Inside the New London Barn Playhouse
“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” — William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”
*This story was originally published in June, 2014. Events in the sidebar below have been updated for 2015.
In the tony town of New London, in the waning days of July 2013, the town’s cafés and restaurants are full. Families are out on the streets for their nightly sojourn. An elderly woman sits on her front porch reading a paperback. A sign over her head says: “What Happens on the Porch, Stays on the Porch.” Up the street, though, at the New London Barn Playhouse, there’s another porch, and what happens there, it is hoped, will get out and around — perhaps all the way to Broadway. “The Barn,” as it is known, is the longest continuously operated summer theater in New Hampshire, and tomorrow night will mark a historic event.
For the first time the New London Barn Playhouse will open a never-before-seen original musical — the world premiere of “A Legendary Romance.” It’s a title that neatly describes what has been going on between the Barn and the New London area for more than 80 years.
In the parking lot behind the Barn, license plates from Oklahoma, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois silently testify to the miles actors and interns have traveled to participate.
When a love affair goes on that long, the romance is less about grand gestures and more about attention to details. That’s why Amanda Sheehan, the Barn’s company manager and publicity director, is just now carrying two loaded garbage bags to the dumpster — because it needs to be done. “Everyone works hard here,” she says. Ten-hour days, working behind the scenes, on the stage, or in the “tech” shop, are not unusual — it’s the norm at the Barn. Pedar Benson Bate, new at the Barn, says, “You live, eat and breathe the Barn … free time is almost non-existent. The system stretches every person to their limit, but no further.”
Just like a good marriage.
You might say the justice of the peace who presided over this marriage between such remarkable people and a special place is Norman Leger, a towering figure in the local professional theatre community. He died in 2006 but his 50-year history as creative director, bottle washer and impresario lives on in the very fabric of the curtains, the grain of the wood. As a reminder, when actors (affectionately known as “Barnies”) enter the theater, they pass under a sign that reads “Leger Alley.”
Each May, the return of the Barnies is a herald of spring to the New London community. Some residents even open their homes and become a second family to the new crop of interns. Emily Wisser, a first-year intern, knows she is in a unique situation. Many of her friends in other summer stock theaters have to pay for their room and board out of meager salaries. Here, she notes, her adoptive parents “invite me for dinner and let me catch up on my laundry. They are so nice to us.”
Such kindnesses resonate. To be a part of theatre is a nomadic experience that may find you with no fixed address, in many different places, and entirely dependent on who was impressed with your “one-minute” audition in NYC or Boston. It might even find you in the unemployment line if no one hires you. Peter Haydu, who is the lead in “A Legendary Romance,” says: “If you’re in this business, you’d better have a tough skin.” Meredith Lark, holding a brand new Equity (actors union) card, knows that being an actor means you’ll always be looking for work. Veteran actress Jenna Sisson, also in “A Legendary Romance,” says she is continually auditioning.
The odds of making it big are phenomenally low. Of the more than 1,300 players who have trotted the boards on New London’s stage, fewer than one percent have made it to the big time (i.e., a profitable career on the stage). That sobering fact doesn’t seem to deter anyone at the Barn. Their dreams are big, and they believe dreams come true. The Barn affords them the opportunity to hone their skills — but not much time. Actors rehearse each of their plays for no more than eight days before opening night. This is in sharp contrast to their recent college years, when they might be in rehearsal for months. Barn days are filled with work — in the scene shop, afternoon rehearsals and, of course, in performances that happen six days a week.
At the height of the season, Bate says, “Everyone is raw emotionally — almost like an exposed nerve.” But he, and his fellow players are not complaining. When the dim lights that hover over audience and actor come up full, “moments” happen. Some of those moments may last an actor, or a patron in attendance, for an evening, or for a lifetime.
For many on the stage, their moments began well before they came to New London. Bate recalls that as a child he was afraid to say that he wanted to be an actor. “Even at 9 years old, I knew that I’d probably be better off having a more concrete goal.” For Sisson that first moment happened when, as a young girl, she was cast as a Princess #12 “… way in the back row, but I knew then that’s what I wanted to be.” Bate, says, “Shows are like living things” — they are here for a time and then they die. That’s why closing performances are often so emotionally charged. The show becomes a lover that departs at the peak of the romance. The stage is stripped of any vestige of what was, and a dim, lonely stage lamp — appropriately called a ghost light — is all that’s left.
