shape.
Over a dozen members of the First Parish Church helped solicit sponsors for the show and advertisers for the program booklet, as well assisting in marketing the show and selling tickets. Barbara Downer served as the music director and pianist for the show; Donna Allen (now Wrezinski), John Leslie, Dave Ludt, and Kathy Ludt were the performers. The four performances of JACQUE BREL were presented over two weekends in October 1982 and staged on the floor of the First Parish Hall because there was insufficient lighting for the raised stage. The production was a financial success – with the net income split evenly between the First Parish Church and Calliope Productions.
A third show in 1982, a production of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS performed inside the First Parish Church on December 18 and 19, presaged Calliope’s future as a viable theatre company. This production featured ten-year-old Boylston native Jean Louise Kelly (one of Kathy Ludt’s voice students) in the role of Amahl. Jean would reprise this role in a December 1983 production of AMAHL that were performed inside the First Parish Hall.
Jean Kelly subsequently appeared in Calliope’s 1986 production of PERFECTLY FRANK before doing summer stock productions in Rhode Island and Connecticut that helped propel her to a role in the original Broadway production of INTO THE WOODS in 1987. Jean Kelly went on to appear in featured roles in the motion pictures UNCLE BUCK (in 1989) and MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS (in 1995), and later had a starring role in the CBS sit-com YES, DEAR (from 2000-2006).
Most of Calliope’s net income from our 1982 productions of JACQUES BREL and AMAHL was used to buy theatrical lighting equipment to light the raised stage in the First Parish Hall.
Incorporation as a Non-ProfitIn February of 1983, Calliope’s founders reorganized Calliope Productions as a non-profit corporation and entered into an agreement with the Standing Committee of the First Parish Church to rent the First Parish Hall for an annual fee based on an hourly rate for a predetermined set schedule of hours for each year. Calliope’s rent for use of the First Parish Hall for 1983/1984 was $508.
Dave and Kathy Ludt took out a personal loan to buy Calliope our first computer and printer for use in Calliope’s office, located in the basement of their home in Shrewsbury, and they baked muffins every Sunday morning to sell at the First Parish Church coffee hours after Sunday church services in order to pay for Calliope’s office supplies and postage.
Calliope’s 1983 season consisted of six productions (two plays and four musicals), with a total aggregate audience for 1983 of 1,042. Calliope’s gross income was $9,781, and total expenses were $8,442, resulting in a net income of $1,339.
Calliope’s first non-musical, the March 1983 production of Agatha Christe’s THE MOUSETRAP, marked the American stage debut of John Wright, a Shrewsbury resident and past amateur theatre performer from Wolverhampton, England. John would appear in more than 70 additional Calliope shows (comedies, mysteries, dramas, musicals, and special presentations) until 2013, when illness forced him to retire from performing. Of special note is the fact that from 1992 to 2007, John Wright appeared as Ebenezer Scrooge in seven Calliope musical productions based on the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”
John Wright’s involvement with the company was instrumental in helping Calliope achieve a solid reputation for presenting British farces and mysteries. He directed many of them and also directed Calliope’s production of his own mystery play, POST MORTEM, that was videoed and aired by Shrewsbury Cable TV in 1984.
Initially, Dave Ludt, Kathy Ludt, and John Leslie served as co-artistic directors of Calliope Productions. Kathy Ludt assumed all directorial responsibilities (including choreography), as well as Calliope’s accounting and bookkeeping duties; Dave Ludt was in charge of publicity, fund-raising, and technical production tasks (lighting, sound, sets); and John Leslie took on all responsibilities related to musicians and musical direction.
John Leslie was also a driving force behind most of the musical revues that Calliope created as tributes to favorite composers and lyricists of Calliope’s three founders. These revues celebrated the works of Irving Berlin (CHEEK TO CHEEK, in 1990), Cy Coleman, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Rodgers (RHYTHMS OF LIFE, in 1991), Johnny Mercer (TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS, in 1994), Lerner and Loewe (ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE, in 2000), and George & Ira Gershwin (FASCINATIN’ RHYTHM, in 1993 and GERSHWIN, BY GEORGE, in 2006).
