THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE THAN NEW HAMPSHIRE FOR SUMMER STOCK THEATRE
Tucked away on country roads, in small villages, and off various beaten paths, summer stock theatres are not the easiest to stumble upon but are definitely worth the trouble of seeking out. For nearly a century, professional actors have entertained townies and tourists alike on stages in New Hampshire.
“One of the things is, you find theatres like ours in very unexpected places,” says Keith Stevens, managing director of the Peterborough Players. “We’re at the end of a dead-end road,” adds Beth Brown, Peterborough Players’ advancement director. “Three miles north of a really small town,” says Keith.
Most of the places that fall under the “summer stock” label are in smaller towns near seasonal vacation spots: mountains and lakes that draw city dwellers away from the hubbub of their normal lives. It’s a chance to see high-quality performances by professional actors just about as far removed from the glitz of Broadway as you can get.
“It’s just picture-postcard perfect,” says Bob Shea of the Barnstormers Theatre. “We’re off the beaten path; even though Route 15 and Route 25 go through a section of the town, Tamworth Village is about three miles off the main roads. So, people oftentimes find it’s an adventure to find Tamworth Village. But when people find it, they just can’t believe that it’s there.”
From the outside, most summer stock theatres don’t look like typical theatres, further adding to the adventure of finding one. Three are in renovated barns—like in the 1950 Judy Garland/Gene Kelly film Summer Stock—one was a former livery building for the sale of livestock, one is on the site of an old doll factory, and another was founded in a paper mill before moving to a new building just a few years ago.
THE BEGINNING OF A MOVEMENT
Some of New Hampshire’s theatre companies date back to the beginning of the summer stock trend of the 1930s, the Little Theatre Movement. “There are summer theatres in other parts of the United States, but it was invented here. It’s like maple syrup and lilacs. It’s just part of our cultural landscape,” Bob says.
New Hampshire was one of the first four places in the country to have a summer stock theatre. The Manhattan Theatre Colony came to Peterborough in 1927, before it moved across the border to Vacationland to become the Ogunquit Playhouse. But Peterborough wasn’t without a theatre for long after Manhattan Theatre made an exit state right.
Edith Bond Stearns bought a farm with an 18th century barn on Hadley Road and turned it into the home of the Peterborough Players. It will have its 86th summer this year. Edith ran the company for about 25 years before handing it off to her daughter for the next two decades. After that, a family friend ran the Peterborough Players for more than a dozen years. Keith and artistic director Gus Kaikkonen have run the company for the last 24 years. Beth, a granddaughter of Edith’s, recently joined the Peterborough Players in the new position of advancement director.
“The other point of differentiation: in 86 years, the Peterborough Players have been under just four managing directors,” Beth says. “When you think about anything that’s nearly 90 years old, to only have had four leaders is quite significant.”
As for the oldest still-active theatre company, that goes to a venue sandwiched between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains. The Barnstormers Theatre began touring in 1931 in the White Mountains and settled into a permanent home in Tamworth in 1935. “We are the oldest professional summer theatre in the United States, and probably the world,” Bob says of the Barnstormers.
Francis Cleveland—the youngest son of President Grover Cleveland—founded the company and was a Broadway actor. Tamworth had been the summer White House for President Cleveland, so Francis, who was five when his father died, was raised there by his mother, also named Francis, a philanthropic patron of the arts.
“He grew up there with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Maxfield Parrish, all these amazing people and famous writers who would visit with his mother,” Bob says of Francis Cleveland. “He was always in love with Tamworth. So he and a group of his friends from New York, and his young wife, came back to New Hampshire and founded the theatre company in 1931.”
The New London Barn Playhouse near Lake Sunapee will see its 87th summer season in 2019. “We like to say we’re the longest continually operating summer theatre in the state of New Hampshire,” says Keith Coughlin, executive artistic director of the New London Barn Playhouse. The New London Barn Playhouse technically opened a year after Barnstormers Theatre, but Barnstormers went on hiatus during World War II and screened movies instead of staging plays.
A NEW WAVE OF THEATRE
After the rush of new theatres in the ’30s, things slowed down a bit in New Hampshire and became more spaced out. The other still-operating summer stock theatres were all founded in the ’60s or later, though there were other companies, like the Lakes Region Playhouse, that came and went over the years.
Weathervane Theatre in Whitefield is among that next wave of theatres, founded in 1966. Like the older summer stock theatres, it’s housed in a renovated barn off the beaten trail, about a 45-minute drive to the nearest city.
In 1987, community members and business leaders in Lincoln got the ball rolling to renovate a former mill building into a theatre and cast four shows. And thus, the Papermill Theatre Company and Jean’s Playhouse were born. The Papermill Theatre building was torn down in 2009.
