With its new mainstage season, the Acting Loft looks to build on the success of last year’s Assassins and continue its reputation as a theater that challenges both its actors and its audiences.
It will do so by performing three pieces unlike any others being performed in the state, according to artistic director Chris Courage.
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens (Dec. 2-Dec. 4) is a musical theater piece composed of free verse poems and songs reflecting the lives of people who have lived with and died from AIDS, according to Courage. The show is made up of 30 monologues and eight songs. The songs will be sung by a core group of performers, according to Courage, but all of the monologues will be said by different people.
“It is a unique piece of theater,” Courage said.
Author Bill Russell was so moved when he saw the Names Project Quilt at the Washington Mall in 1987, he began writing monologues in the voices of characters who had died from AIDS. After the show, which was scheduled to coincide with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the Acting Loft will host a talk-back in hopes of engaging the audience in a discussion on the issue of AIDS.
Courage said he felt it was important to tackle such a serious topic because many young people look at the AIDS epidemic as a piece of history, yet the numbers of AIDS diagnoses are increasing in the United States, according for the Centers for Disease Control.
“It is a way to honor those we have lost and educate a new generation on the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and the challenges of finding a cure,” Courage said.
Such a decision makes sense artistically but Courage said he gives great credit to his board of directors, who supported his vision, even if at its surface it doesn’t seem like the most commercially viable choice.
But new board member and frequent performer, Katie Goodman said all of the pieces Courage proposed were pieces that challenged performers and excited audiences. Since the shows are different and technically difficult, she believes they will attract talent. They also make the audience think. She said last year’s performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, a musical that starred villains like John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, got audiences thinking and was a perfect example of how theater can be used to address social and health issues from a different lens.
“This season will appeal to both audiences and actors,” Goodman said.
Courage was particularly excited about the season’s second show, which will be a Granite State premiere. Next to Normal (Feb. 17-Feb. 19, Feb. 24-Feb. 26) is only the eighth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. The previous two winners were Rent and A Chorus Line. It was also nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009, winning three of them.
The show, which is a rock musical, is about a family dealing with mental illness and the impact that illness can have not only on the individual but on family members as well. The show is told almost entirely through songs, of which there are 30, Courage said.
Courage said because of the Acting Loft’s past shows, he received a call asking if he would like the rights to produce the New Hampshire premiere.
“It is a huge honor for us to get this,” Courage said.
The third and final show of the mainstage season is part of an Acting Loft tradition. Each year Courage likes to perform a piece by Stephen Sondheim. This year he will put on Side By Side By Sondheim (May 11-May 12, May 18-May 19).
“With Sondheim, every show is different,” Courage said. “His breadth and variety of music is so deep. He also deals with difficult subject matters and sets them to music that somehow just works.”
Side By Side By Sondheim is a musical revue of many of his early works, some of which — like Pacific Overtures, which needs a cast of 20 singing Asian men — are rarely performed. Courage said the show has a loose story but offers a huge acting challenge as the actors must take a song out of a musical — where it is likely to make sense — and make it stand alone through the actor’s own interpretation. For example, the actor may take a song like “A Boy Like That” from West Side Story, which is about a white boy and a Puerto Rican girl — a social issue at the time the musical was written — and make it more contemporary and transform it into a song about a cheating boyfriend or something along those lines that is relevant today.
Courage said the show would appeal to everyone because they could hear Sondheim’s classics like Gypsy, West Side Story and Follies but also some of his lesser-known material.
This tightrope is a critical part of the Acting Loft’s success, as it balances the artistic with the commercial. The Kids Acting Loft season will also give audiences a chance to see more familiar performances. From Oct. 21 through Oct. 23, they will perform Cinderella Kids, in November they take on Once on This Island, Jr. and in January they will channel their inner gangsters in Bugsy Malone. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a huge dance number, will be performed in April.