These three co-founders of Calliope were supported by the other long-standing members of Calliope’s managing board of directors, chief of whom were Jan Fuller, Karen Roberts (now Josbacher), and Donna Reidy – who were among the members of Calliope’s first Managing Board of Directors formed in September of 1987. Other members of that first board were Dave Nelson, Anthony Postizzi, and Dave Ricker.
Calliope's ProductionsFrom its inception, many of the productions that Calliope presented were atypical of the regular bill of fare that other local theatre companies were staging at the time. During Calliope’s first 15 years, Dave Ludt’s part-time job working for a company that operated overseas travel programs provided him with the opportunity to go to London at least once a year. While there, he would scope out British plays, musicals, and musical revues for Calliope to produce.
Several comedies by British playwrights Ray Cooney, Derek Benfield, Norman Robbins, David Tristram, and Richard Harris, as well as the musicals JEROME KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and BUILD ME A BRIDGE, were British imports that had their American or New England premieres on Calliope’s stage.
Calliope’s 1987 musical JEROME KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD was especially unique. While attending a performance of the original production of this show in London in 1985, Dave Ludt earmarked it as a potential production for Calliope to stage. After a Broadway production of the show in February of 1986 closed after only 11 performances, the Ludts contacted Arthur Cantor, its Broadway producer, to see whether the show would be available for Calliope to produce in Northborough.
By the time the Ludts met with Mr. Cantor in New York City, a theater in South Africa had secured the rights to the show for a limited run. Cantor then negotiated with the Oscar Hammerstein estate, that owned the show, to allow Calliope to produce the show in Northborough after the South Africa show closed. He also loaned Calliope the costumes from the original London and New York productions.
Unfortunately, the narrative script of JEROME KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and all the music and orchestrations were lost while being shipped back from South Africa. But Dave Ludt reconstructed the script from a tape recording that he had made of the original production he saw in London, and Jim Rice, Calliope’s music director for the show, used the same recording to help re-create music arrangements for all the songs. There is no evidence of any other theatre company staging a subsequent production of this show.
Calliope also found suitable American musicals, to bring to Calliope’s stage for their New England premiere productions. These included the Broadway musical ROMANCE/ROMANCE (in 1990) and the Off-Broadway musicals TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (in 1988), CLOSER THAN EVER (in 1991), and STARDUST (in 1997).
Local Media SupportThe newspapers that existed in the area from the 1980s through most of the 1990s were very supportive of local theaters. The Marlborough Daily Enterprise, Middlesex News, Clinton Daily Item, Boylston Banner, Shrewsbury Record, Worcester Magazine, Worcester Phoenix, The Voice, Worcester Telegram, and Worcester Gazette often published articles about Calliope Productions, and they consistently reviewed Calliope’s shows.
Calliope’s policy of opening our productions on a Thursday evening and presenting shows over two or three weekends ensured that opening night reviews would be published in time to boost sales for most of the remaining performances. Sometimes, the Worcester Telegram would publish a review from one theater critic in the morning, and the Worcester Gazette would publish a review of the same show from a different theater critic in the evening.
In those “pre-internet” days, such press coverage, along with regular mailings of advertising flyers and newsletters to Calliope’s in-house mailing list, plus occasional saturation mailings of flyers to entire towns, led to ever-increasing attendance at Calliope’s shows. Calliope’s first sold-out performances were for Ray Cooney’s British farce IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY in 1986, which was only four years after Calliope’s first production.
The Local Theater SceneThe vast majority of other local theatre companies and organizations that were regularly mounting theatrical productions in the greater Worcester area during the 1980s and 1990s no longer exist. These include the Auburn Players, Clinton Community Theatre, Cornely Productions, Cornucopia Productions, Holden Players, Hudson Spotlighters, Leslie Productions. Mariposa Players, Masque Repertory Theatre, New England Repertory Theatre, New England Theatre Company, New Experience Theatre, Northborough Youth Theatre, Pickwick Players, Shrewsbury Players, Southborough Players, Theater Now, Theatre Unlimited, Wachusett Theatre Company, Westborough Players, Worcester Childrens’ Theatre, Worcester Entr’Actors, Worcester Firefighters’ Association, Worcester Foothills Theatre, and Worcester Forum Theatre Theatre Ensemble,
The Barre Players Club, Gateway Players, and Worcester County Light Opera Club are the only other local theatre organizations active during that era that are still operating in 2022. What Calliope holds in common with these other theatres is the dedication and resourcefulness of our managing board and staff, the support of our performers and audience members, and our resilience in overcoming obstacles.
