The first couple years of Wayside Theatre’s history are shrouded in mystery.
The theater’s documents say it started in 1961, “but there’s nothing that proves that the theater actually began in that year,” said James Laster, who performed in numerous productions on the Middletown stage.
Wayside’s apparent third season of 1963 is “abundantly noted” through reviews of its productions, Laster said.
That year, mention of the theater also started appearing in newspaper advertisements for Wayside Inn, which had been much advertised since 1962.
Though a 2003 playbill from the theater lists 1961 as the birth year of the Maralarrick Players, “to date, no evidence has been found that supports a 1961 season,” Laster writes on allaboutwayside.com, the website he created to preserve the theater’s history.
Adding to Wayside’s “mystery years” is that its later publications credit Owen Phillips as its first artistic director, though he did not arrive at Wayside until the 1964 season, following the “highly successful 1963 season” under the direction of Larry Gleason.
Laster, also a musician, historian, biologist and longtime professor at Shenandoah Conservatory, recently launched allaboutwayside.com to honor the history of the playhouse, which closed in 2013.
The website is the answer to a years-long effort to unearth the history of Wayside Theatre and prevent the disappearance of its stories from the collective consciousness.
“I worked at Wayside for about 10 years,” Laster said. “I liked the theater and always enjoyed working there.”
In doing the research to put together his website, Laster said he found information in unexpected places, such as the playbills that John Horan Jr., longtime local play reviewer and former editor-in-chief of The Northern Virginia Daily, kept over the years and later donated to the archives at Handley Regional Library in Winchester.
“There is no complete collection of playbills,” Laster explained, so Horan “filled up I don’t know how many holes.”
When it closed, Wayside Theatre was the second oldest professional theater in Virginia.
Until the end, it produced several plays and musicals each year, but the theater saw continued financial struggles that it couldn’t overcome following renovations to the building in the 2007-08 season, the Great Recession in 2008-09 and low attendance in its last few seasons.
After the theater closed, Laster said an idea by the building’s new owner to turn it into a brewery fell through, leaving “just a shell of a building.”
That’s “what really broke my heart,” Laster said. “I had some wonderful experiences on the stage at Wayside.”
Some of his favorites were playing the title character in the two-person show “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which he called “a very meaningful experience,” and playing Ebenezer Scrooge for several years in “A Christmas Carol.”
“A Christmas Carol” ran each December, often with more than one performance each day.
Artistic Director Warner Crocker would double cast the show, which helped prevent overworking the actors but also allowed more people to be a part of the effort.
Laster, who recalled doing eight performances a week, said the double casting allowed for the unique experience of working with a different cast in each performance.
In 2018, he and his wife moved to Delaware, where he lives about 20 minutes from his son.
Laster holds degrees in music history and biology from Maryville College in Tennessee, a master of arts in musicology, a doctorate in church music from George Peabody College in Tennessee, and a masters in library science (music emphasis) from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He also holds a certificate in organ from the Mozarteum Summer Academy in Salzburg, Austria.
He taught at George Peabody College, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, the Community School of Tehran in Iran, and the Beirut College for Women in Lebanon. He was also a member of the faculty at Shenandoah Conservatory for 27 years.
Laster said he was inspired to launch a site for Wayside’s history after learning in 2010 about a brochure created to recognize the 60th anniversary of Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. He asked about doing something similar for Wayside’s 50th anniversary.
“What I thought was going to be a coffee table book idea kept being canceled,” Laster said.
Then, after the theater closed, memorializing it in print seemed wrong, he said, so he decided on a website, which can be adapted with new information as it becomes available.
“I’m still very open to any additional information that I could come across,” said Laster.
While he plans to keep adding to the site, he said his main goal was in making it available to the public after so many years of research.
“So why not go ahead and launch it?”