New Leader, Name for Arena Players as Shakespeare Fest Opens

(Newsday published this feature story on June 30, 2017.)

Donnellan replaces De Feis, to lead Carriage House Players, formerly Arena Players

By Steve Parks

Wednesday’s opening-night performance of “Macbeth” marks the first time that someone other than Frederic De Feis directs the Shakespeare Festival at the Vanderbilt.

The dean of Long Island theater, De Feis, 91, passed the reins of the company he founded in 1955 to a protégé, Evan Donnellan, in January. Donnellan and a new board of directors changed the company’s name from Arena Players to Carriage House Players to “better reflect the space we work in,” Donnellan says. Arena has performed in the Carriage House Theater on the grounds of the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport since moving in 2012 from East Farmingdale, where the main stage was configured with seating three sides around.

Rehearsing ‘Macbeth’ on the Vanderbilt Courtyard stage: Nikki Kuttler (left), Evan Donnellan, Nicole Intravia, Tom Brown
Vanderbilt Museum photo

De Feis continues in an advisory capacity, Donnellan says, adding, “We will follow his model, carrying on his legacy with a few new ideas of our own.”

That legacy includes the Shakespeare Festival performed for 29 years in the Vanderbilt mansion courtyard, with the clock tower and stairs leading to its balcony serving as a grand backdrop. The indoor season resides in the former carriage house near the mansion.

BARD TIMES THREE

After “Macbeth,” directed by Carriage House’s new artistic director, Jordan Hue, the festival follows tragedy with comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing” starting Aug. 6, punctuated by “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” one of Donnellan’s favorites, in September.

For November, Donnellan stages Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” a nod to both Arena Players and the new executive director’s connection to it. “That was the first show I ever directed,” Donnellan says. “Fred gave me the opportunity. It’s also the final show performed at the old Arena,” which he also directed.

“Fred is more than a mentor to me,” adds Donnellan, who by day works for Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE), serving people with cognitive challenges. “He’s a father figure. I learned everything I know about the theater from Fred.”

His Arena debut, ironically, was a small part in “Macbeth” with De Feis in the title role. “I was 11,” says Donnellan, who soon turns 31.

ARENA AIRPORTS

De Feis began his career as a Duquesne University grad student/instructor in Pittsburgh. Upon moving to New York, he opened “Theater in the Sky” in the control tower of the airport now known as JFK, still called Idlewild in the early ’60s. Later he took his company on the road to Long Island libraries, schools and parks before settling into a strip-mall rental space opposite another airport, Republic.

Upon purchasing the East Farmingdale space, he added a second stage, producing two shows simultaneously throughout the 1980s and ’90s, including world premieres. Among the talents who got their start at Arena were Brian Dennehy, Edie Falco and Alan Menken.

“I’ve had a good run,” De Feis says, understatedly, “and I’m leaving it in good hands.” He intends to write and travel in his semiretirement. For now, though, you might catch a glimpse of Fred at performances of “Macbeth.”

WHAT Shakespeare Festival: “Macbeth”

WHEN | WHERE July 5-July 28. Upcoming: 7 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, Vanderbilt Museum courtyard, 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport

TICKETS $15; 516-557-1207, 631-854-5579, carriagehouseplayers.org

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