New Hampshire’s summer theaters offer top-notch plays in towns where the stage is a part of the community. And the actors who just thrilled you could easily wind up enjoying an after-show drink in the booth next to yours. Geographically New Hampshire may be off, off, off, off Broadway, but many would argue the summer theater experience here is as good or better than what you’d get in the dog days on the Great White Way.Sure, you can grab a $23 corned beef sandwich at the Carnegie Deli before you take your $150 seat at a performance of “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theater in New York, then empty out onto a hot city street and back to your $250-a-night hotel.You’ll get the experience of a big show with professional actors and crew. But you could also spend a lot less money in one of New Hampshire’s dozen or so professional summer theaters — see a great show, eat a fabulous meal, stay at a cozy inn and even climb a mountain, swim in a cool lake, bargain hunt at tax-free stores and spend a heck of a lot less.And you wouldn’t be alone. For decades folks from in-state and out have headed for New Hampshire in the summer to escape the heat of the city and to be entertained night and day.New Hampshire has a long, strong history of summer theater. Many claim this is where it all started, and despite economic downturns it’s still a huge part of our culture and our economy, according to Van McLeod, N.H. Cultural Resources commissioner and the former producing director of the North Country Center for the Arts. “Summer stock is great for tourism in New Hampshire,” he says. “People come here in the summer and live, professional theater is a piece of the attraction in addition to hiking, boating, fishing — all that New Hampshire has to offer.” McLeod says summer theater contributes millions of dollars to the state's economy and hires more than 1,000 full- and part-time workers during the summer. In addition, he says, many members in the community volunteer as ushers and other support staff.While McLeod says a lot of the visitors who come to New Hampshire summer theater are from out of state and out of country, many are intra-state tourists.“It’s not uncommon for a couple who lives in Nashua to drive to Portsmouth for a show and a meal and then come home that night,” he says. There is also a core of community support for summer theater, too. McLeod says while 75 percent of New Hampshire’s summer theater audience comes from out-of-state and in-state tourists, including summer residents, having a faithful following in their own community is essential to success.For example, he mentions the 84-seat Winnipesaukee Playhouse, which was founded in 2004 by sister and brother Lesley Pankhurst and Bryan Halperin and their spouses. The not-for-profit theater is in a strip mall, next to a post office in Weirs Beach. The theater is one of the few New Hampshire theaters operating year-round — in the summer with professional shows and the rest of the year with quality community theater.Sitting in their theater shortly before a recent show, Pankhurst, 33, and Halperin, 36, talk about their “little theater that could.”“That first season was rough,” says Pankhurst, who lived in London with her husband before moving to the area to open the theater with her brother. “We were going to the beach and people wouldn’t even take the free tickets we were giving away. But what saved us was four or five people who sat in that audience again and again. They were who kept us going. We have a strong, loyal, local following. We wouldn’t be here if not for them.”Mike Recht and Pat Cassidy, co-owners of the nearby Lighthouse Inn Bed and Breakfast, say not only do their summer guests frequent the theater, but that they are huge Winnipesaukee Playhouse fans. “It’s a small, intimate theater and the production level of the plays are excellent. We love going and our guests who go seem to love it, too,” Cassidy says.A season ticket costs $90 and the top price for an individual ticket is never more than $22. Those four or five people turned into a solid core of supporters for the playhouse — so solid that between them and summer visitors, they’re doing so well, they’ve had to turn people away for some summer performances because of space limitations. Now they have plans to open a new performance campus with a theater that is 10 times bigger than their current venue. The 11-acre complex, which will be situated at the former Annalee Doll property in Meredith, will also include hiking trails, storage, classroom space, outdoor performance space and a set and costume-design area.The project will cost about $3 million, but one couple — local patrons of the playhouse — has offered to match the first million raised, dollar for dollar.And while more theater is definitely a boost to tourism, it’s also a source of employment for New Hampshire residents. And as much as people enjoy seeing summer theater in New Hampshire, the actors love working here, says McLeod: “It’s steady work for the summer in beautiful surroundings. That’s amazing for an actor. Hard, hard work, but amazing.”Shakespeare in the ValleyPlymouth and Waterville ValleyThis funky 5-year-old troupe with a puckish sense of