The small theater is located in Cambridge’s Brompton Village and is named after the 1850s coal-mining coal mine where the parents of its playwright (Martha Henry) worked as employees. In the 1920s, it was owned by prolific Boston playwright John Forster (whose work, at the time, was mostly for radio), and in 1952, as the neighborhood changed, the theater was moved downtown and is now known as the Democracy Theatre.
The Coal Mine Theatre first met critical acclaim in the 1970s, when Mr. Forster’s father, John J. Forster, was a principal theater teacher at Harvard College, and its plays, with a slight bit of modernity, made their way into Harvard’s social circles. Mr. Forster’s father was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1958 and was thus well known in the theater community.
A young documentary filmmaker met Mr. Forster in the theater lobby in 1977.
One person Mr. Forster found on campus, a young woman named Caroline Faas, took an interest in him as well. It was at this time that Ms. Faas was working as a supervisor at John F. Kennedy Airport and the pair began dating.
The playwright and playwright’s parents, Mr. Forster and Jane Atwater, paid the salary of its ushers and usher manager, and Ms. Faas was a long-standing attendee. Their daughter, a Harvard graduate, knew the theater’s resident designer from her years there and wanted to direct there. She suggested Ms. Henry to the theater management to direct its production of the Little House on the Prairie musical. (The show ran for three years.)
Hitting a groove: Martha Henry directed an all-female cast in “The Wild Party” at the Coal Mine Theatre during the pandemic era. (Photos courtesy of the Coal Mine Theatre.)
The Coal Mine Theatre reopened in 1984. As a venue, it has offered everything from traditional plays to surreal comedies in seasons since.
Its audiences grow in numbers for some shows, and if the theater has the option of adding a certain number of seats, it always does so. The Coal Mine Theatre now has 175 seats. The situation is different than it was in the last decade, in the form of a large patron base, the coal mine’s current partner in the success of the theater.
But the show that stuck with them, “The Little House on the Prairie Musical,” would have gotten fewer spectators.
“I’ve been involved in shows that didn’t make it to Broadway and didn’t see the light of day,” Ms. Henry, a veteran of more than 100 productions, said of being involved in the Coal Mine. “But ‘The Little House on the Prairie Musical’ absolutely made its way.”
Martha Henry with the Coal Mine staff. (Photos courtesy of the Coal Mine Theatre.)
“People who saw it when it was brand new in 1978, they loved it,” Ms. Henry continued. “And then people who saw it when it came out of a highly acclaimed tour in 1988 and something very good, then the Marx Brothers’ Catskills Playhouse, loved it. That’s when people started to realize it was the right thing for us to do.”
Ms. Henry has continued to direct and produces shows for the Coal Mine, with shows like “The Little House on the Prairie Musical,” about its own success.
“The Coal Mine, right from the very start, was a place for a professional-level theater to exist,” she said. “And the most important thing has been for us to adapt to the changing landscape, so that our mission, to keep showing great plays at affordable prices for all to see. We think of it as a theater that’s a part of the community that can bring people into the city.”