If all the world’s a stage, then New Hampshire’s performing arts have moved front and center over the past 10 years. Despite terrorist attacks, natural disasters, competition and a flailing economy, the arts have not only survived, they have thrived, according to many local performers.
Look around the state and you’ll see the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. The Peacock Players continue to instill a love of theater in Nashua kids. The bright lights of the Palace Theatre have not dimmed even in the shadow of the Verizon Wireless Arena, and the Community Players of Concord are experimenting with new performances even as they enter their 83rd year.
And that’s just theater.
“Recently, I was really surprised to see three different opera performances in a short period of time,” said Dave Murdo of Friends of the Concord City Auditorium. “Opera is still not that big, so to have so much of it must mean performing arts organizations are comfortable with their audiences.”
Many choral groups have become as familiar to New Hampshire audiences as living free or dying. The Nashua Symphony Chorus is celebrating its 45th year. Through that entire time it has been linked with the Nashua Symphony Orchestra, which was established in 1923. In Manchester, the Manchester Choral Society hits its golden anniversary this year. The Muchachos Drum and Bugle Corps is in its 50th year in Manchester and still gaining new members.
Still, while many organizations are doing well, they have endured a great deal this new millennium.
The decade began with tragedy. At 8:46 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two airplanes, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the World Trade Center and changed the psychological landscape of America forever. Suddenly, theater and entertainment seemed trivial compared to the enormous amount of loss being felt around the country.
Wayland Bunnell, president of the Community Players of Concord, said he spent that day and the days following on the phone calling people in New York City who were friends or family members of people in Concord.
“We were directly connected to it through our membership,” Bunnell said. “We had to make sure everyone was OK.”
On the phone Bunnell was inundated with stories of the tragedy. One woman he spoke with worked as a secretary and watched out her office window as the second plane struck the South Tower.
With such traumatic images so fresh in people’s minds, many wondered what role entertainment could play as the nation healed. Was it alright to laugh?
“There was great anxiety following the attacks,” Bunnell said. “But eventually people realized how valuable entertainment was to our lives. We’ve been entertaining ourselves since sitting around the campfire telling stories. We often take it for granted, like it is frivolous. But we now know it can have a greater value.”
This doesn’t mean things went back to normal right away. Bunnell remembered people being on edge during the holiday season performances and there were extra security checks. People were still wary to gather in public places.
Judy Hayward arrived in New Hampshire in 1999 to become the music director for Peacock Players. She said following the Sept. 11 attacks there was great sensitivity about which shows were to be performed. She remembered a show that was scheduled in Concord but that involved a beheading and so was quickly canceled.
Verizon Wireless Arena
It was around this same time that the landscape of downtown Manchester was changing. On Nov. 15, 2001, the doors opened to the Verizon Wireless Arena, a 10,000-seat arena just blocks away from the Palace Theatre.
The Palace was also going through a transformation. In 1999, affairs were in such disarray that closing the doors was not out of the realm of possibility. But it was also in 1999 that Peter Ramsey arrived to become executive director.
Ramsey had previously helped launch the Lakes Region Summer Theater in Meredith, and he would be instrumental in turning around the Palace Theatre. But in 2001, he had his reservations about the Verizon Wireless Arena. There were real questions about whether big acts would skip over the then-87-year-old, 840-seat facility in favor of the larger and more modern venue. In the end, these concerns failed to materialize.
“I think the general overall impact has been positive,” Ramsey told the Hippo back in 2002.
In fact, business boomed. In 2002, the Palace was already solidly booked through 2003. This forced some acts, like the now defunct Granite State Opera, to search for other venues because they couldn’t find available dates at the Palace. While this led many to try alternative performance spaces, it also led many to the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord.
NH Theatre Awards
This migration of talent was only the beginning. It was also during this intense period that the NH Theatre Awards were created. Many in the theater community pointed to these awards as the defining event in New Hampshire theater in the past decade.
“The NH Theatre Awards makes everybody sit up and pay attention,” said Toby Tarnow, artistic director at the Riverbend School of Theater Arts in Milford. “It is a wonderful opportunity for the community to come together.”
