Eric Rosen, Claybourne Elder and their six year old son Bo Source: Eric Rosen

Director Eric Rosen Takes Over the Cape Playhouse (with a Little Help from Husband, 'The Gilded Age's' Claybourne Elder)

Nicholas Dussault READ TIME: 13 MIN.

The Cape Playhouse was created in 1927 as a place where sophisticated theatergoers from New York and Boston could go to beat the insufferable summer heat. The charming theater is nestled in a neighborhood of Dennis that exudes the kind of Cape Cod charm they mention in the song "Old Cape Cod."

It became popular because professional theater in New York City would shut down during the summer due to the lack of air conditioning. Seeing an opportunity, Actor and producer Raymond Moore created a professional theater that would offer both actors and audiences productions during the summer. His chance paid off – the theater he designed and built will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in three years. Its opening, though, was less-than-promising: a play called "The Guardsman" (with Basil Rathbone) was plagued with such heavy rain that patrons had to open their umbrellas inside the theater due to a leaky roof. Nonetheless, the theater caught on and became, according to the New York Times, "the place where Broadway goes to summer."

The roster of stars who have graced the now-historic stage is a veritable who's who of theater greats. Bette Davis worked as an usher one summer and returned a star the following year. Henry Fonda and his daughter Jane once enjoyed a double billing. Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Tallulah Bankhead, Shirley Booth, and Olympia Dukakis have all played the Cape Playhouse. Gertrude Lawrence ("Lady in the Dark," "The King and I") was the most frequent Broadway star to appear the Playhouse after she married the theater artistic director Richard Aldrich in 1940. Today Lawrence's ghost is rumored to still be in residence. If you fail to put blue hydrangeas in her dressing room before opening night, you will regret it.

This year, the Cape welcomes a new Artistic Director, Eric Rosen, who is joined by his talented husband Claybourne Elder (Broadway: "Company," TV: "The Gilded Age") and their 6-year-old son Bo.

Recently EDGE had the chance to sit down with the couple as they prepare for the Playhouse's 97th season and their first summer among the "sand dunes and salty air" of Old Cape Cod.

The Cape Playhouse
Source: Cape Playhouse

EDGE: How did you end up working on the Cape?

Eric Rosen: I was recruited to take on the Cape Playhouse job last summer. I ran theater companies for the first couple of decades of my career then took time off when our son was born. I was pretty happy freelancing, but they called, we talked, I started thinking about what it would be like to have a summer theater job. It's very different than running a big regional theater. Then I thought about our son having summers on the Cape. It was interesting enough to come visit; and it's magical here. It's so beautiful. The Playhouse itself is gorgeous. We've spent time in Provincetown, Clay's performed there. But this is a new adventure for us. We're really excited.

EDGE: Is this a full-time gig?

Eric Rosen: Yeah, most of the work the Playhouse needs to do is really centered in New York. We rehearse in New York; our actors are all from New York. It's largely just bringing the shows here and being in residence for the summer, which is the dream. Our son is in school in Manhattan, to be here for the summer is ideal.

EDGE: How did you guys meet?

Claybourne Elder: Eric was running a theater company in Kansas City 15 years ago. Moises Kaufman was doing "Into the Woods" and he cast me. We met on the first day of rehearsal and became quick friends. The last weekend of the show, around his birthday, I sort of asked him out on a date. We'd been flirting and things, so we went on this date and it was incredible. But he lived in Kansas City and I lived in New York. We decided to figure it out because we really liked each other. And here we are 15 years later, with a child.

Eric Rosen: It's the showmance that won't give up. We'll been married 12 years this summer.

EDGE: Will you be summering here as well, Clay?

Claybourne Elder: Yes, I'm so excited to. Bo is in school until the end of June. I'll be with him in New York until we move out here full-time.

Claybourne Elder as John Adams on HBO's "The Gilded Age"
Source: HBO

EDGE: Are you still doing "The Gilded Age?" (Editor's note: on HBO's "The Gilded Age," Elder plays the gay descendent of President John Adams, who shares his famous name.)