Early Financial SupportIn its early years, Calliope benefited from grants given by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the newly formed Massachusetts Arts Lottery Council, which had been established by the State Legislature in 1972, to distribute income from the Massachusetts State Lottery to fund local non-profit arts organizations through Local Arts Councils that were set up in all 329 communities in the state.
Because Calliope was one of the few non-profit theaters in the area and had an in-house mailing list that could document where our audiences resided, Calliope was able to regularly receive grants from the Local Arts Councils of Boylston, Clinton, Northborough, Shrewsbury, Westborough, and West Boylston. In Calliope’s first decade, funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and these various Arts Councils often approached 20% of our annual operating budget.
In 1991, when these Local Arts Councils were absorbed by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and renamed “Local Cultural Councils,” the annual distributions to individual communities were reduced, and the eligibility for grants was expanded to include public schools, public libraries, religious organizations, and individuals and groups that were not nonprofits. As a result, the grant income that Calliope was able to receive from these sources declined after 1992.
Improving Our Northborough Performance SpaceOne of the tasks undertaken by Calliope’s first Managing Board of Directors in 1987 was to figure out a way to improve the space it was renting from the First Parish Church and eventually turn the facility into Calliope’s permanent home.
Some immediate issues were that the building was not handicapped accessible, and the facility was also rented by a local dance teacher. The latter issue caused a major inconvenience because the dance teacher used the hall on weekday afternoons during the school year. This meant that all the audience seating had to be set up immediately before each Thursday opening night performance, removed and stored away right after the performance, set up again before each Friday night performance, and then removed and stored away after each Sunday performance.
In the fall of 1988, Calliope hired an architectural firm and submitted a proposal to the Standing Committee of the First Parish Church of Northborough for a long-term lease of the First Parish Hall, along with a proposal for collaborative capital fund-raising campaign to raise money for an addition to the First Parish Hall that would expand the theater space and provide an enclosed connection with the church building. Calliope then presented two architectural plans to the Church for its consideration.
In early 1989, however, the Standing Committee of the First Parish Church voted against any such proposal. Later that year, after the First Parish Church raised Calliope’s annual rent for the use of the hall to $2,500, Calliope established a Building Fund and started searching for a new space to call our home.
In 1990, Calliope initiated our first fund-raising campaign, one which was focused on purchasing new seating for our audiences. Dubbed the “Seat of Your Pants” campaign, Calliope fund-raiser drew national attention when the tee-shirt promoting it was featured on an NBC Today Show broadcast. The success of this effort, along with the help of Anthony “Spag” Borgatti (who negotiated a discounted price for the seating), allowed Calliope to purchase 200 cushioned seats for our audiences. Calliope also allowed the First Parish Church to use the seats when it had its own activities in the hall.
In the early 1990s, Calliope began presenting our own self-generated musical revues, “music halls,” and other special events in order to raise money for our Building Fund and increase our public exposure. These performances included appearances at Northborough’s annual Apple Fest, and at local libraries, schools, churches, and retirement communities in Berlin, Leicester, Paxton, Westborough, Worcester, Holden, and Shrewsbury.
Among the most successful of Calliope’s fund-raising efforts were the mystery dinner theatre productions that were presented every February for seven years in a row (from 1992 – 1998) in the First Parish Hall. After staging a published play as our first mystery dinner theatre venture, the decision was made for Calliope to write our own scripts for any subsequent shows.
Meals were either catered by vendors or prepared by volunteers in the Fist Parish Hall kitchen, the audiences were large and enthusiastic, and the plays were always silly but enjoyable – often involving at least one actor collapsing “dead” and landing face down in a plate of food for the last half of the performance.
Calliope would also take our mystery dinner theatre shows on the road and perform them for a fee for other organizations in Knights of Columbus halls, churches, and Masonic lodges, traveling to Marlborough, Hudson, Leicester, Fitchburg, Weston, and even Woodstock, Connecticut. All of this was done while Calliope continued running year-round performance seasons of five to six main-stage productions at the First Parish Hall in Northborough.