Rick Broussard and Matty Gregg conceived of the idea for the awards show while working together at New Hampshire magazine in 2000.
“There was a lot going on,” said Broussard, who is now executive editor of New Hampshire magazine. “There was more confidence that there would be support for an event like that. We asked, ‘Why couldn’t we have something like the Tony Awards in New Hampshire?’”
Broussard said Gregg had a good reputation within the theater community. Gregg also had boundless energy. All of these attributes helped put on the first show, which was held in the winter of 2002 at the Palace Theatre. Broussard said Manchester was the choice because it was a micro-Boston and the Palace had the right history and vitality to hold such a show.
The awards show will make its ninth appearance on Feb. 4, 2011, at the Palace. This will be the first year, however, that it will be led by its own board of directors. Broussard said when they first began, they didn’t know if the show was going to survive. But when it did survive, they wanted to find the best way to keep it going.
The awards have had a large impact on state theater for several reasons. First, winning an award matters. Broussard said many local actors who move on to New York City list their awards on their résumés. He said that is a good sign. Secondly, from the awards arose the NH Professional Theatre Association, which provides information on jobs and auditions for theater folk and also performances for the public. For the fourth year in a row, they will host an auditions and job fair, scheduled to be held on Feb. 26 at Plymouth State University. The job fair gives students and adults an opportunity to meet with theater companies and see what jobs and productions will be available in the summer and fall. Eight hundred people work in the theater industry in 2010, according to the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources.
But the theater awards’ biggest impact is the adjudication process. Since the awards are given by peers, each participating theater company has to have a group of qualified adjudicators who can go around and review other shows.
“Before this process, theater companies were much more insular,” Bunnell said. “Now everyone is traveling all over the state looking at other people’s works. It has created a much more vibrant atmosphere. There is great cross-pollination.”
This was part of the intent, according to Broussard. He said he hoped theater companies would come to the award with casting in mind and a group, like the Peterborough Players, wouldn’t be alone on an island in its section of the state and could mingle with theater groups in other areas, like Portsmouth.
Such exploration has led to a major change.
The game has changed
“Community theater in southern New Hampshire has become an actors’ game,” Bunnell said. “Most theater actors don’t mind traveling around to play the roles they want.”
Bunnell said this is a double-edged sword. He said because actors don’t necessarily work for a single theater company, companies can often lose the actors they’re familiar with. But it also means they’re exposed to new people from other areas.
“The landscape of theater has changed,” said John Conlon, a Concord-area actor with years of experience. “You don’t have actors or production people staying exclusively with one group. A large number are working with other groups, which is a very positive sign.
“It exposes actors to different audiences and audiences to new actors,” Conlon said.
While this improves life for actors, it can make it more difficult for production houses. Robert Dionne of the Majestic Theatre in Manchester believes the local theater scene has gotten much healthier in the last 10 years. As a result, he believes there are more theater companies out there. This makes competition for actors a little feistier.
“We have to work a little harder to get the best actors because there is so much opportunity out there,” Dionne said. “But it always seems to work out.”
One of the problems with too many people pollinating from production to production is that it can leave a theater company withered out. Bunnell said for any theater company to survive, it needs a dedicated group of individuals. Sometimes this group changes. For example, Andy’s Summer Playhouse in Wilton, which began in 1971, hit a rough spot in 2008 and almost closed. But three alumni came to its rescue. Jaimie Harrow, Mark Haley and DJ Potter grew up at Andy’s and believed their time there truly changed their lives. They also thought they weren’t alone.
“Andy’s has about 75 to 100 kids each year,” Harrow said earlier this year. “Over 40 years, that’s a lot of kids. We tapped into this huge alumni base and were able to raise money.”
Not all theater companies are so lucky. Several, like Yellow Taxi Productions of Nashua, which was formed in 2002, have already closed.
“It comes down to staying power,” Conlon said. “A lot of companies shine like a comet for a few years and then they’re gone.”
Meredith Borgioli, president of the Nashua Theatre Guild, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, bucks the trend and believes there are fewer theater groups than there were years ago.
