Right before showtime, Beth Ann O’Hara would gather her “other children,” her New Thalian players, into a circle.
“You’ve rehearsed. You know who you are on stage. You know what you’re doing, and you’re going to give your best out there,” she recalls telling them. “All of these people have come here for no other reason: They’re out there waiting to love you. Give them the love back.”
Then, they’d squeeze hands and take their places.
“During that time, they were like my own children,” O’Hara said in an interview last week.
Indeed, many of them called her “mom” and her husband, John O’Hara, “dad.”
“Frankly, it was a benevolent dictatorship,” O’Hara said. “I knew more than all of these kids combined [about theater], and I knew what shows we could do well.”
And now, nearly 30 years after O’Hara started New Thalian Players back in 1983, the group is saying their final goodbyes. There are a couple of reasons for the departure. A lack of permanent home, for one; since Notre Dame College closed in 2000, it’s sometimes been called a “gypsy” of a troop, having staged shows in the Palace Theatre, at the Stockbridge Theater, at the Old Bedford Town Hall, in Veteran’s Park, and most recently, in the Walker Auditorium at Southern New Hampshire University. The increase in the number of NH theater companies and the growing expenses of putting on a show also contributed to the decision.
But rather than dwelling on this with sadness, players are instead looking back on their time with New Thalian with fondness. And they credit O’Hara in particular for this long, successful run.
O’Hara’s involvement with the Notre Dame College theater group began in 1983. A mother of four daughters — Jodyne Speyer, Susan Abramowitz-Silverman, actress Laura Silverman and actress and comedian Sarah Silverman (they’re all successful, and they’re all funny, O’Hara said) — she was working to finish up a fine arts degree at the time. She had minored in theater at Tufts University, but always loved it and followed it closely. Her philosophy professor and future husband, John O’Hara, asked if she’d like to help out with a production some Notre Dame students were working on. She said of course.
When she began working with them, they were coined the “Not Ready for Broadway Players,” according to the players’ website. O’Hara came up with the name New Thalian Players shortly after taking over. “Thalia was the Greek muse of comedy,” O’Hara explained. “To honor him, we decided to call ourselves the New Thalian Players.”
A few productions later (including You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Play On, Cinderella, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), she was waist deep in shows, costumes, sets and rehearsals, and fully devoted to this growing theater group that was turning heads. Notre Dame was a small college, so O’Hara invited community members to take part, too.
She became an employee of the school, which was good for the shows: every penny she made went right into making the production as fantastic as possible.
Their claim to fame
It was all in the details.
“I said, to get the best performances, you deserve the best costumes. You need to believe you are who you are,” O’Hara said.
So she put money, time and effort into perfecting every detail of each costume, of each set, of helping actors perfect each line. This is what made the difference, said Beth Fenske, who was the last president of the New Thalian Players.
“There was always that extra little detail she’d keep pushing, to make a costume that much better, to make a scene click. She’d never stop pushing until the show was the best it could possibly be,” Fenske said.
But this was the only way O’Hara knew. “We tried to get everything first class, the way it was supposed to be. Money was spent on old-fashioned phones, furniture, costumes. We did it as close to Broadway-quality as we could,” she said. “Since I was putting all of my money back into this, I wanted it to be worth something. I wasn’t going to do anything cheap or halfway.”
When Notre Dame College closed in 2000, Betty Thomson took over as director for O’Hara, who has had a run with some bad health. After that transition, Terry and Bill McKay were instrumental in creating costumes and sets, O’Hara said, and she also credited Tim Slaate for costume design, Lacy Long for set creation, and Pat Dezell for the 16 plays he directed.
But O’Hara was still involved in every aspect of the group, from their move to the shows they put on. She remained up-to-date on theater trends, too; when she saw a new show (like Steve Martin’s The Underpants) that she liked, she was determined that NTP be first group to bring it to New Hampshire.
Remember when …
There were some productions were better than others. One of O’Hara’s favorites was Into the Woods. This production had custom-made costumes made from the finest fabrics, the best they’d ever been, she said.
Joel Mercier, who directed NTP’s last show, Batboy: The Musical, remembers Little Abner, a show he acted in when he was a teenager. “It was an awful show,” Mercier said.
He said it was terribly written, based off a cheesy comic strip, but the production was fantastic. O’Hara fabricated each costume to look exactly like those from the comic strip. (Satin costumes, prosthetic noses, you name it.)
New Brain, too, was a favorite of his; it’s where he met his fiance. Beth Fenske also remembers getting blubbery and teary-eyed during one of the last numbers in this show, “I Feel So Much Spring.” The show was about renewals and beginnings, and it was their first show at SNHU.
Many people will remember NTP for the five years of free theater they put on with Theater in the Park, too. It was expensive, paid in part through Sarah Silverman and Friends, benefit performances that Sarah and Laura Silverman helped put on at the Palace to raise money for NTP.
“The heart of theater in the park was that people who could not afford to go see theater could see the classics for free,” said Aaron Compagna, who began acting with NTP when he was just 10 years old. (His only line in that production, Fiddler on the Roof, was “And I’m Aaron.”) “They’d grab their lawn chairs, sit on the grass and see a good-quality musical theater production. Most people who have money can see these, but this was a way to show the community members who can’t,” he said.
Alums remember barbecues at O’Hara’s, day-long rehearsals on Sunday, and the green room: a room for costumes, props, storage, and a never-ending supply of snacks and leftovers. Compagna remembers never having worked so hard to not laugh as he did in Oklahoma; halfway through a scene, someone dropped a rubber chicken onstage. On the NTP Facebook page, alums recall having met girlfriends, husbands, fiances, friends. NTP became a second family for members, and if their success was any indication — most of their shows sold out, and their last two, The Laramie Project and Batboy: The Musical, were nominated for NH Community Theatre Awards — the audience felt that, too.
“Theater is such a personal experience. We get so emotionally invested in it, which we don’t always do with other things. I think that New Thalian Players, when it was at Notre Dame college, represented something that was a really amazing getaway for people, to be able to invest in something that made them really happy. Sometimes you need these little breaks in life, and NTP provided that when it could,” Mercier said.