Calliope’s Youth Theatre ProgramIn 1991, seeing a need for performing arts instruction for students, Calliope started a Youth Theatre Program for students aged 8 to 18 that met on weekday mornings for a month during summer school vacation. The first summer youth productions were very popular, with YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (1991), SNOOPY (1992), and GODSPELL (1993) playing to sell-out audiences for almost every performance.
The success of this summer program led to the establishment of spring and fall youth workshops on Saturday afternoons, beginning in 1992. The fall and spring programs rehearsed and presented one-act plays and short musicals; the summer programs rehearsed and presented full-length Broadway musicals.
In 1994, because enrollment of students for the summer shows kept increasing each year, which caused some of the casts to number 50 or more students, the summer youth theatre program was split into a pre-teen session (for ages 8 to 12) that would meet during weekday mornings and a teen session (for ages 13 to 18) that would meet during weekday evenings. The spring and fall workshops were reconfigured for pre-teen students. That same year, Kathy Ludt began a Calliope Show Choir for teens and started teaching tap lessons to teens and adults. The added income from these programs provided additional revenue for Calliope’s Building Fund.
Loss of Our Performance VenueAs Calliope’s use of the First Parish Hall increased, so did Calliope’s annual rent – which was based on its hourly usage of the hall - to the point where Calliope’s rental fee for 1997/1998 was raised to $5,000.
When the First Parish Church imposed a non-negotiable 30% increase on Calliope’s hourly rate for 1998/1999, Calliope decided to terminate our rental agreement with the First Parish Church when it expired on July 31, 1998.
By August 1 of that year, Calliope had removed all our lighting equipment, audience seating, set pieces, costumes, and equipment (including our piano) from the First Parish Hall building. Calliope lined up an alternate performance venue for our December holiday show, and, with only $22,000 in our Building Fund, embarked on a more urgent search for our own performance space.
Calliope’s December 1998 production of A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES was performed in the function room at The Willows Retirement Community in Westborough. Because of the relocation to a venue that was not familiar to Calliope’s regular audiences and the fact that the only newspaper review of the show appeared after the show concluded, attendance for this production was less than half of what it had been for Calliope’s previous holiday shows.
With no immediate prospects in sight for a performance venue for the following calendar year, Calliope obtained permission to run our 1999 spring pre-teen workshop program and 1999 Teen Variety Show at Southgate Retirement Community in Shrewsbury, and - with the help of Dennis Wrenn, the music department head at Northborough’s Algonquin Regional High School - arranged to have Calliope operate our 1999 summer youth theatre programs there.
A Permanent Home in BoylstonIn January of 1999, Mark Fuller, a principal figure on the board of the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation, suggested to Dave and Kathy Ludt that funding might be available for Calliope to purchase the Liberty Assembly of God Church at 150 Main Street in Boylston, that was currently for sale.
The Fuller Foundation had always been a major contributor to Calliope’s success, dating back to Calliope’s first decade in the First Parish Hall. The foundation provided grants to improve Calliope’s lighting and sound equipment, sponsored individual productions, helped Calliope meet fundraising goals, and purchased a cargo van for Calliope after we lost our Northborough performance space.
After touring the Boylston property and noting its potential to satisfy Calliope’s immediate needs, Calliope’s board of directors voted to request funding from the Fuller Foundation. Calliope made an offer that was accepted by the Liberty Assembly of God congregation and received a grant from the Fuller Foundation for the full purchase amount.
Calliope presented our first show in new home in Boylston, a reprise production of the musical TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, in March of 1999. Over Memorial Day weekend that year, a group of Calliope board members and volunteers began transforming the former church into a workable theater space by removing interior walls, constructing a stage in the chancel area where the altar had been, building a ramped seating area in the nave of the church, creating a ticket booth/office/concession area in the vestibule, and moving in all of Calliope’s seating and other equipment and materials that had been in storage.
That summer, Calliope staged a production of the musical revue A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING in Boylston, presented our teen production of THE MUSIC MAN and pre-teen production of PINOCCHIO at Algonquin Regional High School, and scheduled our October and December productions.
