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Summer Theater Debuts in Madison

Before texting, cellphones, television, and commercial radio nibbled into our leisure time, two young Madison women shared a dream: to start a summer theater, one of the first in New England. Combining their aspirations, they created the “Woodland Garden Plays.”

A wooded path behind the Wilcox home on Island Avenue led to an enchanted open place where the plays were performed. Constance Wilcox wrote the first garden play, Told in a Chinese Garden, especially for the setting. Staged in the summer of 1918, it raised money for wounded soldiers from the First World War. All the actors were from Madison.

Within a few years, the Woodland Garden Plays moved to an old barn on another Wilcox property, and America’s first barn theater began. Plays at the Playbarn were always performed as fundraisers for charities. All the plays were original, all the crew and actors were volunteers, and all the scenery and posters were locally made.

This group later evolved into a professional traveling troupe of actors, singers, and stagehands called the Jitney Players. Founded in 1923 by Alice and her husband, Horace Bushnell Cheney, it was headquartered in the red Talcott Bradley House (circa 1760) near the Madison green. They used a collapsible stage on a specially constructed Ford truck body and a second truck equipped with a lighting plant. The theater was a completely self-sustaining unit that could be set up anywhere. The company traveled north to Canada and south to Mexico during its eleven-year existence.

The actors included Constance and Alice and others who later became famous, such as Ethel Barrymore Colt, Hume Cronyn, Shepperd Strudwick, and Monty Woolley. Many members found the traveling experience was nearly as entertaining as the acting.

Alas, it all came to an end in 1930 when Alice’s husband died. The group stopped traveling and held their summer performances behind the Talcott Bradley House. In August 1934, Alice, as president of the group, filed for bankruptcy.