“I think a lot have consolidated,” Borgioli said. “When they did that, they created stronger companies. Each one tries to appeal to a different viewer.”
One successful example of a merger is the Milford Area Players and the Merrimack Theater Company, which joined forces to become the Milford Area Players, according to Tarnow.
While some groups merge, there is still competition amongst other theater companies but it is has actually become more friendly than in previous years, according to Conlon. He said prior to the NH Theatre Awards, theater companies were more provincial and if someone were to work on a project with a different group it would be seen as an act of treachery.
Awareness of what other theater companies are doing helps push creativity. Conlon said companies are no longer doing the same old shows, like The Sound of Music. Instead, new productions are being performed. In the past year alone, M & M Productions produced Lowell Williams’ original work Six Nights in the Black Belt, The Jonathan Daniels Story; theatre KAPOW, which began in 2008, performed My Neighbor, the Poet, an original work by Donald Tongue; and Ghostlight Theatre Co., a nomadic theater group founded in 2004, performed shows that required a blood splash zone for audience members.
Conlon also noted that the Community Players of Concord recently performed the world premiere of Joel Mercier’s A Christmas Carol: The Musical Ghost Story.
In fact, Mercier represents a growing group of young talents who have experienced success in New York City or as professionals and then returned to New Hampshire with an energy to produce Broadway-quality work in the state. Another example is Jamie Feinberg, who is the artistic director for the newly formed Not Your Mom’s Musical Theater, which is geared toward a younger but adult crowd. Even Carl Rajotte, artistic director for the Palace Theatre, perhaps the most venerable arts facility in the state, was named one of the Union Leader’s 40 under 40 in 2008 when he was only 32 years old.
It should be noted that many of the above-mentioned theater groups are new, which seems to validate Hayward’s assessment that many new theater companies have started up recently. Hayward should know. She is co-founder of Stage Coach Productions, a new theater company in Nashua.
“There is an awful lot of theater in Nashua,” Hayward said. “Seems like most are doing well.”
Battle for space
While there may be more theater companies than 10 years ago, there is still the same battle for space. In 2003, Manchester-area theater companies were fighting for open weekends at the Palace Theatre. This is still happening.
Murdo said way back in 1991, theater groups had their pick of weekends at the Concord City Auditorium. Now once a month all the groups that perform at the Audi (this includes the Granite State Symphony Orchestra, Concord Community Concert Association, Community Players of Concord and others) gather together and have a sort of draft where they discuss dates and try to make everyone happy.
“There is great competition for space,” Hayward said.
In Nashua, the major facility is the Court Street Theatre and Hayward said there are four or five theater groups trying to get space there. She said it is difficult for theater companies to make arrangements with schools and she hopes that a performing arts center will be built in Nashua in the future.
With a shortage of facilities, many theater companies have found alternative venues in which to perform. Over the years Greeley Park has become a staple for summer performances with the Nashua Theatre Guild performing its Shakespeare in the Park series. In fact, outdoor performances are as successful as ever. Theatre Under the Stars became so popular in Waterville Valley that the group held performances this year at the Jewish Center of New Hampshire in Manchester for the first time ever.
George F. Piehl, a legendary local actor who founded Stage One Productions 29 year ago, has been using the Chateau Restaurant in Manchester for his dinner theater performances for years. While looking around for an appropriate venue, Piehl decided the open space in the restaurant provided the perfect setting.
“Small groups are finding places to perform,” Piehl said. “They use whatever space they can.”
Piehl said the Acting Loft in Manchester, which was founded by Christopher Courage, is currently using a mill building for its facility. The Nashua Chamber Orchestra, feeling the pinch in space in Nashua, holds many of its concerts in two locations, Daniel Webster College in Nashua and the Milford Town Hall on the Milford Oval, which actually has legendary acoustics. The Manchester Choral Society has held events in Elm Street restaurants in Manchester and even Barnes & Noble.
While theater companies adapt to their environments, there are new venues that are popular. The Amato Center for the Performing Arts, which is part of the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley, was built in 2005. It is at this theater that Tarnow’s Riverbend School of Theater Arts is based. Many groups from Nashua and surrounding areas use this facility. Tarnow said of the 4,000 Boys & Girls Clubs in America, it is one of only three that has a performing arts space.
