During a recent trip to Chicago, to attend the 19th annual conference of the City and Regional Magazine Association, I had a chance to ride an elevator to the top floor of the John Hancock Center, I enjoyed a perfect filet at a classic Chicago steak house and had a cheeseburger at Billy Goat Tavern, made famous by John Belushi in the old Saturday Night Live skit. You know: “Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger. No fries chips. No Pepsi coke.” You don’t know? Ask your parents.
Anyway, it was a great trip but without many surprises (except how clean everything was) until I went to see a play at the Lookingglass Theater housed in the Chicago Waterworks building. The featured production was a quirky musical titled “The Shaggs Philosophy of the World.” Now if you don’t know about the Shaggs, ask anyone in Fremont, New Hampshire who didn’t just move up from Massachusetts in the last 10 years. They’ll probably have at least an impression of this odd band of three sisters who played off-key in weekly concerts at the Fremont town hall. The Shaggs recorded a 1969 album that is still in print (available from Amazon), was called “better than the Beatles” by Frank Zappa, and is an ongoing topic of discussion by audiophiles and collectors of “outsider” rock.
The Shaggs’ tale is too strange and wonderful to go into here, but maybe that’s my point. Why did I have to go to Chicago to see this local story immortalized on stage? With all the concern for protecting the state’s precious resources, forests and lakes, perhaps we should protect the natural resource of our state’s native stories.
After all, when one local writer named Ernest Thompson decided to try his hand at telling a great New Hampshire story, the result was a little stage phenomena known as “On Golden Pond” which became an Academy Award winning movie and a eternal boost to tourism and preservation in the Lakes Region community where it was filmed. (By the way, the Shaggs’ sad, weird tale has been optioned by Tom Cruise to be turned into a Hollywood film.)
According to Thompson, there is no lack of New Hampshire stories to tell. He even directs a writers group most summers, to draw a few stories out into the open and preserve them on stage. And there are lots of ambitious little theatres around the state looking for original works. Manchester’s Yellow Taxi Productions is one of the boldest, and new spots like the Winnipesaukee Playhouse are popping up as venues for local imagination to blend with local color.
Most natural resources are best protected by conscientious use, and I think this analogy holds with cultural resources, too. To help protect and preserve our stories, plunk down some cash to go and enjoy local theatre. It’s a fine way to discover your state this summer, since there are great theatre companies in every region. Visit www.nhtheatre.com for a handy list. And just keep your eyes and ears open. Sometimes the best stories are right outside your door.
This article appears in the August 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine