Payomet proves the staying power of drive-in shows

PROVINCETOWN BANNER - With new funding, repair of former Air Force officers club nears a start
By Susan Blood - October 14, 2020

NORTH TRURO — Payomet Performing Arts Center has come a long way since COVID-19 disrupted live events in the spring. As venues around the country adjusted to the need for social distancing while putting on a live show, Payomet wasn’t alone in mastering the art of the drive-in— and won’t be for a while.

When a booking agent recently asked Payomet Executive Artistic Director Kevin Rice how long he was planning to have drive-in shows, he responded with pictures of people standing in falling snow at the Colorado Winter Concert Series.

Payomet's Kevin Rice and Seth Rolbein at the Drive-In Live“Payomet wasn’t sure they were going to be able to do anything when the summer started,” Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said. “In June, Kevin took a road trip to an outdoor performing arts venue that was being set up as a drive-in, with social distancing practice adhered to. They said it was pretty cool and asked if they could do it in the ballfield at the Highlands Center, which they were already using as a parking area.”

With a green light from both the National Seashore and the town of Truro, Rice has offered live programming through the summer and now into the fall. “The drive-in provided an opportunity to keep their presence going and a way for folks to enjoy the performing arts safely from their cars,” Carlstrom said.

The National Park Service has had possession of Highlands Center, previously North Truro Air Force Station, since 1994. According to the Park Service website, Highlands Center is now “an interactive community of artists, scientists and educators pursuing their work in a national park setting.” The Seashore’s partners at Highlands Center include Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, which built and runs a wood-fired kiln; the Atlantic Research Learning Center, operated by the Park Service often in collaboration with the Center for Coastal Studies; and of course Payomet, whose original proposal for partnership at the Highlands Center is based on the rehabilitation of the former Officers’ Club.

As of the Truro town meeting last month, Payomet is significantly closer to beginning that rehabilitation, with a $165,000 grant from Truro’s Community Preservation Committee and a $200,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. The community preservation grant is contingent on a long-term lease from the Park Service.

“We’ve had a feasibility study, engineering study, and architectural drawings done,” Rice said. “The building is one that the Park Service had enough money to put a new roof on about eight years ago, so it’s been kept intact. We’ll see what can be preserved and what needs to be razed.”

An award-winning playwright, director, and actor, Rice is currently writing a play about a day in the life of the radar station and the airmen there. “In the course of researching it I’ve learned a lot,” Rice said. “It’s fascinating, the role radar has played in the development of modern communications. They were doing a crude version of email in the 1950s, when computers were the size of buses.”

A piece of the building will be dedicated to the base’s history and the role that the Air Force radar station and the town of Truro played in national defense during the Cold War.

“There were 200 to 300 airmen stationed here on rotating tours,” Rice said. “They hung out; they played ball; they went to local clubs. It was very much a part of our community. The Officers’ Club is directly related to our activity at Payomet because we’re all about performing arts and entertainment.”

In addition to celebrating the history of the Air Force base, the building will be used as an intimate concert hall or black box theater, seating about 100 people — a size Rice says is perfect for Truro in the off-season. In speaking to musicians and their agents, Rice heard time and again that artists like the idea of performing in intimate venues. “If you present things in the right setting, and you treat people right, it makes a difference,” he said.

Payomet will continue to program shows at its drive-in through October and into November if the weather holds. Upcoming events include Sputnik — a New York band with an Outer Cape connection — on Friday, Oct. 16 and Sarah Swain and the Oh Boys on Saturday, Oct. 17.

“People can stay in their car, just like a drive-in,” he said. “It’s fun and cool and it’s not even break-even, but it’s allowing us to keep the flame lit.”

Rice says their capacity is still limited to 42, despite approved increases by Gov. Charlie Baker for low-risk communities like Truro. The small numbers have allowed the nonprofit to see the merits of tiny, connected shows and concerts, including humanities discussions, live music, and circus.

“Because audiences are so small, I can interact with everyone,” Rice said. “I walk up to them and say ‘Hey, we’re so happy you’re here,’ and they say ‘We’re thrilled you’re doing it.’ We’re not a nonprofit that only sees its donors and supporters once or twice a year. Our people want us to continue doing what we’re doing.”

On Oct. 24, Payomet’s virtual gala goes live, with cameo appearances from several of its artists.

“We reached out to musicians to do a video for the gala — Rosanne Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, David Bromberg, and a dozen others. The immediate response was very moving. They hit it out of the park.”

Rice says he has dates confirmed with 10 major artists for 2021, when Payomet will likely begin a capital campaign for the balance of the cultural facilities fund grant. The completion date of the restoration of the Officers’ Club is dependent on the capital campaign and the extent of the repairs needed.