Of course progress is often built on failure. Tarnow said the original structure was used for the American Stage Festival, which ultimately went bankrupt. Nancy and Paul Amato then donated about $1 million to winterize the facility, which the Boys & Girls Club was built around.
While new theaters have sprung up, some old ones have been re-invigorated. The Adams Memorial Opera House in Derry and the Rochester Opera House in Rochester are still showing performances even after close to 100 years. Theaters like the Pontine Theater and the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth aren’t new, but in the past 10 years they have grown to hold their own against the legendary Music Hall. In fact, their continued evolution has made Portsmouth the performing arts capital of the state and a desirable destination for people as far away as Manchester and Concord.
While many theater companies would love to have access to a theater like the Amato Center, actually having a facility can have its own problems. Tarnow said a few years ago, she was five weeks into rehearsing Carousel when the Souhegan River flooded and seriously damaged the theater.
“The show must go on,” Tarnow said.
Tarnow said the group found rehearsal space wherever they could in high schools, churches and a few living rooms, while the entire stage and 90 seats needed to be replaced. In the end everything worked out, but there was still a lot to worry about.
Conlon said the Players were lucky to have a facility of their own on Josiah Bartlett Road in Concord. Like the Amato Center, ownership has its cost. “At 11:18 a.m. on February 8, 2008, the roof of the workshop portion of the Players Studio collapsed,” according to the Players’ website, www.communityplayersofconcord.org. “... the set of our Feb 14-16, 2008, production of The Odd Couple — two months in the making — was destroyed, and most of the show’s props were lost.”
Everything was re-built and the production went on as scheduled, which shows both the resiliency and love of community theater.
Show me the money
Piehl said the reason there are more theater companies now than in recent years is that people who want to perform start theater companies. They are not looking at it from a business perspective. Piehl said if people were looking to truly make a profit, they would never start one.
“It is a great social activity,” Piehl said. “For community theater, it isn’t about making money. It is about having a good time. More of that stuff happens even in a bad economy versus a good one. People want to be with friends.”
It is an important note: even though the quality of performances has improved that doesn’t directly correlate to more ticket sales.
“Ticket sales are probably at the same amount [as they were 10 years ago],” Hayward said. “The quality of the show doesn’t determine if people are coming.”
In fact, Bunnell believes it has much more to do with the theater’s role in the community. He said to increase audience size by buzz is a slow process. If a theater company puts on a great show and you love it and tell 10 of your friends, maybe one of them will go to see it. It takes a long time for an audience to grow.
“You’ve got to tie together with local businesses and organizations,” Bunnell said. “That’s how you raise your profile and increase audience size.”
Bunnell said for community theaters, most of the people attending are from the community. He said rarely do people from Nashua travel to Concord to see a show unless they know someone performing.
Piehl would argue that most theater companies have seen a decline in ticket sales over the years. He said that is possibly due to the fact that there are so many choices for consumers but also because of the downturn in the economy.
This is something that infiltrated every segment of society. As many people across the country lost their jobs, money for entertainment tightened up. This was felt by both theater companies and presenting houses like the Capitol Center for the Arts.
Nicolette B. Clarke, executive director of the Capitol Center, said she had about six good months on the job before the economy turned in the fall of 2008 and early 2009.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh. What is going on?’” Clarke said.
Clarke said the Capitol Center watched as ticket numbers dropped. The Capitol Center wasn’t alone. Piehl said a successful theater company can only anticipate about 60 percent of its money to come from tickets. The other 40 percent must come from grants and donations. When money is tight the competition for those grants and donations also intensifies. Some theater companies suffer.
The New Thalian Players had provided quality performances in Manchester since 1983, but this year, due to a lack of funding, they had to cancel their Theatre in the Park performance.
In an effort to balance decreasing incomes, theater companies tried to maintain the same ticket prices.
“We haven’t raised ticket prices in the last few years,” said Borgioli. “We’re trying to keep things steady.”