At the Barn, the romance is not confined to those on the stage. The tightly packed rows of seats create a sense of community and all are close enough to the stage to reveal the actors as real human beings with vaccination scars and beauty marks. The result is that, once the curtain parts, both audience and actors become involved in an intimate relationship. The soaring final note in a duet, the well-turned lines of dialogue, the raucous applause, particularly in the middle of a show, provide a release and reward that is immediate. It can be addicting for both audience and actor — the more involved you are, the more you need to be involved.
The power contained in such theatrical moments is a potent drug. Equity actor Thom Miller, also in “A Legendary Romance,” has heard the voice of reason saying to quit and do something safer. But, he wonders,, what if he’s quitting just “one audition too soon.” Sisson is emphatic: “I will not stop until it stops being fun. This is the only thing that makes me happy.” For many there are no back-up plans because, as one player put it, “If you have a back-up plan, you will use it.”
It may be for these reasons that heart and soul is inserted in every production every night, and is probably the reason the Barn enjoys a reputation as a place where quality work is performed. It has been awarded Best Musical of the Year at the New Hampshire Theatre Awards four five years in a row.
The honor is appreciated, but actors will tell you the true awards are memories cached in an imaginary suitcase that travels with the actor from town to town and theater to theater.
And sometimes the trophies come late.
When Norman Leger received the Francis Grover Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Hampshire Theatre Awards in 2005, he was 80 years old. After reminiscing about his 50 years of nurturing the Barn, friends and fans surged in the packed Palace Theatre as he was given a final ovation.
Theatre only works when you care. The audience has to care about what happens to the actors on stage, even though they know it’s “just a story.” Actors may not be friends, they may even be bitter rivals, but for the time they are together on stage, their fates are intertwined as passionately as lovers in a hayloft. Even backstage, the work is intense and requires trust and intimacy. Many lasting friendships are cemented. Sometimes those friendships grow to love and marriage.
Broadway giant Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Pippin” and others) met his future wife when he was the music director at the New London Barn in 1967 (see sidebar). This summer, for Bate, and his girlfriend, Lark, the fates conspired sweetly to bring them together for a summer in New London. It’s a rare gift, Bate says. “We have a wonderful relationship and a very strong foundation, but long distance brings stress to any relationship.”
For most actors, making a living requires continuous auditioning and travel, whether it be in road shows and one-night stands in cities across the country or in other regional theaters. Relationships, like performances, recede with time. Many from the Barn fight that. Amanda Sheehan knows that Barnies “tend to keep in touch … they get together in New York, find apartments together and communicate on Facebook.”
Most say that returning for another year at the Barn and New London is always a refreshing change, and for some, it’s a journey homeward. Matt Cohn, in his fourth year at the Barn, sees his time there as a chance “to get out of the city and all that noise, and decompress and concentrate on your acting.” For him, New London exudes a familial aspect and he enjoys the special connection between the Barn and its loyal patrons.
Faithful audience members let the actors know how appreciative they are during the “Porch Time” that happens at the end of each show. Actors and audience mingle on the porch for what Thom Miller calls, the “’joyed it line.” He explains, “Audience members shake your hand and say, ‘I enjoyed it.’” Some ask for autographs, others look for their favorites and others honor the actors by returning to see a show the second time and let them know it on the porch. Miller says, “You know you have a great show when people return to see it again.”
Each year, Artistic Director Carol Dunne chooses shows that she thinks will appeal to New London folk and regulars. She knows what packs the house — shows with name recognition and word of mouth. The line up is remarkably similar to other summer stock theaters and may include send-ups of “The Music Man,” “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Les Misérables.” This year’s sharp departure, “A Legendary Romance,” is a crapshoot. It’s an unknown original play that they are debuting, but the title is prophetic. The community’s long-standing romance with the Barn is enough to ensure that ticket sales are brisk.
The “regulars” are upscale middle-aged and older aged patrons, often with kids and grandkids in tow — most of them residents in the area. Sure, there’s not much else to do in sleepy New London, but that alone can’t explain the devotion. Why spend a hot summer evening scrunched shoulder-to-shoulder in a tiny barn watching a musical that they’ve probably seen before?
Lois and Tom Little, both transplants from New York and veterans of The Great White Way, offer an insight. It’s the play within the plays. Along with the vicarious pleasure of watching the comedies, tragedies and affairs of the heart being played out on stage, they enjoy witnessing the real-life stories of growth and change in the young actors as they find their way and fill their parts. Carolyn Wojtczak loves to see how “the kids come in May and how their performance levels increase, and how they gel as a group. It’s wonderful to watch.” The regular patrons constitute a fan club of encouragement, picking favorites to identify with and cheer on.
