By Seth Daniel
When the Charlestown Working Theatre (CWT) prepared to open up for its first show in 1975 – a short play called ‘The Lottery’ – founder Peggy Ings and those helping her form the innovative theatre didn’t know whether they were going to get greeted with eggs or roses.
It turned out it was roses, and while the going was tough for many years, the CWT has grown to be a community staple and a treasured resource for the theatre community and for children’s programming within the Town. On Friday, March 11, the CWT will celebrate its 40th birthday celebration with a gala at the Knights of Columbus that will also honor Ings for her contribution to the theatre.
“We put on the first show called ‘The Lottery’ in 1975 and it was just after the state lottery had been approved,” said Ings. “We had no idea how it would go. It turned out there was a line to get in all the way up the hill. I had no idea. I told everyone if no one came, it would just be another dress rehearsal. It turns out it was a hit.”
And the theatre has continued in that vein for four decades.
“Literally 10s of thousands of people have come through here,” said Jennifer Johnson, a co-director of the CWT and a former child participant. “We have all of the children’s programs booming and we have 13 shows this year. It’s incredible and it was an amazing thing for Peggy to do. The ripples of her persistence and vision are immeasurable. I think that the people rehearsing for the plays these days don’t realize how much it took to get this thing where it is today. Peggy’s determination in a time in Charlestown when it wasn’t as open and probably scary is notable. Most people were pro-theatre, but some were very against it…It was probably dangerous. For her to endure that and continue the course is incredible. It was such a radical idea 40 years ago and it was amazing work. It was a lot of people, but it was Peggy’s idea. I benefitted from that vision. I went to Boston University for theatre and my life would be much different if it wasn’t for that vision she had.”
Johnson, her sister Kristen Johnson and John Peitso are all co-directors and have agreed that it was time to recognize Ings for her forward thinking vision for a community theatre. Johnson reiterated that there wasn’t much to do for a young “weirdo” in Charlestown if they didn’t play hockey.
“It was pretty much going to the library and finding a book to read if you weren’t into hockey or the Boys & Girls Club,” said Johnson. “Peggy changed all of that.”
The CWT began when the old Firehouse that is now its home was decommissioned and recommended for demolition in 1968. It had been used for storage, to keep the lights for the Boston Common Christmas tree, and was slated to be torn down with Sullivan Square Station.
Ings wouldn’t accept that, and the Dorchester native that had settled in Charlestown felt it was the ideal place for a community theatre. She sat in the mayor’s office day after day – waiting and waiting – until finally she was heard.
In the end, the City sold it to the CWT for $1.
Sounds like a good deal until one saw the inside.
It was in shambles, the windows were boarded up and it was not in any condition to put on any kind of play. Much work was to be done, hence the “working” theatre. Ings said she got the idea after graduating from Emerson College and going as a Rotary Fellow to Birmingham University in England – where she saw an innovative approach where professionals and amateurs worked side by side on productions.
Ings said she started by putting an ad in the Charlestown Patriot (now the Patriot-Bridge) calling on anyone who wanted a theatre in the Town to bring a lawn chair to the Firehouse. They put on a small play outside because they couldn’t get inside, but they were able to get a feeling for those interested.
Numerous people got involved. The late electrician, Mario Tognarelli, provided wiring services for free, while others like Buddy Whalen, Ron Epstein, Pat Andreotti and Jimmy Doherty – to name a few – got involved.
Anyone who wanted to get on stage in those days, Ings said, had to provide some labor or do some work.
“There were no stars or divas at the Working Theatre,” Ings said. “You had to set up the chairs, build the sets and do everything else before you could ever get on stage.”
Still, much opposition still remained. They once had the words, “Liberals Go Home” scrawled on the side of the building, and many folks nearby would often complain about the activities. However, once the children’s programming was introduced, things began to change.
“People fought us all along the way, but they began to understand when we did the children’s programs that we wanted to do things for the families and the children of the Town,” said Ings.
There were many memories related by Ings in the recent interview, and walking through the theatre, every corner had a memory and the name of a person who had been critical in the group. Such things, Ings and Johnson said, would be rehashed time and again at the gala on March 11.
“I had an idea, but it was implemented and carried forward,” said Ings. “That’s the true story. People have a lot of good ideas and they come and go. People put the work into this idea to really make it what it has become.”