SPAC Stories

On Stage in Nature

by J.T. Wynne

How SPAC Created and Sustained a Perfect Combination of Performance and Nature to Create a Beautiful Environment

by J.T. Wynne

The 1980 Annual Report: Capturing the Blend of the Theater and Nature

What is it that makes Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) such an intriguing and beautiful place to visit during the summer performing arts season?

Some believe that the most crucial aspects that makes SPAC so special is the surrounding community and the performers that come from all over the country to be there. However, an important factor with which SPAC can evoke a feeling of serenity and happiness when a person is there, is the nature surrounding the amphitheater — over 2,000 acres which are home to towering pines, shrubs, grasses, lakes, streams, and animals. 

When someone watches a performance with their family at SPAC, it is easy to become immersed in the nature and lost in the music or play or dance. The nature that surrounds the amphitheater has been a presence at the performing arts center since its founding, as plans and photographs which ‘set the scene’ by putting SPAC on site appear regularly in planning documents, reports, and programs such as those seen here.

A 1966 Republican Party (GOP) ad in the Saratogian newspaper listed SPAC and the Spa State Park at the top of the “Rockefeller Team’s” accomplishments. Fulton County History,

SPAC and the SPA State Park

In fact, the creation of SPAC was driven by the attempt to preserve the nature inside the SPA State Park, where SPAC is located. In order to preserve the springs in the park, that were being drained by bottled water businesses, a substantial area with many of the city’s mineral springs was set aside to become a State Park and ideas began formulating for a performing art center inside it.

Detailed chapter outline of entire book (Ch 1-5 shown). SPAC Archive.

A 1991 book proposed (but never written) to celebrate SPAC’s history for its 25th anniversary told the story in its chapter summaries and also its suggested title “The Theater By the Brook (?): The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (?).” oThe outline sketches the troubles faced by Saratoga Springs in the 1950s and how the community developed the Park and SPAC to save the town as a tourist destination. Had the community of Saratoga not rallied around the idea of preserving the nature in SPA State Park, SPAC may never have been created. To bring SPAC from idea to reality, community members donated thousands of dollars, signed petitions, and hosted fundraisers to start the building of a ‘best in class’ (as current director Elizabeth Sobol reminds us) performing arts center open to the outdoors.

The trees, lawns, and springs that surround SPAC add an unusual element to a classical music performance. Eugene Ormandy, a longtime director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, signed on to make SPAC the orchestra’s summer home before it opened and visited SPAC every single summer to perform for over twenty years.

Saratogian article from April 11, 1964, two years before SPAC’s opening, with the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra touting the park setting for SPAC. Fulton County History.

Ormandy made it very clear to the early leadership team at SPAC of the importance of the surroundings. The director was quoted talking to architect Richard Leach as saying, “There is no sound more beautiful than that of a babbling brook.” The combination of nature and art is one of the main explanations of why SPAC has been some performers favorite place to perform.

June 5, 1968, article quoting SPAC President Charles Wait

Ironically, two years later SPAC dammed the brook, as Ormandy was concerned about its impact on the acoustics. While the setting is majestic, Mother Nature does not always play nice. The same article also pointed out that falling water — from the sky — could challenge the venue’s goal of packing the outdoor space, with weekend rains having lowered attendance at Special Events concerts planned to accomodate the public on SPAC’s lawn in 1967. And just a few weeks later, the paper reported that the generous applause of concertgoers to Ray Charles’ June 26 opening show could have been due to appreciation of the music — or a desire to stay warm on a cool spring evening.

Over the years, the Spa State Park and SPAC have worked closely together to guarantee a fun and inviting place to view the performing arts while protecting and preserving the surrounding environment. When SPAC has planned to make theater renovations or additions, contracts with SPA State Park guarantee that the preservation of the nature is not impeded on during the remodel of SPAC. For example, in the 1995 Rehabilitation contract, they called for

These restorations have allowed SPAC to become a place that the community has been able to come together for many decades and hopefully more to come. The surrounding environment provides a fun and inviting place the community can gather to listen to music, have picnics, or simply enjoy the surrounding views and sounds. SPAC is much more than a place to view the performing arts. SPAC is a place that a community can gather and experience a perfect combination of community, nature, and art.