Claybourne Elder: I am. We had our first read through this week and start filming in July. I have to travel a little bit for filming and some concert work, but I'll be here most of the time.

EDGE: Do you think being a gay ex- Mormon has had any impact when playing John Adams?

Claybourne Elder: It is helpful in that we all, if you're a gay person, know what it was like to hide. I was out while I was still in Utah and even then I was hiding in so many ways. And I feel that way about John Adams. He's a person who is trying to live an authentic life but also understands the complexities of being authentic without being out, trying to live the way he wants to live within the constructs of society. That's what my life was like in my 20s.

EDGE: You're going to be doing something in P-Town this summer?

Claybourne Elder: I'm doing my solo show at Town Hall on July 7. (For ticket information,follow this link.) I started touring it about a year and a half ago. I was just out of "Company" and thought I would do it a couple of times. I kept getting requests to do it more and more. It's not a cabaret act and it's not a standup show. It's somewhere in between, more talking than cabaret and more singing than standup. And somewhere along the process, comedian Lisa Lampanelli, reached out to me and said "hey, I want to work with you. I think you're hilarious." She's not writing the show, she's helped to reshape it a lot and has been a big champion of me doing it.

I did it a couple of times last year at the Art House. It was great and sold out. The audiences were so fun. I'm excited to be back in Provincetown. People there are on vacation, ready to have a good time, and they're gay or gay-adjacent, so they get all the jokes.

Eric Rosen in rehearsal with cast members from "tick, tick... BOOM!"
Source: Cape Playhouse

EDGE: You got a big break from a stranger at a Broadway show?

Claybourne Elder: Right after I'd gotten kicked out of BYU, the Mormon school, for being gay, I visited New York. This guy walked up to me after I had seen a show in the standing room only section and said, "Hey, you looked like you were enjoying the show more than the people in the expensive seats. Here's $200. Go buy yourself a ticket to "Sweeney Todd" tomorrow. It'll change your life."

I was suspicious because I didn't know what he wanted. I was a little Mormon kid. But I took the money and took a picture with him, because I didn't know what else to do. We didn't even exchange names. I said thank you and bought a ticket to "Sweeney Todd" the next day. It was a very powerful experience for me on a lot of different levels. I decided to move to New York. Years later I was cast in "Company" on Broadway with Patti LuPone, who I saw in "Sweeney Todd," the show the stranger had bought me a ticket to see.

EDGE: And that's not the end of the story.

Claybourne Elder: No. I was out of the show with Covid, but when I was coming back, I told Eric I was going to buy some tickets for "Company" and give them away online. He said, "okay, what a great use of our money."

It was right after the pandemic when a lot of artists and other people couldn't afford things, and Broadway was trying to get back on its feet. I posted the picture of that guy and me and said if you don't have money for a ticket, put your name here, I'm going to give away some tickets. People started reaching out asking if they could send money to buy more tickets for people. Somebody leaked my Venmo on Twitter and people sent me more and more money. I gave away 26 tickets the first night. Eventually Patti LuPone's lawyer offered to create a non-profit. It's called City of Strangers. Bigger donations came in and now, two years in, we've given away over 3,000 tickets. The tickets aren't free – they're paid for by a stranger.

When I posted the picture to give away the tickets, my friend Doug Sills, who is on "The Gilded Age" with me, told me he knew the guy. They'd been friends for 30 years. He connected us and now we're friends. He came to see me in "Company." He said he'd like never done anything like that before and he's never done it again. He doesn't know why he did it. I found that really moving. You can do something impulsively and change someone's life without knowing it. It's all pretty miraculous.

Eric joined forces with me to do the ticket giveaway, and now we've partnered with a bunch of community organizations, giving away tickets to Covenant House and the Wendy Wasserstein project. At one point I got the idea that I wanted to give away a pair of tickets to every music or drama teacher in the New York City public school system. We had over 100 of them come see it.