Improving Our Boylston Performance SpaceThe shortfalls of Calliope’s new home in Boylston became apparent as audience attendance started to return to previous levels. The lobby space, which could accommodate only 25 people before a show or during intermission, was woefully inadequate, the low ceiling above the raised performance area made it impossible to adequately light the stage, and the restroom facilities (two single-stall bathrooms in the basement) were difficult for audiences to access and were insufficient to accommodate both performers and patrons. As a temporary fix for our heavily attended summer youth theatre shows, Calliope would rent outdoor porta-potties for audiences to use.
In early 2000, Calliope hired an architect to draft plans for a building renovation/expansion and contracted with a professional fund-raising organization for a feasibility study to determine whether there was enough community support for Calliope to embark on a major capital fund-raising campaign for expanding and improving our building.
Because the results of the feasibility study did not justify conducting such a major capital campaign, Calliope decided to transfer the remaining money in our Building Fund into a Building Improvement Fund and use some of money to create a dance studio / rehearsal space in the basement of our new building, install air conditioning in the performance hall, and worked on addressing the issue of the inadequate ceiling height above the stage.
That summer and fall Calliope solicited additional donations for the project, so that it could raise the ceiling above the stage and install theatrical lighting in time for our spring 2001 production of SCOTLAND ROAD. The improved lighting allowed Calliope to make better use of the stage and be able to produce shows that required more complex sets.
The sudden death of Kathy Ludt in August of 2003 resulted in a major re-shuffling in the leadership and management of Calliope. Kathy’s bookkeeping and treasurer responsibilities were taken over by Jan Fuller, Kathy’s directorial responsibilities were added to Dave Ludt’s responsibilities, and other managerial and operational functions were divided up among Calliope’s remaining board members. Dave Ludt and Jan Fuller shared directorial duties for Calliope’s pre-teen program until 2008, when Megan Burke, an alumna of Calliope’s early youth theatre productions, took over the program.
The Donations made to Calliope Productions in memory of Kathy Ludt were placed into Calliope’s Building Improvement Fund and served as seed money for Calliope to conduct a more vigorous fund-raising effort to improve our performance facility.
During the spring of 2007, Calliope’s managing board hired yet another architect, and, after viewing the proposed plans during the summer, voted to go ahead with a proposed addition to the building. In the fall of 2007, Calliope formally launched our “Next Stage” capital fund-raising campaign with a goal of $300,000 for an addition to the building that would house handicapped-accessible rest room facilities for audiences, an expanded lobby and concession area, a box office area and business office, and basement storage space.
This fund-raising goal was reached by late spring of 2008, and ground was broken over the summer for the building addition, which was completed in time for Calliope’s production of John Leslie’s musical revue LOVE IS IN THE AIR over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2009.
Continued GrowthThe new addition and improved facilities enabled Calliope to further expand our operations and attract more audience members. Within two years, Calliope’s annual number of performances increased from 46 to 59 and our annual attendance grew from 4,296 in 2008 to 7,364 in 2010.
Over the next several years, Calliope showcased new musicals written by local students Daniel and Patrick Lazour (TRIBULTATIONS OF THE MILLIONAIRE, in 2009; ROBYNN MCCREE, in 2010; AFFAIRS OF A FRENCH AFTERNOON, in 2011), and staged collaborative ventures with Matt Carr’s Pilgrim Soul Productions (SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR, in 2009; THE GIN GAME, in 2010; TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, in 2013; THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, in 2014).
In addition, Calliope has produced plays by local playwrights Matthew Cory (ALL PLAY AND NO WORK, in 2014; HUGH’S YOUR DADDY, in 2015), Kara Emily Krantz (ALL BARK, NO BITE, in 2019), and Michael Walker (ABSOLUTELY DEAD, in 2019).
Calliope has also continued our tradition of presenting other unique productions, such as our 2015 staging of WAITING FOR GODOT based on Samuel Beckett’s director’s notes for his own definitive 1975 production, and the American premieres of British plays, such as FORGET-ME-KNOT (in 2014), THE LADY VANISHES (in 2020), and BUNKERED (in 2022).
Calliope Productions survived the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown of 2020 – 2021 thanks to donations from our friends and patrons, as well as the grants it received from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2020, the George L. Shields Foundation, and the Local Cultural Councils of Boylston and West Boylston – all of which have ensured Calliope’s stability as it continues through our fifth decade of operation.
For more information about Calliope Productions contact Dave Ludt, Artistic Director, at (508) 869-6887.