NH Theater is Back and Here to Stay
With no real box office receipts to show, no productions in rehearsal, and no butts in seats, it would’ve been easy to characterize 2020 as a lost season. But then, we’re talking about theater people
The curtain may have come down, but the actors, directors and producers in companies throughout New Hampshire weren’t about to throw up their hands and go home.
A note from the stage, then: The state of theater in New Hampshire is surprisingly strong.
“Last year, on March 15, when the state went into lockdown, our team got together,” says Brandon James, co-artistic director of the Seacoast Repertory Theatre. “We sat around and said that, even though we couldn’t have a live audience, we didn’t have to stop serving our mission. We just had to change our delivery method.”
In just a few days, the Portsmouth-based team completely renovated the 125 Bow St. theater, setting up a streaming TV and radio station that offered a number of livestream performances, classes and information sessions daily. Ten actors and crew members hunkered down in a voluntary quarantine — the theater’s co-manager even did their grocery shopping — from March 18 until the Fourth of July weekend. Before long, patrons were back in the theater — in smaller numbers, distanced and masked — but they were there.
“Just having a full audience has been really amazing, actually,” says Ben Hart, co-artistic director of the Seacoast Rep. “First, it was livestreaming with no audience in the house. Then we started opening up and had seven people. Then we’d get excited about 20 people in a 230-seat house. Now we’ve got 70 seats open, and we’ve had a few full houses at 60 to 70 seats and that feels packed.”
Back in “normal times,” says Hart, 70 was considered small. Still, he’s grateful for the return of any crowds, no matter the size. “The energy of the audience, even with that small capacity, it’s very exciting to feel that energy again,” he says.
As they do return, audiences have discovered a space given a bit of a shine during the pandemic: a renovated lobby, upgraded HVAC, an industrial air handling system with HEPA filters and a reconfigured interior.
Likewise, in New London, where the oldest continuously operating summer theater in the state is preparing for its 89th season, big plans are afoot.
“The changes are massive,” says New London Barn Playhouse President John Finck. “We shut down, like every other performing arts space in the country, but we used the shutdown time to undertake a massive planning effort and community fundraising effort to build a new barn. I’m driving past it right now, and construction is well underway for a year-round rehearsal and performance space that we’ve never had before.”
The new building will be attached to the original and much-loved New London Barn Playhouse, which was built in 1820 and is on the state’s Register of Historic Places. Funds were raised through the company’s Play a Part campaign, which Finck admits was launched with some trepidation, given the economic and social landscape as the pandemic took hold.
“To our great amazement, people came out of the woodwork to support this fundraising effort,” says Finck. The money raised will allow them to go forward with obtaining permits and “the blessings of town leaders,” he adds.
“We took a bad situation and tried to look to the future and not bemoan the present, and do what we’ve been thinking about for many, many years — to create a year-round performance and rehearsal space that we’ve never had before. We can now offer programming throughout the year.”
The project, expected to be completed next May, will also include renovations to the historic main stage, a new costume shop, a new set shop, and upgrades to the staff quarters. During the summer, it employs more than 100 people, making it the third largest employer in New London, just behind New London Hospital and Colby-Sawyer College — with which it has a fortuitous and beneficial long-term relationship.
This summer, the Barn will head less than a mile down to the other end of Main Street where it will put on a season of five shows under an open-air tent on the field behind the Ivey Science Center on the Colby Sawyer campus. The rotating shows, which started on June 29 and will wrap up on September 5, include “Shining On: Broadway & the Barn” (an original revue), “A Grand Night for Singing” (an evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein), “Anything Goes” in concert, “And the World Goes ’Round” (the songs of Kander and Ebb) and will end with “Always … Patsy Cline.”
“The community has been incredibly generous to the Barn, even though we were shuttered last summer,” Finck says. “The spirit of the Barn motivated people to give very generously to both our annual fund and our Play a Part capital campaign. And we’ve been overwhelmed by the civic spirit of the people in New Hampshire who have missed the arts and longed for their return.”
Taking shows outdoors has made this season feasible — especially for a company like Amplified Arts, a small for-profit theater company in Claremont, which typically operates in a modest, 60-foot-square space on the second floor of 31 Pleasant St., with audiences often just an arm’s length from the performers.
“We’re an immersive theater,” says Shelly Hudson, founding producing artistic director at Amplified Arts. “We’ll have 60 to 75 people per show before COVID. It was up close and personal. Audience members are feet, if not inches, away from performers. It’s very immersive.”
Safety precautions put an end to that last spring, so when the time was right, Hudson and the company took it all outside. The solution: Theatre in the Woods — a space in Moody Park that allows Amplified Arts to perform while maintaining a safe distance from others. Audience members sit in 15-foot encampments and are seated before the next group is brought in. It’s also off the beaten path a bit, allowing them to control foot traffic coming through. At times, though, they will be sharing the space with passersby.
“Sometimes people on one of the walking trails will come through, which is kind of neat, especially if it’s someone who may not know about us,” Hudson says. “But the actors are great. They’re so in the moment that they’re not really paying attention to what’s going on in the audience.”
This month, Amplified Arts will stage “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” its second production at the park, which was preceded by an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play (ahem).
The group opted to keep the space as natural as possible, deciding to leave light and sound equipment back at its Pleasant Street space.
“We do, on occasion, compete with the hang gliders, but luckily by evening that’s calmed down a bit,” she says.
While the pandemic did affect every aspect of the state’s arts community, it hit some differently.
“We’re so small and we don’t have a lot of overhead, so that piece of COVID didn’t hit us as hard as it hit other venues in the state who do have a lot of overhead,” Hudson says. “Being flexible was great for us. But because we are so small, finding a way to incorporate that online piece was a challenge.”
In Tamworth, The Barnstormers are also venturing out into nature. The company normally inhabits a Main Street theater with a 28-foot proscenium stage and 282 seats. This year, though, The Barnstormers will perform on an outdoor stage on the lawn of the Tamworth History Center — just adjacent to its 86-year-old home — starting with, appropriately, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Interim Artistic Director Joe Longthorne — a 2018 Tony Award-winner for his work co-producing “The Band’s Visit” — points out that the history of “Our Town” is interesting in that it speaks directly to colloquial small-town America and specifically the small-town New Hampshire experience. And more specifically, The Barnstormers Theater was founded by Francis Cleveland — youngest child of President Grover Cleveland and an actor who appeared in the original production of “Our Town” on Broadway and on The Barnstormer stage many times over the years.
“For me, I’ve always loved this play, and I think it’s a perfect play for this moment,” says Longthorne. “It’s a play that celebrates every moment of life. We, as an audience, get to peek into this small-town story and appreciate the small moments in life that are happening constantly — and we’re missing them constantly. You get to zoom in and appreciate our community and the people around us. It’s a great post-pandemic story.
Moving to an outdoor venue is a big change for The Barnstormers, says Long-thorne, but he’s optimistic.
“We’ve never done this before, and the beauty of doing ‘Our Town’ in a space like that is exciting,” he says. “In the opening of ‘Our Town,’ the stage manager is running through the layout of the town, saying, ‘Over there is the town church,’ and the Tamworth Congregational Church is right there. It’s exciting to be on Main Street in Tamworth with the town as our scenery and backdrop.”
The Barnstormers took advantage of the downtime to complete cosmetic upgrades to the roof, electrical upgrades and exterior paint. According to The Barnstormer plan, these fixes will mean ongoing annual repairs will become less necessary, as will buckets.
Forty-five minutes away on the far side of the big lake, Laconia’s Colonial Theatre is nearing the completion of a major, painstaking renovation that will see the 107-year-old space returned to its gilded past.
“It’s amazing,” says Bryan Halperin, Powerhouse Theatre collaborative producer. “They really have taken every care to restore the gilding and painting to its 1914 original appearance. It’s quite an astounding restoration.”
The theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, features its original layout — orchestra pit, balcony, tiered box seating, restored original ornamentation and frescoes, a “1914” medallion over the stage, and soaring, ornately decorated ceilings. A classic marquee hangs over the entrance, which leads to birch doorways, brass hardware and marble details around arched windows over terrazzo floors.
“It’s really about the total of the details,” Halperin says. “It’s very elaborate, as the theaters of that period were. Nobody makes theaters like that anymore. The Nashua Performing Arts Center is going to be a completely modern theater. This is the antithesis of that. Everything is updated for code in terms of aisle widths and seat sizes, but beyond that, the walls, proscenium, ceiling — it’s like walking into 1914. The whole package is quite unusual. It looks like a brand-new theater, fresh and new, but in a style nobody makes anymore.”
Halperin and his wife Johanna are producers of the Powerhouse Theatre Collaborative, a theater program of the nonprofit Belknap Mill. The Collaborative will perform more intimate productions at the Belknap Mill and larger, fullscale productions as the resident theater company of the Colonial. Its first work at the newly renovated theater will be Neil Simon’s “Dinner Party” — a piece chosen for very specific reasons.
“It was absolutely purposeful, and the reason we chose it is twofold,” Halperin says of the collaboration between the Powerhouse Theatre Collaborative and the Community Players of Concord. “I was supposed to direct it at the Hatbox in Concord last spring. We had our scripts, we had our first read-through, and that’s when everything shut down. We had a great cast, we were already sort of booted once before we had a chance to do it, and I knew they could handle it if we couldn’t open for whatever reason,” he says. Plus,
there are only six actors, allowing for greater flexibility if they needed to reschedule.
“Secondly, it’s a comedy,” says Halperin. “It’s not heavy. It’s short, without and intermission, so we don’t have to worry bout lines at the bathroom, which were discouraged during the pandemic. It fit all the criteria of a relatively safe show to do coming out of the pandemic.”
With the summer season now in full swing, the focus is on safety and recovery — both financial and artistic. For Halperin, a successful season would be one where all the participants enjoy the experience and come out of it healthy, and audience sizes grow over time. It’s a common sentiment.
“We hope for happy patrons with a renewed appreciation for the role arts play in our society,” Finck says. “That, and a full house and lots of applause.”
The Seacoast Repertory has made it a season long focus.
“‘2021 Recovery’ is the theme,” Hart says. “For the emotional, spiritual and mental recovery and well-being of our community and the planet as a whole. We picked shows with that message in mind. We wanted to get on our soapbox this season and say that the arts are essential and can give people a feeling of well-being and can help with people’s mental health. It can help restore a feeling of normalcy and can be a cathartic sharing of emotions. The arts should not be pushed aside as just entertainment.”