One of us usually goes to hand out the tickets and the other is always jealous because it's so much fun. We're connecting with people who really, really want to go. They're always so excited to be there. And we hear some amazing stories from them.

EDGE: And it really changed your life.

Claybourne Elder: I know it sounds like hyperbole and I'm wary to say it, because I'm a theater person and people would think yeah drama queen it changed your life. But it did. It absolutely changed my life. Twice.

Eric Rosen
Source: Cape Playhouse

EDGE: Let's get back to the Playhouse. Eric, will you direct all the shows?

Eric Rosen: Oh no, I opened "tick, tick... BOOM!" last night. I directed that, and I'm directing "Waitress" in late July. That runs in August. The other three shows are directed by other people.

EDGE: Do you find it hard to turn over the theater to other directors?

Eric Rosen: I actually love it. I've worked with some of the best directors in the field. I love hiring directors who are better than me so I can watch and learn. I've really learned some incredible things from Mary Zimmerman and Moises Kaufman and David Cromer. I didn't run a theater for six years and didn't know I missed it until I started doing it again. There's a sense of community and family around having an entire season of artists that makes theater life so much less lonely.

EDGE: How do you pick your season?

Eric Rosen: I knew I wanted to make a big impression, but I also knew the first rule of being a new artistic director is don't break anything. So I studied everything we'd been doing for the last 10 to 15 years, looked at what sold, what the audience responded to. I sent out a survey in order to get to know the audience without actually knowing the audience. Another part of the choices is just the artists that I want to work with. We're doing "39 Steps" because Kimberly Senior wanted to direct it. And there are some things I just wanted to do. I love "Waitress" and I wanted to see what I could make of it. I had already done "tick, tick...BOOM!" at Bucks County (Playhouse) and I knew I wanted to bring it back. And then there were some things like "Million Dollar Quartet" and "Beautiful" that were already well into the planning phase before I started.

It's a challenge to find a season that will get people off the beach in the summer and be something that I want to do and know will work. I believe we've got five shows that will serve the community and get people excited this year.

Claybourne Elder
Source: Austin Ruffer

EDGE: Have you met the ghost yet?

Eric Rosen: There's talk of the ghost, but I have not met the ghost yet. We do have a tradition of putting blue hydrangeas in the dressing room. I picked them myself from my yard and put them in there. Then I had a little reverential moment and sang, "Getting to Know You." It is for real haunted. I felt moments in there in the winter when I was alone that I wasn't alone. There are definitely some things here.

EDGE: Gertrude Lawrence is walking around checking it out.

Eric Rosen: Maybe Humphrey Bogart too.

EDGE: Think of all the people who've played there.

Eric Rosen: It's crazy. I wander around the building and everywhere backstage there are posters from 100 years of shows. I look at the walls and there's Tallulah Bankhead, Thornton Wilder, Jane Fonda and Henry Fonda on the same bill. It's the sense of history in that room, both for the audience and the artists. I've never experienced anything like it. It's haunted in the best way. As a theater nerd I get choked up thinking that we're actually here where it happened.

EDGE: Who's your audience?

Eric Rosen: June audience is diehard locals and people who come early for the summer. It's subscription heavy. In July and August, there's ten weeks when it's constant churn. We could run one show all summer if we wanted to, because the audience changes every week. The reason we're dark on Sundays is because that's the changeover day for vacation weeks. If you have shows that are drawing entirely tourists you can run things longer. This year I've changed up the whole schedule, so we do a two-week run, then three-week, four-week, three-week again and back to two-week. It follows the demographics and the population.

Knock on wood, the audience for the Playhouse is in great shape. Last year was the highest grossing season ever, and we're ahead of that so far for this year by healthy double-digit percentage. Everything is selling. We're really healthy.

For more on The Cape Playhouse, visit its website.

For ticket information for Claybourne Elder's show at Provincetown's Town Hall on July 7, follow this link.

by Nicholas Dussault

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