And the actors come to know their fans. They even know where they’re sitting. Eventually at Porch Time, actor and audience members can come together with more than a simple “’joyed it.” They begin to connect as friends, journeying through a summer of theatre like a band of adventurers. Actress Emily Wisser emotionally recounts the story of one patron who told her, “I think that your performance tonight, is the best thing that will happen to me all month.” Wisser adds, “Just to know you are touching someone like that …”
Martha Bristol, house manager and usher coordinator at the theater says, “Every summer, I say how can it get any better, and every summer it does.” She is not alone in her praise. Tom Little says he’s amazed at how much they do within their limitations. “After all,” he says, “it’s just a barn.”
But like a gnome who spins straw into gold, there’s obviously transformative magic at work in this barn. Skilled actors are able to transport older audiences back to their own days of youthful energy, struggle and triumph, and to point young audiences ahead to the ageless mysteries contained in a connubial embrace, a blood rivalry, a first kiss.
Wojtczak, like many other New Londoners, gets emotional on the last Sunday of each season. “It’s so hard to say goodbye,” she says. At the moment, though, that Sunday is far enough away, and tonight, the faithful have turned out for the world premiere of “A Legendary Romance.”
The house is packed, and when the lights come up on the show, everyone will be rooting for everyone else. The audience feels the excitement as the actors provide the spark that ignites a never-before-performed musical. The tiny stage overflows with the freshly minted characters as they take shape and become “real.” The soul of a new play spills into the audience like smoke from dry ice, binding everyone in its spell. In five days, “A Legendary Romance” will be yet another memory stored mostly in the hearts of those who were there to see it.
Where it goes next will be up to the writers and the producers and the fickle fates of the theatrical world. But here at the Barn, there’s another show in the works, another audience to win.
Soon the crowded walls of the Barn will have to find room for another group photo of another year’s cast of actors and interns — an array of the smiling faces that brought that play and so many others here by reawakening something in the hearts of those in the audience.
And when the last play of the season ends, that little red barn, and its porch will sleep for a while. And then spring will come and it will awake to the bright voices and eager footfalls of new and old Barnies, fresh and ready to continue their legendary romance with the people of New London.
Every spring since 1958, the New London Barn Playhouse has presented their “Straw Hat Revue,” a free performance packed with favorite show tunes designed to introduce the community to the new intern company. In 2005 they dedicated the entire revue to the songs of Stephen Schwartz, now a giant of Broadway (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” etc.) but who got his start at the Barn back in 1967.
Naturally, they invited him to attend, and he would have were he not traveling in Europe at the time. Undaunted, they planned a second showing for a more convenient date and Schwartz did appear with his wife and son. He sat in a balcony seat that bears his name and listened as the young theatre hopefuls sang for the full house (perhaps directing their voices toward the balcony a bit more than usual). The natural affinity of actors for the man who wrote their parts was amplified by song selections like those where the cast of “Godspell” sing praise to their Lord. Later The Schwartz (as interns took to calling him) mingled with the cast for photos and talk-back on their performances.
The connections in the theatre world never really end. This year Ciara Renee, a member of the Barn’s 2010 intern company, joined the Broadway cast of the Tony Award-winning “Pippin” revival, in the starring role of the Leading Player. — Rick Broussard
There’s something about a stage that makes people want to put on a show. That may explain why community and professional theatre in New Hampshire is so popular — virtually every town has a dusty old town hall where vaudeville was once performed or a new high school with state-of-the-art lights and sound just begging for new stars to be born.
But the Granite State also has an impressive history of professional theatre companies that started nearly a century ago and are still going strong. The year 1933 was significant, giving birth to the New London Barn Playhouse, now the oldest continuously operating summer stock theater in New Hampshire, and the Peterborough Players, which was founded that year in an abandoned barn by a woman of vision named Edith Bond Stearns.
The muse of the state is kept healthy by organizations like the NH Professional Theatre Association, which regularly hosts auditions of local talent for the professional stage, and the NH Theatre Awards, which has celebrated the best of both community and professional theatre in an annual awards night for 12 years.
Up north, in the bucolic village of Tamworth, you’ll find The Barnstormers, one of the longest-running professional summer theaters in the country, founded in 1931 by Francis Cleveland, the youngest son of President Grover Cleveland.
Photo by Rick Broussard
Stephen Schwartz and the interns of the 2005 New London Barn Company