As live theater continues to grow in popularity, theater lovers all over the United States are realizing that such big cities as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles aren’t the only places one can find a good performance. Indeed, the 30 small towns on this list, all of which have populations of less than 100,000, are sure to please any theater aficionado. Some, such as Ashland, Oregon, are known for theater festivals, while others, like Staunton, Virginia, are home to well-known theater companies with impressive resumes and even more impressive production budgets. Still others, like Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia, are just nice places to watch a show while enjoying a picnic.
1. Staunton, Virginia
Shakespeare fans are sure to enjoy Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center, better known as Blackfriars Playhouse. Named for the famous Renaissance-era playhouse in London, the regional theater company presents inspiring works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including Christopher Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. But most impressive is the facility itself. Blackfriars Playhouse is the world’s only recreation of the original London Theater that was demolished in 1655. Check out any of the sixteen or so productions the Center produces each year, or spend some more time by taking part in their Shakespeare Laboratory for students and scholars.
2. East Haddam, Connecticut
See it first in East Haddam! East Haddam, Connecticut is home to Goodspeed Musicals, a non-profit organization that has become well-known in recent decades for its high-quality productions. In fact, many of the world’s most famous productions — including Annie, Man of La Mancha, and Shenandoah — all made their big debuts not on Broadway, but at the company’s Goodspeed Opera House, a gorgeous 1877 mansion sitting right on the Connecticut River. Since its founding in 1959, Goodspeed has had nineteen productions transfer to Broadway, and has garnered more than a dozen Tony awards.
3. Princeton, New Jersey
Theater lovers aren’t likely to get bored in Princeton, New Jersey! Princeton is home to McCarter Theatre, a professional company located on the beautiful campus of Princeton University. One of the most active in the country, McCarter produces more than 200 theater, dance, music, and special event performances each year. Thanks to Princeton’s close proximity to New York City, a number of shows have made their debut at McCarter before making their way to Broadway, including Our Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Katharine Hepburn’s Without Love. In 2006, two of McCarter’s shows made impressive moves to Broadway, where they were then awarded Tony Awards.
4. Milburn, New Jersey
Once known as the “State Theater of New Jersey,” Milburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse has established itself as one of the top theater companies in the country, often debuting a production before its run on Broadway. In fact, many members of Paper Mill’s casts, production staffs, and audiences call New York City home. Academy Award-winning director Rob Marshall (Chicago), Broadway legend Kristin Chenowth, and Tony award-winning show Newsies all made their professional debuts at Paper Mill, to name but a few. Paper Mill is especially proud of its “Theater for Everyone” campaign, part of which includes “sensory-friendly” performances for children and adults with autism and developmental disabilities.
5. Ashland, Oregon
For decades, Shakespeare aficionados, high school English classes, and aspiring theater actors have flocked to Ashland, Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Over the course of its season (lasting from February to early November), the Festival produces eleven plays on three stages, most of which are the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In fact, the Festival has produced each of the Bard’s 37 plays a total of 303 times (plus 293 other plays a total of 327 times). More than 15 million people have witnessed the words of Shakespeare in Ashland, Oregon, making it one of the most famous Shakespearean companies in the world.
6. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada
In 1962, Queen Elizabeth II officially christened the opening of the Shaw Festival, a small theater-themed festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, just over the border in Canada. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the Shaw Festival has grown into a popular company with four theaters celebrated for their innovative set designs and award-winning acting. Though each season includes beloved classics, much of the Festival focuses on the works of George Bernard Shaw, one of the great naturalist playwrights who is famous for such works as Man and Superman, Candida, and Pygmalion, among others. As an added bonus, theater lovers can enjoy a day of nearby wine tasting or a view of Niagara Falls before taking in an evening performance.
7. Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Shepherdstown, West Virginia, one of the oldest cities in America, is home to the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Ranked one of the best in the nation, the Festival seeks to highlight the newest and best in American theater each year. Indeed, more than 11,000 people flock to the Festival annually in order to see shows that are in only their premiere, second, or third productions stage. New and seasoned talent alike are featured, and recent hits have been the brand new shows “We Are Pussy Riot,” about the young Russian activists who made history in 2012, and “Everything You Touch,” a dark comedy by Sheila Callaghan centered in the fashion industry.
