Five shows, three judges.
Ten minutes to set up, one hour to dazzle and 10 minutes to disassemble.
The New Hampshire Community Theatre Festival is New Hampshire’s little theater secret. This year’s will be held Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Amato Cebter in Milford.
“We’re going on 41 years, and nobody’s ever heard of us,” said Jerry White, second vice president of the New Hampshire Community Theatre Festival. Theater people know about it, but few outside the community even know of its existence, never mind attend, White said.
That’s a shame. The festival is one of the bigger events for New Hampshire community theater. It has hosted as many as 12 theater companies in a given year. This year’s event features five productions. Think American Idol for community theater, with judges (or “adjudicators”) Caroline Nesbitt, founder of Advice to the Players in Sandwich; Kelly Morgan, former professor of theater at Fitchburg State and Dean College in Massachusetts; and Nancy Stone, drama professor at Franklin Pierce College. The festival includes judges from outside New Hampshire community theater, White said, to ensure an unbiased perspective.
While it’s true that each theater company is competing for a spot in the regional contest in February in Chelmsford, Mass., this festival is like a family gathering.
“What I’ve found is that it’s kind of like going to a high school football game. You may not always see the best team, but it’s your hometown team. And you’re rooting for the home team,” said Dave Agans, president of the Milford Area Players. The Players will perform Cabin 12, a play examining tension and grief between father and son. Actorsingers will present Love, Loss and What I Wore, vignettes from a woman’s perspective; Nashua Theatre Guild will perform City of Bones; Bedford Off Broadway will present Skin Deep, a story about a woman’s search for love; and Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England will perform the dark comedy Mr. Marmalade.
The entertainment is not just in the performance; it’s also in the judging.
“I think a lot of people enjoy hearing the adjudicator comments,” Agans said. People enjoy finding people to root for, as these people aren’t professionals, he said.
It takes quite a bit of work for each group to participate. The companies have to be creative in cutting multiple-act productions down to size for the festival — which also adds pressure to make each moment and each dollar count. Nobody here is doing it for the money.
Joe Pelonzi, director of Bedford Off Broadway’s production, worked with the actors and playwright Jon Lonoff to cut down their spring production of Skin Deep. They shrank the show from one hour and 40 minutes to just under an hour.
Pelonzi was lucky and got permission from Lonoff without much trouble. Often, this process can be much longer, White said, so companies will often choose plays that are already short. This was the case with Milford Area Players’ Cabin 12.
With less elaborate sets and fewer lines, it’s really up to the actors to move the show, Pelonzi said. Their facial expressions have to be more prominent, their gestures more pronounced, their parts more moving, to make up for the chunks of lines or scenes removed from the story. Thus, a large number of theater companies opt for dramas over comedies or experimental theater.
And while, of course, each organization wants to be one of the top two, who will represent the Granite State in the regional competition, what’s more important is the sense of community and the learning involved in the festival, Pelonzi said. Even though he’s directing one of the competition’s entrants, he’s also assisting another production in stage setup. Backstage workers from other groups will be assisting in the setup/disassembly of Skin Deep, too.
“We just want to put on a good show for the audience, and they’ll do whatever it takes to do that,” Pelonzi said.
There are goodies between the productions, such as a show by Larry Pizza and his improv troupe, and a “combat” workshop by actor Bob Haas, in which audience members will get a lesson on how to fight on stage.
This year is a bit of an “Olympic” year for community theater. Every two years, the American Association of Community Theatre holds a national festival where regional finalists compete; there will be one in Indiana in June. Every four years, they’re competing for a spot in the World Amateur Theatre Festival (also called Mondial du Theatre or International Festival of Amateur Theatre) in Monaco, France; that will be held in August.
White says he was initially dragged into show business by his wife — she volunteered for him to be a set builder way back when — but his passion is evident when he talks about the festival and the camaraderie, picking out old programs from 1976 to demonstrate. “Come to the festival, I’ll introduce you to everyone!” he says. Everyone’s welcome, not only theater people. “It’s five shows in one!”