humor stages works by the Bard of Avon al fresco, the way they were first presented. In addition to Shakespeare classics like “Midsummer’s Night Dream” and “Two Gentlemen from Verona,” this year’s lineup includes “No Holds Bard: Sonnet Sonata,” an audience participation improvisation; and “The Interactive Robin HooDDD,” described as a “spoof-a-rama” based on the exploits of the legendary bandit with the heart of gold. (Season runs July 3 to Aug. 14, www.shakespeareinthevalley.com)Play: The Waterville venue is surrounded by mountain peaks and some of the finest hiking in the state. It’s also a mountain biker’s paradise. Stay: The Black Bear Lodge offers accommodations with a breathtaking view of the valley. There are also many condos for rent — try townsquarecondos.com. Dine: Places to eat include the Wild Coyote Grille, which is famous for its calamari and pan-seared salmon. Or you can just grab an Oinkle Kevin O'Morse (ham, guacamole, cream cheese and tomatoes on pumpernickel) at the Jugtown Sandwich Shop and Ice Cream Parlor and picnic at the performance. In Plymouth, the Italian Farmhouse Restaurant has a strong following for its hearty fare, as does Foster’s Boiler Room at the Common Man Inn, which also offers lodging in an ambience of a mountain lodge, especially in their signature suites.Nothing says cultchah like a snappy quote from ShakespeareWant to impress your co-workers in the adjoining cubicle with a glib line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or startle your relatives at a wedding reception with a pertinent quote from “Macbeth"?Shakespeare in the Valley with give you plenty of ammunition. This decidedly unstuffy 5-year-old troupe has been getting plenty of attention, both nationally and internationally, after a New York Times article lauded it as one of the few companies that perform Shakespeare the way it was intended — outdoors.Artistic Director Donna Devlin claims the company has put the “shake back in Shakespeare.” The productions are raucous and lusty, but not too bawdy, making them suitable for the whole family. The shows are performed under the stars, or under a roof if the weather doesn’t cooperate, at the “Women of Grace” Stage in Waterville Valley and the Riverside Amphitheater on Green Street in Plymouth. In true Elizabethan fashion, the troupe celebrates the communal aspect of theater so most of its shows are free for children 12 and under and “pay what you can” for their elders. Bring a picnic dinner if you want to add dining to drama under the firmament.The New London Barn PlayhouseNew LondonThis year the emerging artists at New London Barn Playhouse will present the evergreen comedy about a lovable lush and his imaginary friend “Harvey,” the hipsters rock musical “Hairspray” and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Pirates of Penzance.” In true summer stock tradition, plays are staged in a converted vintage barn including balcony seating. (Season runs June 10 to September 5, www.nlbarn.org)Play: For before and after theater fun, there’s nearby Lake Sunapee, a center of water sports as well as biking and hiking. You can take a cruise on the lake aboard the Sunapee II or go for a dip at the Mount Sunapee State Park. Stay: Lodging is also available at the New London Inn, which features fine dining. And you must visit the New London Historical Society, whose collection includes a small village of 19th-century buildings and more than two dozen horse-drawn vehicles. This is also a hot spot for antique hunters. Dine: The Flying Goose Brewpub, Nonni’s Italian Eatery or McKenna’s family-style eatery are among the dining choices.Seacoast Repertory TheatrePortsmouthThe 22-year-old Port City company is located in a former brewery overlooking the Piscataqua River. This summer it will present the urban Bohemian rhapsody “Rent” and the Elvis Presley musical “All Shook Up” on its thrust stage with stadium seating. (Season runs June 18 to August 29, www.seacoastrep.org)Play: A host of stuff to do — take a daytime tour boat to the Isles of Shoals or rent a tug boat for a private tour of the harbor. Investigate the re-created historic village at Strawbery Banke, sniff the posies at the showcase gardens at Prescott Park or shop till you drop in the city’s boutiques. Stay: If you’d like this to be a getaway with a teeny carbon footprint, stay at the Ale House Inn right next door to the theater. Your room always includes tickets to a show at the Seacoast Rep. Dine: The options are practically limitless in Portsmouth with more than 100 restaurants. But if you don’t want to get into a car, stroll over to the Black Trumpet Bistro or the Wellington Room, all a short hike from the theater.Palace TheatreManchesterThe 95-year-old former vaudeville house isn’t strictly a summer theater but it does have summer shows and offers the opportunity to have a hot time in the city. This summer’s season includes the Bee Gees musical “Staying Alive,” a concert by Recycled Percussion, local drummer boys gone celeb, and the pop group Big Head Todd and the Monsters. (Season runs year-round, www.palacetheatre.org.)Play: There are also arts and culture galore in Manch. Stop in at the recently renovated Currier Gallery of Art, the