“The old building was just not going to hold up,” says Joel Mercier, producing artistic director for Jean’s Playhouse. “Unfortunately, they had to let it go because the cost to get it to where it needed to be was going to be too much money and not worth it. At that point, that’s when they decided to spend a few years at the Governor’s Lodge at Loon Mountain while they capital campaigned to build their own building.” In July 2012, the new stage with state-of-the-art facilities held its premiere on the site where the mill once held audiences watching plays from folding chairs.
The Seacoast Repertory Theatre was founded in 1988 after the Theatre by the Sea closed. It was originally a performing arts academy and added a professional theatre company later, says Brian Kelly, director of marketing and development at the Rep. All Seacoast Rep shows—30 of them on two stages in two states—are produced from script to stage by professionals from around the region and a little beyond, Brian says.
In the current millennium, the state has seen the creation of two more theatres. One is the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, founded by a pair of siblings and their spouses in 2004. In 2001, Neil Pankhurst, who is now the producing artistic director, decided after 15 years teaching about theatre in the United Kingdom that he wanted to work in theatre’s professional world. His wife, Lesley, was a West End actress.
The couple ultimately decided to move to New England, where Lesley’s family lived. Teaming up with Lesley’s brother, Bryan Halperin, and his wife, Johanna, the four founded the playhouse, first at Weirs Beach in Laconia and then moving to Meredith. “All of us had always liked the arts,” Neil says. “We were all, in some way, shape, or form, involved with theatre.”
Also in Meredith, the Interlakes Theatre began in 2008 and is a tenant of the Interlakes Community Auditorium (which it shares with the Lakes Region Symphony Orchestra, the school, and other groups).
“I’ve worked all over the country at many different theatres and I’m always impressed at how much professional summer theatre we have in New Hampshire,” Joel says. “You don’t necessarily think of New Hampshire in the same boat as Boston and New York, and yet, we have so much summer theatre.”
SUMMER ON STAGE
Despite the name of summer stock, it takes more than just a summer to put together the shows that will entertain crowds for weeks. After a deep breath in the fall to recover from the crush of the summer season, planning for the next year typically begins.
“What may be not be clear to anybody who comes to see a show in, say, August, is that the organization of that had started probably back in November of the previous year,” Neil says. “That’s when you start putting the teams together, getting your directors, getting your designers on board, and then having discussions to make sure the ideas of the designers and the director are feasible.”
There are plays and musicals to be selected and dates to set. “Our planning is kind of like flower arranging. Every summer we have five unique and distinctly different plays, but there’s something complimentary about the selection of those five,” Bob says. “From an individual point of view, we really want them all to be artistically interesting and artistically important in different ways.” By the time the planning is done, it’s nearly summer again.
New Hampshire summer stock theatres generally have four to six shows during the season. On average, they run for two weeks opening mid-week, like Wednesday, through the next weekend, usually a Saturday night or Sunday matinee. Some venues have a mix of one-week and two-week shows or two-week and three-week-run shows. The Weathervane Theatre has the most unique arrangement of an alternating repertoire, where there is a different show nearly every night with the plays having staggered openings throughout the summer.
While there is some overlap of employees, some plays can have a completely different cast and/or crew from the next. Typically, set builders, most costumers, and technical crews will stay for the whole summer. Directors will be hired for one specific play, sometimes a few. Set designers may be hired for one or two plays out of a season.
Two of the summer stock theatres in the state are full union playhouses: the Barnstormers and the Peterborough Players. Under Actors’ Equity contracts, a certain number of the professional actors must be cast in multiple shows. Bob estimates that about half the Barnstormers cast were there for more than one show. Other theatres aren’t required to have actors stay for multiple shows, but many do anyway for logistical reasons. In all, that’s a lot of positions to fill for just four months of performances.
ASSEMBLING THE CAST AND CREW
“One of the biggest challenges is hiring,” Joel says. “I have to hire almost 75 people a year who either come in for the whole time or for partial time between essentially four months.” He adds, “When you’re hiring, there are these wonderful things that exist all over, they’re sort of like job fairs for actors, called cattle-call auditions.” He continues, “Most theatres, not just in New Hampshire but certainly all over New England and sometimes far beyond, go to these cattle-call auditions. What’s tricky is when you’re hiring actors, you’re sort of competing for them as much as they’re competing for you.”
At the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, for their six summer shows, Neil says he’s looking to hire about 100 people. The acting intern company of primarily college theatre majors makes up most of the cast at the New London Barn Playhouse, and they remain all season. Meanwhile, a few seasoned professional actors are hired for individual shows. “We do an extensive search for both our performing interns and technical interns,” Keith Coughlin says. “I audition nearly 1,200 auditions to look for 14 or 15.”
