Arts Alert: The New London Barn Turns 85

One of the state's most venerable theatres marks a milestone



george kelly
One of the state's most historic theatres celebrates a big birthday this year.

It's no secret that New Hampshire is home to some world-class theatre. Our "summer stock" playhouses, as they're known, have histories that date back further than their contemporaries almost anywhere in the country — and few have a more storied history than The Barn. 

The New London Barn Playhouse, located on the town's Main Street in (sure enough) a real onetime barn, is celebrating a major milestone this year: 85 years in business. "The Barn," as it's known, is the Granite State's oldest continuously operating summer theatre, and, even outside New Hampshire, few venues predate New London's. 

To mark their big anniversary, producing artistic director Keith Coughlin has assembled a lineup of shows for the summer that both speak to the theatre's past and give a nod to its future. The annual Straw Hat Revue kicked things off over the weekend, and the first mainstage production, Godspell opens June 14. Why Godspell? Because its composer and lyricist, the Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz, got his start at The Barn as music director in the 1960s — just a few years before the play debuted on Broadway in 1971. 

"I thought that was a really unique thing to have for our 85th," says Coughlin. 

Later in the summer, West Side Story will appeal to lovers of a good musical-theatre classic, and the season closer, On Golden Pond, will pay homage to The Barn's New Hampshire home. "We're proud to be a part of the New Hampshire community," Coughlin says. 

While The Barn is a great place to witness tradition at work, Coughlin says he's also constantly pushing the theatre into the future. Production values of the theatre's shows increase every year, and new technologies — such as assisted listening devices implemented for the first time this summer — are constantly being introduced to aid in the audience experience. The threatre's young company of actors also keeps visitors reminded of the future of the theatre. 

"The Barn is a training ground for future stars," Coughlin says. (In addition to Schwartz, New London alums include Rent's Taye Diggs and Les Miserables' Judy Kuhn, plus cast members in current Broadway hits including Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Dear Evan Hansen.) The 20-something acting interns are drawn from a pool of thousands of applicants from around the country, and their arrival each May heralds a new, vibrant season for the town. "There is a tangible energy that this youthful vitality brings to New London and to our building specifically," says Coughlin.

If you're looking for a place to find some stunning theatre this summer, you'd do well to grab tickets to this historical landmark cum theatrical fountain of youth. On the occasion of their 85th anniversary, the team at The Barn are also tipping their hats to a major player in the theatre's history: longtime board president Tom DeMille, who passed away in February. 

"[DeMille] really helped to navigate this organization to where it is today," Coughlin says. This anniversary season is dedicated to him. 

For a full list of 2017 summer shows at The Barn and more than a dozen other New Hampshire summer stock venues, see our Guide to Summer Theatre.

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