New Hampshire Institute of Art or the Millyard Museum for a dash of local history. Stay: The Radisson is within walking distance of the theater as is great boutique shopping. Dine: Like Portsmouth, the Queen City is restaurant rich. Some of our favorites are Z, Richard’s Bistro, XO, Ignite, Cotton and for funky after-theater snacks, head to the iconic Red Arrow Diner, open 24-7.Weathervane TheatreWhitefieldThe theater in the big red barn on the southern border of the Great North Woods has had performances since 1966. This year‘s musical lineup includes the ’50s rock hit “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “South Pacific” and “Twist and Shout.” (Season runs July 10 to September 4, www.weathervanetheatre.org)Play, Stay and Dine: The theater is not far from the Mountain View Grand, one of the state’s showcase grand hotels, where you can relax in the spa, play a round of golf or sample gourmet cuisine. Make sure you take time out to visit the town’s picture-postcard town green, where concerts are held weekly on the bandstand. Art lovers should check out the Old Mill Studio overlooking the green, where the work of more than 100 local artists is represented. Locals dawdle over their dinners at Grandma’s Kitchen, which specializes in unpretentious family fare.Peterborough PlayersPeterboroughThe venerable company will present a summer season that features the world premiere of A.M. Dolan’s “This Verse Business,” a play based on the life of New Hampshire’s own Robert Frost. Located in a converted 19th-century barn in the Monadnock Region, the Peterborough Players is one of the oldest summer stock troupes in the country. And you couldn't find a better location for drinking in the arts, eating great food and communing with nature.(Season runs June 23 to Sept. 26, www.peterboroughplayers.org)Play: Feel like a hike before the show? Head to Mount Monadnock. If it was good enough for Henry David Thoreau, it should be good enough for you. But if your idea of exercise is schlepping from one adorable shop to another, just head for downtown Peterborough. Dine:Then stop for lunch or a pre-show dinner at any number of great restaurants including the Acqua Bistro, Lee and Mt. Fuji or Pearl Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Need food for your eyes, too? Visit the Sharon Arts Center and the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center.Stay: Check out the theater's Web site for getaway packages that range from $200-$250 and include two Peterborough Players theater tickets, one-night double-room occupancy at your choice of the Jack Daniels Inn in Peterborough, the Hancock Inn, The Birchwood Inn in Temple or the Woodbound Inn in Rindge, two dinners and two breakfasts. You won't find a deal like that on Broadway.Winnipesaukee PlayhouseLaconiaThe company, founded in 2004, performs in an 84-seat black-box-style theater in the Alpenrose Plaza, a softball toss from Weirs Beach. This summer’s season includes the classroom comedy “Educating Rita,” Noel Coward’s drawing room romp “Blithe Spirit” and the romantic “Crossing Delancey.” (Season runs Jun 23 to Aug. 28, www.winniplayhouse.com)Play: Theatergoers can precede a show with a dip in Lake Winnipesaukee, take a trip on the MV Mount Washington or take a waterfront rail ride on the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad. Stay: Tired? There’s nothing better than a night at a comfy New England B&B like the Lighthouse Inn, constructed in 1939 by a shipbuilder who brought the Mount Washington cruise ship to Lake Winnipesaukee and three working lighthouses to the Laconia property. Dine: And if your theater getaway includes shopping and a spa in your hotel head to Meredith, which offers a variety of waterfront lodging and dining at the Inn at Mill Falls (Lago), Bay Point, Chase House and Church Landing (Lakehouse Grille). Other dining options include an ice cream at Town Docks or just grab a pizza at Giuseppe’s in the Mill Falls Marketplace.The Barnstormers TheatreTamworth It may be an official octogenarian this year, but The Barnstormers is as vibrant a summer stock theater as ever. Located in Tamworth Village in the shadow of Mount Chocorua, it offers a retreat reminiscent of an earlier era. The theater is in a store that was built in 1826, then converted into a theater more than 110 years later. It now seats about 300 in air-conditioned comfort. This year’s shows include the murder mystery “Wait until Dark” and “Ernest in Love,” the musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of being Earnest.” (Season runs July 6 to Aug. 28, www.barnstormerstheatre.org)Play: Fan of offbeat museums? Head to the Remick Country Doctor Museum and Farm. Stay: You can enjoy a car-free weekend just across the street at the Victoria-era Tamworth Inn. The Gilman Tavern Inn Bed and Breakfast offers theater packages. Dine: The Daley Café at the Other Store has breakfast, lunch and dinner on theater nights on a deck overlooking the river, or if you crave Italian have dinner at Chequers Villa just south of the village.Eastern Slope Inn PlayhouseNorth ConwayThe Mt. Washington Valley Theatre Company, which has served as a training ground for movie stars like Geena Davis and David