Peterborough Players and Jean’s Playhouse both have simultaneous training programs for young theatre professionals who present shows geared toward children and families in addition to their professional casts. Peterborough’s Second Company writes and presents two plays during the summer at their home theatre, while Jean’s IMPACT Children’s Theatre tours various locations around the state with musical tellings of fairy tales. (You can catch the IMPACT Theatre locally at the Capitol Center for the Arts on Tuesdays).
MAKING IT ALL COME TOGETHER
Despite all the logistical challenges of planning for summer stock theatre, the most resounding challenge is time. “We like to think we’re creative people, so most shows that we want to do, we can find a way to make the dollars and cents in terms of the budget work, and we can find a way to make it fit in our space,” Keith Stevens says. “The thing we don’t have is time. Time is the most precious resource we have.”
With five to seven shows a summer, each running a couple weeks, there is no break. It is back-to-back-to-back rehearsals and shows for more than a dozen weeks. “Our actors are rehearsing during the day for the next show and performing that night for the current show,” Beth says.
“Because we only run Memorial Day to Labor Day, we try to fill it with as much activity as we can,” Keith Coughlin says. “There really isn’t a day when there isn’t something happening, whether it be in rehearsal or performance or sometimes both.”
It’s the same for every company. At night, the lights go up on the latest performance. The next day, you’re rehearsing for next week’s show. It’s the ultimate hallmark of summer stock theatre.
“We will start rehearsing at the end of May,” Neil says. “Fairly early in June, a couple of weeks later, the first show will go up, which will be On Golden Pond, and while that show is in performance, the next show—sometimes by the same actors, by the way—is being rehearsed. When the first show comes down, which for us is a Saturday night, you then have to put away that set, put up a new set, redo the lighting, redo the sound. Then by the Wednesday of that following week, three or four days later, you have another completely different show that goes up.”
The whirlwind time frame is likely why summer stock theatre isn’t everywhere. It’s tucked away in little pockets, old barns, and unexpected places, waiting to be discovered. “When I think of summer theatre, I think of a really fast-paced season, where we sort of grab all these people from all over the country who show up in little old New Hampshire for a few months to come together and put on these amazing shows,” Joel says.
PROFESSIONAL SUMMER STOCK THEATRE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE
Here are the places in New Hampshire that offer stage shows performed by professional actors primarily in the summer and the offerings you can catch in 2019.
104 Main Street, Tamworth
Damn Yankees (June 27–July 6), Laughter on the 23rd Floor (July 11–20), The Man Who Came to Dinner (July 25–August 3), Spider’s Web (August 8–17), and Things My Mother Taught Me (August 22–31).
Interlakes Summer Theatre
1 Laker Lane, Meredith
Funny Girl (July 3–14), Ragtime (July 17–28), Mamma Mia! (July 31–August 11), and Saturday Night Fever (August 14–18).
10 Papermill Drive, Lincoln
The Hound of the Baskervilles (June 20–29), Titanic the Musical (July 11–27), Cinderella (August 1–17), The Fantasticks (August 21–31), and Almost, Maine (September 5–14)
New London Barn Playhouse
84 Main Street, New London
The Pajama Game (June 12–23), Peter and the Starcatcher (June 26–July 7), The Odd Couple (July 10–14), Grease (July 17–Aug. 4), Catch Me if You Can (August 7–18), and The Marvelous Wondrettes (August 21–September 1).
55 Hadley Road, Peterborough
Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven (June 19–30), How I Became a Pirate, a Second Company show (July 22–July 20), Gertrude Stein and a Companion (July 3–14), Morning’s at Seven (July 17–28), She Loves Me (July 31–August 11), Cindy Reilly, a Second Company show (August 17–24), Dumas’ Camille (August 14–25), A Doll’s House Part 2 (August 28–September 8), and Rose (September 11–15).
Seacoast Repertory Theatre
125 Bow Street, Portsmouth
West Side Story (June 13–July 20) and Evita (July 25–August 24).
389 Lancaster Road, Whitefield
Weathervane’s unique signature is an alternating repertory schedule; see a different show almost every night.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (opens July 9), Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (opens July 10), Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (opens July 13), Spring Awakening (opens July 22), The Drowsy Chaperone (opens July 23), Bright Star (opens August 1), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (opens August 12), and Sister Act (opens August 21).
50 Reservoir Road, Meredith
On Golden Pond (June 12–22), Moon Over Buffalo (June 26–July 6), Avenue Q (July 11–2), Chicago (July 25–August 10), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (August 14–24), and California Suite (August 24–September 7).