Following the cancellation of their free Theatre in the Park performance this past summer, the New Thalian Players have returned and are stronger than ever. The longtime theater group has forged a new partnership with Southern New Hampshire University.
Such a relationship is nothing new for the Players, as they were connected for many years with Notre Dame College in Manchester before the school closed due to a declining enrollment. After the school’s closure the theater group tried many different avenues, according to Joel Mercier, an award-winning director who recently became a board member. These ventures included a stint at the Palace and striking out on their own. Eventually, they started a five-year run of outdoor free summer performances at Veterans Park in Manchester, which was a niche all their own in this area, according to Mercier.
But with a struggling economy and some construction, the New Thalian Players were forced to cancel their shows last year. Mercier looked at this as a blessing in disguise.
“I think it had run its course,” Mercier said.
Mercier said the theater group and the university shared a mutual friend and mutual goals. Southern New Hampshire University is growing by leaps and bounds, but those involved with the school wanted to make sure the arts and culture on campus were growing as well. The school was considering looking for a resident theater company, according to Mercier.
The collaboration is still fresh; Mercier said both parties are going through uncharted territories and the relationship has not yet been fully defined. Currently, the New Thalian Players are using the school’s space and are mentoring the school’s drama club. The drama club has its own schedule and this winter did a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. During their rehearsals, Mercier said, members of the New Thalian Players popped in from time to time and lent scenery and costumes.
“We’re slowly getting involved,” Mercier said. “We didn’t want to just come in there and act like we owned the place.”
Mercier is excited about the potential of the collaboration. He said he hoped the Players could host extracurricular workshops and master classes and that the Players and the SNHU drama club could work together on shows.
“Like a happy family,” Mercier said.
The timing and challenge of the New Thalian Players’ return performance has led them to use only people they’ve worked with in the past, so no students will be involved in their show, which premieres on Friday, March 18. Rehearsals also began in January when the school was on break. However, rehearsals have been open to students so they can watch more seasoned actors perform and learn from their preparation.
The New Thalian Players wanted to do something edgy but that would work with the new space and other limitations. This challenge was perfect for Mercier, who has established a reputation of being able to re-define a theater company as he has done with his work at the New London Barn Playhouse. Mercier also has a long history with the New Thalian Players — he performed with them when he was in high school before he struck off on his own to New York City.
The first production to pop into Mercier’s mind was William Finn’s A New Brain. Mercier described the performance as a one-act contemporary opera that has only been performed by a few colleges in the state but not by a community or professional theater company.
“It is very abstract and very weird,” Mercier said of the play.
A New Brain tells the story of a young composer, Gordon Schwinn, who is feeling blocked creatively. In the midst of this he finds out he has a life-threatening brain disease and will need to have invasive surgery. He is afraid that he may die with amazing songs still in his head that will never be heard.
“The reason I like it is because as artists we tend to get vacuumed into our one world,” Mercier said. “We may give up on relationships or going to dinner with friends because we focus so much on creating our art. This show tells us we need to appreciate our art but also to love our life.”
It does this in a variety of unconventional ways, such as through hallucinations of giant singing frogs, as much of the action takes place in the brain and not in real life. But such tactics are expected on a college campus, which is often a haven for creativity and experiment. Mercier was excited about that as the New Thalian Players would have the best of both worlds. They would have the freedom associated with performances on a college campus but also the talented and seasoned actors of a long-time theater company.
“We’re eager to see where this goes,” Mercier said.