Andy's Summer Playhosue

“I hate children’s theatre.”

Strange words from a man who runs a children’s theatre. But Bob Lawson hastens to amend: “I mean, I hate what often passes for children’s theatre — condescending, contrived and simplistic.”

Andy’s Summer Playhouse is none of those things. It’s creative, dynamic and frequently challenging. Its plays are all original, and they don’t shy away from big ideas or political controversies.

Andy’s is one of New Hampshire’s longest-running children’s theatres, now in its 37th year. It is also a unique educational resource for children with theatrical ambitions. More than 4,000 students have taken part, many going on to serious careers in theatre; one alum, Sam Huntington, was on the big screen last summer as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in the new Superman movie.

Each summer, Andy’s enrolls about 120 youngsters between the ages of 8 and 18; tuition ranges from $150 to $600 for various Andy’s programs. (Some scholarship help is available.) Students get a full immersion in theatre: instruction, rehearsal and performance in Andy’s theatre space — the former Grange Hall in Wilton. “It’s not just creating original theatre,” says Margaret Baker-Salmon of Antrim, an Andy’s parent and board member. “They can work on lights or sets or costumes. They can work in the box office. They are exposed to every aspect of the business.”

If the 52-year-old Lawson doesn’t sound like a children’s theatre guy, he doesn’t look like one either. His head is shaved, his slim physique is often clothed entirely in black. If he were on TV, he’d almost certainly be typecast as a bad guy: hitman, rogue CIA agent or psychotic master criminal.

But his warm, genial presence instantly dissolves that image. Lawson is clearly comfortable with adults and children alike, and he imparts that comfort level to those around him — while at the same time demanding the best from his students. He is the creative heart of Andy’s, and everyone involved is profoundly grateful for his presence. “Bob believes the kids can do anything,” says Chuck Rolph of Francestown, father of two Andy’s kids. “And that belief winds up in the kids stretching way beyond. He just has a way of communicating that the kids very much respond to.”

Chuck’s daughter Melody is a good example of how Andy’s can develop talent and even change lives. When she was 9 years old, her older sister Katie was an Andy’s vet, but Melody was a shy child. “My mom told me I was going to the grocery store the first time I tried out, so I didn’t know I was coming here,” she recalls. Before she knew it, she was auditioning. She spent one year in the conservatory, a sort of Andy’s preschool for young talent; she’s now in her seventh summer in Andy’s. “We definitely saw a difference with Melody,” says her mother Jill. “Now she’s not shy anymore. She’s very confident.”

Andy’s can also have a salutary effect on grownups. Joan Sand is a theatrical professional in Portland, Maine; she was never an Andy’s student, but she’s been on the staff for 24 seasons. “If not for Andy’s, I probably would have left the theatre by now,” she says. “It’s a tough life, and sometimes it’s hard to remember what you love about it. Working with kids reminds me of the joys of theatre.”

Andy’s Summer Playhouse traces its origins to 1971, and two schoolteachers in the nearby town of Mason. Margaret Sawyer and William Williams didn’t have any grand plan; they just had some talented students and wanted to give them extra experience in the summertime. Their first production was “Cinderella.”

The name “Andy’s Summer Playhouse” is a reference to C.W. Anderson, an author and illustrator of children’s books who was a longtime summer resident of Mason. But nobody seems to recall how the group acquired the name. There’s no evidence that he was ever involved with the company, although it did enjoy the staunch support of another local children’s writer, Elizabeth Orton Jones, known in the community as “Twig” after her most famous character. Jones died two years ago at the age of 95. Those involved in Andy’s recall her with fondness and gratitude.

About 10 years after its founding, Andy’s took a big step forward with the arrival of Dan Hurlin, a New York performance artist known for edgy, original works of theatre. Joan Sand began working at Andy’s a couple years after Hurlin took charge. She recalls that “Andy’s was doing a lot of adaptations — mostly original adaptations. Dan started doing more originals in his last few years at Andy’s.”

About the time Hurlin was thinking about moving on, a New York actor named Bob Lawson arrived on the scene. “I was doing a sabbatical replacement at Franklin Pierce College, and we hooked up with Dan,” he says. That was his first exposure to Andy’s. After the sabbatical year, the college asked him to stay on; Hurlin asked him to direct one of Andy’s plays.

It was a perfect match. “I think Dan hung on for a couple of years, waiting for the right person to come along,” says Joan Sand. “Then Bob showed up, and he got it.”

Lawson became Andy’s artistic director in 1996. He had never intended to work with kids, but “much to my shock, I liked it.” His secret: don’t treat the kids like kids. “They’re all smart, they’re smarter than you think, and they’re willing to take many more risks than a lot of older actors.”

During Hurlin’s tenure, Andy’s was run on a shoestring. Under Lawson, it has become a fully professional organization. That has meant bigger budgets, more programs and the necessity of charging tuition. On stage, Lawson continued Hurlin’s move toward original works, often with an element of the experimental.

Each season, Lawson establishes a theme for Andy’s plays: “Picking a theme totally helps. It narrows down the endless possibilities to only a million.” Last year’s theme was “Invention” and they created “The Goldberg Variations,” which used a series of short plays to unite the Bach composition of that name with the mind of Rube Goldberg, the famous illustrator and inventor.

They also performed a musical titled “Leonardo’s Tank” about a teenage girl who is told that she is the sixth incarnation of Leonardo da Vinci, and restaged a production of “Tom Swift,” a play created about 10 years ago and co-written by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (who, coincidentally, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his new play, “Rabbit Hole”). In 2007 the theme is “Summer of the 19th Century”
If you attend an Andy’s play, expect a high level of performance from a company of talented youngsters. The play might challenge you or make you think — but not at the expense of entertainment. “The stories are often edgy and gritty, but they’re also funny and colorful,” says Board member Baker-Salmon. Or as the Andy’s motto says, “Theatre made by children, for people of all ages.”

It’s been a long journey from a couple of teachers putting on a summer show to the established organization of today. Along the way, Andy’s Summer Playhouse has enriched the lives of many thousands of kids, parents, and theatregoers. NH