Straithairn and director/short story writer John Sayles, will present its 40th season of musical productions in the 183-seat theater in the Eastern Slope Inn. This year’s shows include “The Music Man,” “Singing in the Rain,” as well as “Hair” and “The Full Monty.” (Season runs June 30 to Aug. 29, www.mwvtheatre.org)Play: Outdoor activities in the heart of the White Mountains are practically limitless. You can drive up the Auto Road to the highest peak in the Northeast or climb up Mt. Washington the hard way. If you’d rather get wet and wild, take a hike to Diana’s Bath and go for a swim, or settle back and take a mountaintop ride on the Conway Scenic Railroad. Stay: The Eastern Slope Inn offers theater packages as do the Valley Originals, a consortium of more than a dozen locally owned restaurants including Café Noche, Merlino‘s Steakhouse, Darby Field Inn and the Red Parka Steakhouse.Papermill TheatreLincolnThe Papermill Theatre at the North Country Center for the Arts is situated in the 107-year-old mountainside mill that first put the town of Lincoln on the map. This year’s shows include “Altar Boyz” and the musical adaptation of Dickens’ unfinished whodunit “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” (Season runs July 14 to Aug. 28, www.papermilltheatre.org)
Play: Athletic theatergoers can go hiking or biking in the White Mountain National Forest or race down a mountain on a pulley on an 80-foot-high zip line at Alpine Adventures. The less adventurous can take a scenic drive along the Kancamagus Highway or through Franconia Notch. Stay: Many ski area condos are available for rental — check out the Mountain Club on Loon or the Village at Loon Mountain. Dine: The Woodstock Inn has a microbrewery as well as lodging and a restaurant, and Fratello’s and Gordi’s Fish and Steak House are also popular dining destinations. For breakfast try Flapjack’s Pancake House on Main Street.Opera NorthLucky for New Hampshire-dwelling opera buffs, we need only head to Lebanon in the summer to get our fix. Opera North (www.operanorth.org), which has its home in the Lebanon Opera House, an 800-seat historical facility with superb acoustics, is considered to be one of the oldest professional opera companies in northern New England.Each summer the company presents two fully-staged operas — this year Puccini’s “La Bohème” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”Graduates from the Opera North Young Artists Program, including baritone Nathan Gunn, mezzo-soprano Jessie Raven and soprano Sandra Lopez, have gone on to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Boston Lyric Opera and throughout the country.Who was first with summer stock?With more than a few players the answer is not clearThe curtain was raised on summer stock theater in the 1920s when the newly mobile middle class motored to New England’s vacationlands in their Model T, seeking entertainment when the sun went down.The Granite State played a prominent role in summer stock history, that much is clear. But who was first? Was it The Barnstormers, the troupe that traveled from town to town? The Barn Playhouse in New London or the Peterborough Players? It depends on your definition of “first.”This much is clear: In 1927 Walter Hartwig, executive director of the New York Drama League and a leader of the “small theater” movement to bring the stage to the country, opened a summer school in Peterborough.Tickets sales at student performances allowed Hartwig to hire a few professional performers to serve as mentors, a business model that is still effective.In 1930 Hartwig moved the school to Bristol, Conn. In 1933 it became the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine.The Barnstormers Theatre, now based in Tamworth, was founded in 1931 by a trio that included Francis Gover Cleveland, the president’s son and teacher at the Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge. Mass. In its early days the company traveled from town to town, giving performances five nights a week. After World War II the troupe gave up "barnstorming" to perform in Tamworth.The New London Barn Playhouse claims to be the oldest continuously operating summer stock theater in New Hampshire and has the papers to prove it. Most other theaters shut down during World War II, but the in-town Barn couldn’t risk losing its zoning exception. Verifying documents are in the state's Register of Historic Places. The company was founded in the summer of 1933 by Josephine Etter Holmes, a professor of speech at Mount Holyoke College. Three one-act plays were presented at the opening performance. Tickets were 50 cents; pillows a nickel (they still are, with the funds raised through pillow rentals now going to support the New London Hospital).The Peterborough Players was also founded in the summer of 1933 by Edith Bond Stearns, an arts aficionado who converted an 18th-century barn three miles from downtown Peterborough into a performance space. This company has performed every summer since, with the exception of the war years when the theater was dark. Who was first? Maybe all that matters is that they all managed to last.
This article appears in the June 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine