ANDREW PINARD’S HATBOX THEATRE CREATES AN INTIMATE STAGE EXPERIENCE
For Andrew Pinard, live theater is best when it is close. A resident of Bradford, Andrew is the owner, creator, and driving force behind Concord’s Hatbox Theatre. Founded in 2016, the theater is a venue for stage productions, musicals, comedy acts, and magic shows.
For more than 25 years, Andrew had wanted to build a theater and had searched for just the right place. His long-standing vision to own and run a venue for live performances was rooted in a desire to offer audiences and actors an intimate space to enjoy the theater arts.
The Hatbox took over a retail space at Steeplegate Mall that had been occupied by the women’s clothier Coldwater Creek. Andrew saw great potential in the small store. Once the deal was signed, a large team of volunteers undertook the retrofitting process, including installing raked theater seating and building a technical room to operate the controls for an extensive lighting and sound grid. The former ladies’ fitting rooms were adopted for use as the actors’ dressing rooms.
When I visited the Hatbox Theatre, I saw costumes hanging on several of the dressing room doors. A neat gray suit on one, a wedding dress on another. The original checkout counter is the ticket sales counter and concession stand. The center of the room, where racks of ladies’ clothes were once displayed, is now the main stage, flanked by 100 theater seats.
Out back, Hatbox’s office is small. On its shelves are 2,000 scripts, booklets that look like the shape and size of my high school CliffsNotes. This collection started when Andrew was a theater major in college. His eyes light up when he says he would love to produce many of them.
The building of sets requires a large area, so Hatbox rents another former retail space, the old Radio Shack store. They call it “the shack,” which also makes for a handy rehearsal space.
“IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME”
Andrew’s vision was to create a cooperative, intimate venue for stage producers, many of whom might not have other opportunities to show their work. The Hatbox offers a ready-made place to perform. In a way, the operation is a stage broker.
Right from the start, word of the enterprise spread rapidly. It’s a perfect example of the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” But how do they get producers to come?
Andrew adapted what he calls Pitch Night, based on a similar event at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth (one of the main sources of inspiration for the Hatbox). This is shared with potential producers through social media, recruitment, and word of mouth. Detailed submissions describing the project—whether a play, musical, or other—are required. Each submission is then reviewed through a protocol Andrew developed. He and his team read the proposals and discuss the artistic merits. Their guiding principle is high quality productions.
Hatbox has not had a lack of submissions, something that makes Andrew feel proud and humbled. In 2016, the theater’s inaugural year, there were slots for 13 shows. He was excited when he received several more pitches than slots. This year, he and his review team of 14 experts screened pitches from 50 production companies to fill 23 slots. Andrew admits it is hard to choose. Additionally, these groups have such positive experiences, that many wish to return.
A TALENTED TEAM
In 2017, Hatbox won several New Hampshire Theater awards for its own production of the musical BARNUM, including Lead Actress (Sheree Owens), Best Costume Design (Lynn Head), Best Director (Bryan Halperin), and Best Musical. The statue for Best Musical is displayed on a fireplace mantle, a set piece located in the theater lobby. With it are a Vision and Tenacity award presented to Andrew and a Best Original Play award (won by Hatbox leader Kevin Barrett, prior to his time with Hatbox).
The musical BARNUM traces the career of P.T. Barnum, the famous circus owner, also known as the Greatest Showman on Earth. Known for creating the first three-ring circus—dancing elephants in one ring, acrobats and trampolines in a second, clowns in a third—P.T. Barnum and Andrew appear to have something in common.
Andrew orchestrates many aspects of owning and running the theater: handling technical lighting and design, reading the scripts submitted by prospective producers, programming and other graphic design work, and managing operations such as ticket sales, scheduling, and maintaining the facility. With help from Kevin Barrett—who hosts and assists with programming and public relations—and host/stage manager Meredith Potter, there are many other volunteers who lend a hand to keep the Hatbox going strong.
Andrew also has his own stage career. He will be acting (for the first time in many years) in Invasion from Mars at the Hatbox. But his day job is performing as a magician, through his business Absolutely Magic. His sleight-of-hand show, Discovering Magic, can be found monthly at the Hatbox, as well as other performances throughout New England. One of his favorite acts is playing the 19th century, Boston-born magician Jonathan Harrington, which he presents annually at Canterbury Shaker Village.
Andrew’s talent for magic was partially inspired by a family friend, Uncle Ace (Ace Gorham), which led Andrew to perform his first magic show in second grade. It is clear, at almost 50 years old, Andrew still cannot get enough of the theater arts.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MAGIC
It is a source of great pride and excitement that Andrew has succeeded in achieving his vision in only a few years. Describing the Hatbox’s uniqueness, Andrew’s enthusiasm shines. If you can picture a typical retail store, you can imagine how small the Hatbox stage and seating area are. This is what Andrew wanted, a setting that offers a close experience, where both audience and actors can see faces and respond to microexpressions. Andrew is passionate about this idea and says the environment adds a level of energy that one has to witness to fully appreciate.
No microphones are used. Instead, actors’ voices are unaltered, or authentic. Andrew told me that he loves to see an audience hold their breath in response to an actor who holds his. This emotional symmetry is not always possible in a large theater’s mezzanine, where the audience is unable to make out the actors’ faces. “At Hatbox,” he says, “actors can be and not act.”
All of this is possible on a stage that measures only 20 feet wide by 24 feet deep, comparable to a good-sized family room. By comparison, Concord’s Capital Center for the Arts seats around 1,100. The Concord City Auditorium (the Audi) seats 875.
I experienced the sense of intimacy Andrew described during a Sunday afternoon performance of Love/Sick (written by John Cariani of Almost Maine fame). Directed by Bryan Halperin, the play was presented in eight vignettes. During certain scenes, my second-row seat placed me very close to the actors. At center stage, the actors were approximately 20 feet from me. At times they were less than 10. While I had not experienced this kind of theater before, the proximity provided a unique sense that I was not watching actors on a stage, but rather that we were together in the same settings. A kitchen, a bedroom, a front yard, and a supermarket.
I could see fresh stubble on one actor’s chin and sweat on his brow. I saw tears form in the eyes of one woman rejected by a lover, her red lipstick neatly applied. Their voices were natural and near, a desirable effect. Compared to amplified surround sound, it was as if they were talking directly to me. The play was full of emotion as it depicted several couples’ challenges—same-sex marriage, childlessness, and marital affairs. Whether funny, touching, or serious, the actors felt like friends, even family. Andrew is right! There is nothing like this small theater, and I had to see it to appreciate it.
If Love/Sick is a sample of the quality of other Hatbox plays, I cannot wait to return. After Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Amahl and the Night Visitor, it will be difficult to choose from upcoming shows, like Fade by Greg Parker and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. There are many more choices through the current season, which runs through August 2019.
For production companies looking to submit a pitch, the next deadline is March 4, 2019. I have a feeling the competition will continue to increase.
The excitement of adding new productions is something Andrew does not seem to grow tired of. He loves to stand in the back of the theater and watch the audience reactions as the artists stretch their talent. As Andrew says, “That’s the real magic!”
MORE INFORMATION AND PITCH INSTRUCTIONS:
270 Loudon Road