8. Williamstown, Massachusetts
Usually a quiet little town situated in the Berkshires, Williamstown, Massachusetts comes alive when the Williamstown Theatre Festival comes to town. Held on the campus of Williams College, the Festival is best known for revamping international classics like Chekhov’s The Seagull, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, and more. If free theater isn’t tempting enough, consider spending your days in Williamstown enjoying late-night cabarets, readings, workshops, and various educational programs. True theater aficionados will especially appreciate that the Festival draws accomplished actors, designers, directors, and playwrights, as well as fresh, young talent. In fact, notable Williamstown alumni include Benjamin McKenzie, Christopher Reeve, and Kate Hudson.
9. Asheville, North Carolina
In recent years, Asheville, North Carolina has catapulted to the forefront of small American towns known for their exciting performing arts scenes. Those interested in Southern Appalachian culture should check out the increasingly famous Lex 18 Themed Dinners, which hosts a variety of dress-up and play-along dinners and shows. Looking for something a little more traditional? Check out the professional company NC Stage or The Foundation Performing Arts, both of which offer high quality plays, musicals, concerts, comedy shows, and more. Finally, the Brevard Summer Music Festival is a summer-long event during which theater lovers can choose to enjoy more than 80 concerts, staged operas and musicals, and more.
10. Jupiter, Florida
Jupiter, Florida is home to Maltz Jupiter Theatre, one of the most award-winning professional theater companies in the country. Ranging from student-led productions to vehicles for well-known actors and directors, any theater lover is bound to love the work put on by this regional company. Over the years, Maltz has performed nearly every major classic, which most recently has included Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, Annie, and A Chorus Line, among others.
11. Lenox, Massachusetts
Every summer, more than 60,000 theater lovers flock to Lenox, Massachusetts, another sleepy Berkshires town, for Shakespeare & Company’s well-known festival. The festival enjoys a high reputation due to the beautiful natural scenery, unbeatable talent, and quality production value. While the festival does perform such Shakespeare favorites as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, one can also enjoy the Bard’s smaller works, like Henry V and The Comedy of Errors. Unlike many others of its kind, the festival in Lenox also performs Shakespeare-like, but completely original, works such as the recent Mother of the Maid, a comedy from the perspective of the mother of Joan of Arc.
12. Clarksville, Indiana
Head to Clarksville, Indiana to enjoy the Clarksville Little Theater, one of America’s oldest continuously running community theaters. Each season, the Little Theater produces five to six plays and musicals put on by volunteer performers and stage hands. Additionally, Clarksville is just a bridge-crossing away from Louisville, Kentucky, where the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts hosts Broadway shows on tour, and professional companies such as the Tony-award winning Actors Theater and the Kentucky Opera frequently perform their own quality productions.
13. Santa Fe, New Mexico
One may not associate the mountain landscape of New Mexico with opera, but artsy Santa Fe is home to one of the foremost opera companies in the nation, the Santa Fe Opera. Every July and August, the company presents an exciting line-up of operas and musicals old and new, beloved and lesser well-known. Some of the best talent takes part, and performances are mostly held in an outdoor adobe theater, which is especially beautiful when it is lit up by lightning flashes striking the mountain backdrop.
14. Spring Green, Wisconsin
For a one-of-a-kind theater festival held in a beautiful sylvan landscape, theater lovers should head to Spring Green, Wisconsin. Each year between June and October, Spring Green’s own American Players Theater produces eight rotating productions. Whether enjoyed from the large, 1148-seat outdoor amphitheater, or from one of the smaller, more intimate outdoor spaces, watching theater in the Wisconsin woods is a unique bucket-list experience that any theater lover will enjoy. Productions range from small and intimate to large-scale, and have included such varied titles as Richard III, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and Death of a Salesman, to name but a few.
15. Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Pittsfield, Massachusetts — yet another charming town located in the Berkshires — is the home of the Barrington Stage Company. Founded in 1995, Barrington is one of the youngest companies featured on this list, but in its short life it has become one of the premiere venues for debuting shows and performers. In fact, it was Barrington Stage Company which workshopped and debuted the now hit musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. New plays, classic productions, favorite musicals, and concerts are performed from May through October, while the company offers a year-round musical theater conservatory for budding performers, playwrights, lyricists, and composers to gain real-world experience and take part in developing new projects.
16. Chautauqua, New York
Shortly after arriving in Chautauqua, New York, theater lovers are sure to realize why the town’s performing arts scene has been called “world class theater in America’s best small town.” Each summer, up-and-coming actors, directors, and designers flock to the lakeside community for unique training and performance opportunities with the Chautauqua Institution. As an added bonus, Chautauqua’s theater program is located in the town’s historic district, which is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark.
17. Cold Spring, New York
In 1987, a producer and director got together for a fundraising performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That single performance has turned into the annual Hudson Valley Shakespeare Company, a scenic outdoor festival located an easy 90-minute train ride from New York City. Performances are held under a big white tent, and include Shakespearean favorites and other classics, including The Winter’s Tale, Tartuffe, and The Arabian Nights. Additionally, the Festival sponsors a year-round education program, through which each year more than 35,000 New York students gain access to Shakespeare, stage production, and even an artists-in-residence program.
18. Westport, Connecticut
Located a simple train ride from New York City, Westport, Connecticut is home to the Westport Country Playhouse. The well-known performing arts company produces five shows per year, which are then performed on rotation from April through November. Unlike most other theater festivals, which must perform classics and other favorites in order to draw the crowds, Westport Country Playhouse interestingly seeks to inspire audiences with provocative and envelope-pushing new works by contemporary playwrights both up-and-coming and well established.
19. Walnut Creek, California
Located in the Bay Area, affluent Walnut Creek is the home of the Lesher Center for the Arts, a massive, multi-theater downtown building that plays host to everything from plays and musicals, to high-profile book releases, to ballets. While the Walnut Creek ballet and performing arts companies are impressive enough to be worth a ticket on their own, the Lesher Center is also the chosen performance location of the Center REPertory Company, a professional company that puts on shows good enough to rival anything seen in nearby San Francisco.
20. La Jolla, California
La Jolla, California may be an affluent, beachside community on the edges of San Diego, but it’s known for much more than white-sand beaches and umbrella drinks. Indeed, La Jolla is home to the La Jolla Playhouse, a professional theater-in-residence program. The impressive number of now well-known shows that debuted at La Jolla is eclipsed only by the number of actors that started there. The long list includes such notables as Kim Cattrall, Billy Crystal, Sutton Foster, John Goodman, Neil Patrick Harris, Holly Hunter, Laura Linney, Gary Sinise, and Groucho Marx, to name but a few. For those theater lovers who prefer fringe art, La Jolla’s next door neighbor, San Diego, is one of the few U.S. cities that hosts an annual International Fringe Festival.
21. Waterford, Connecticut
Few regional companies have been as transformative to the theater industry as the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. The Center hosts a number of events for theater lovers each year: including the National Theater Institute, a semester of hands-on study available to undergraduate students; the National Playwrights Conference; the National Critics Conference; the National Musical Theater Conference; the Puppetry Conference; and the Cabaret & Performance Conference. The Center is located at Monte Cristo Cottage, Eugene O’Neill’s childhood home, and doubles as a museum. Theater lovers who don’t have the time to take part in a conference should visit to see a show at one of the Center’s four major performance spaces, two indoor and two outdoor.
22. Cedar City, Utah
Theater lovers can head to Cedar City, Utah in the summer months and enjoy the highly respected works of The Utah Shakespeare Festival. The Festival, which was the recipient of the 2000 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, presents eight shows each year. While Shakespeare’s work remains the cornerstone of the festival, the company also produces one contemporary musical per year, and a few works by other Shakespeare-era playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe. True Shakespeare aficionados are sure to get a kick out of the company’s Adams Memorial Theater, which is a replica of the Bard’s famed Globe Theater.
23. New Brunswick, New Jersey
New Brunswick, New Jersey is home to Crossroads Theatre Company, one of the premiere African-American companies in the nation. Since its founding in 1978, Crossroads has produced more than 100 productions, including the world premieres of The Colored Museum, The Love Space Demands, Black Eagles, and Sheila’s Day, among a number of others. Crossroads was also awarded the 1999 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Theater lovers interested in visiting Crossroads should check the company’s website for upcoming performances and special events.
24. Genesee, Wisconsin
Fans of classic Broadway and old Hollywood are sure to enjoy a trip to Genesee, Wisconsin, the small town where Ten Chimneys is located. Now an impressive theater museum, Ten Chimneys was once the home of Broadway actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. Visitors can step back in time on their visit to the National Historic Landmark, which has been well maintained so that it looks just as it did when such legends as Noel Coward, Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and Carol Channing would flock there for the summer. In addition to its role as a museum, Ten Chimneys provides programming and resources to theater professionals from all over the country.
25. Valencia, California
Near enough to Los Angeles to retain an artsy feel, yet far enough away to encompass the charms of a small town, Valencia, California is home to CalArts, one of the premiere performing arts colleges in the world. Indeed, theater lovers in Valencia have easy access to high-quality student productions nearly all year round. One of CalArts most interesting venues is The Wild Beast, a “highly flexible, acoustically optimized” performance and rehearsal space that is about as impressive as the actors working under its roof.
26. Wolf Trap, Virginia
A performing arts center in a national park? Such a mix doesn’t sound quite so crazy if you’re talking about Wolf Trap National Park, located just outside of Vienna, Virginia. The Park has multiple performance venues, each of which hosts different performances at different times of the year. These range from the Filene Center, an indoor/outdoor venue with seating for up to 7,000 people; to the Meadow Pavilion, a wooden stage nestled into the forest; to The Children’s Theatre in the Woods, where children’s music, dance, puppetry, and theater shows are held. Additionally, Wolf Trap is home to the Wolf Trap Opera Company, a resident company for young opera singers.
27. Bennington, Vermont
Thanks to Bennington College, little Bennington, Vermont is a great destination for theater lovers. The College offers five degree programs in the theatrical arts — including Directing, Visual Arts, Playwriting, Technical Theater, and Acting — which means there is almost always a play, musical, cabaret, comedy show, or musical concert available. Bennington’s theater arts program has been ranked the second best in Vermont, and one of the best in both the Northeast and the entire United States.
28. Williamsburg, Virginia
History lovers have been drawn to “colonial” Williamsburg, Virginia for more than a century, but the small historic town has plenty to appeal to the lover of theater as well. Most notable is the Kimball Theatre, located in Merchants Square. Consistent with the tourist attraction that is Williamsburg, visitors should stop by the Theatre before a performance to discuss the arts with figures like Patrick Henry, or relax and enjoy the soothing music of the talented musicians from nearby College of William & Mary. Come evening, step back into time and experience a live performance, play, or even film inside the theater.
29. Cambridge, Massachusetts
Seen everything on Broadway? Then skip the Great White Way and head straight to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In recent years, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre (ART) has bulldozed its way to the top of American regional theater companies. In 2012, the company won a Tony award for its adaptation of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. They followed this up with another Tony in 2013 for Pippin, and yet another in 2014 for the new play, All the Way. Even more recently, it was ART which premiered Finding Neverland, now finding massive success on Broadway.
30. Costa Mesa, California
For those theater lovers who are more interested in the production process, specifically the writing, Costa Mesa, California is home to the annual Pacific Playwrights Festival. Every summer, the small Southern California town turns into a national forum where playwrights both aspiring and established have the opportunity to develop new work with the support of a community of artists. In addition to conferences and writing retreats, public readings are held to showcase new works, and two world premieres are performed.
Posted April 2016