Murdo said in the last three years people have been cutting back because they don’t have a lot of excess money for things. He said the Audi has tried to keep rent as low as possible, which enables its tenants, like the Players, to keep their ticket prices low as well.
But having low ticket prices isn’t enough to ensure the success of a theater. Borgioli said the Nashua Theatre Guild has looked into creative fundraisers.
The Friends of Concord City Auditorium and four performance groups that are based there have recently launched an interesting promotional idea that may take hold in other cities. Now if you buy season tickets to, say, the Community Players of Concord, you also get free tickets to one performance each by the Community Concert Association, Granite State Symphony Orchestra and Red River Theatres.
“The idea is to expand the community arts events and opportunities,” Carol Bagan of the Friends of the Concord City Auditorium, who pushed the idea, said earlier this year. “We hope to include more people than ever before.”
This opportunity also gives audience members more exposure to diverse programming, which, according to Clarke, is crucial. She said everything the Capitol Center presents doesn’t have to be inside the confines of the building. She said many edgier arts centers are going out into the community and hosting unique shows. One she mentioned was a performing arts piece at a museum that was happening between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. so people could come on their own time. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if more unusual programming is in store for many presenters in the future.
Technology strikes again
The audience’s desire for diversity is another factor theater companies have to contend with. Increased technology changes things.
“Digital entertainment has really impacted live theater,” Bunnell said. “It is a lot easier to sit on the sofa and watch a good movie on your 60-inch plasma television. We have to convince people to come out and see us.”
Clarke said years ago everyone watched the same shows and the same movies because there were limited channels and options. Now, she said, good friends have diverse tastes in music, books and movies. As a result, theater presenters and theater performers are left trying to diversify their shows. It’s less common to have one show that appeals to the masses; instead there seem to be more niche markets.
In a funny way, technology, which has created these niche markets, also makes them easier to reach. This is why the Capitol Center for the Arts is now broadcasting high-definition simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. Clarke said these performances have their own following. It is also why the Cap Center is promoting its Spotlight Café, which only holds 250 people — many regional performers draw smaller crowds. This may be another reason why Piehl’s dinner theater is going so strong. Dionne mentioned that the dinner shows at the Majestic Theatre have also taken off. These kinds of shows appeal to a certain type of person. Piehl said he has some people who have sat in the same seats and seen every show over the last 20 years.
While tastes have changed, so too have buying habits. Both Clarke and Bunnell said people are now buying their tickets much later. Bunnell said that while season ticket sales are declining, profits are actually rising because single-show tickets are more expensive. Bunnell also said this lends strength to his argument that having a good community profile is important because people are making their entertainment decisions later and so if your organization is visible enough, it can win them over.
Dionne has also seen the glass half full during the downturn in the economy. He said because people had less money they have decided not to go to Boston to see shows but instead have remained local. Dionne always believed in the quality of the Majestic’s performances. All he needed was to get people in the seats and he knew he could keep them there. This seems to be happening.
Business is booming. The Majestic, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, originally held shows from March to October to take advantage of the summer off-season of other companies. Now Dionne said the Majestic could be hosting 12 shows in 12 months, which is almost unheard of.
“New Hampshire audiences are very intelligent,” Dionne said. “They know good theater and want to see good shows.”
One of the best ways to make sure these shows remain good happens to also be a way to bolster the financial security of theater companies: kids’ classes.
“Even though theater audiences are aging, there is no shortage of kids who want to do theater,” Dionne said. “Youth programs are doing a good job.”
Tarnow has been teaching youth for years. She said when she put on her first production of Les Misérables in Milford she had to go into the parking lot of the high school to try and recruit kids. Now she has 50 to 60 kids at an audition and when the Riverbend School of Theater Arts performed The Wizard of Oz this year, they had two casts of 100 kids in each.
Hayward began her New Hampshire career by working at the Peacock Players, which has a 35-year reputation as an award-winning youth theater. She said many theater companies saw their success and the success of other teaching studios, like the Acting Loft and Kids Coop Theatre in Londonderry, and have tried to emulate them.
“First it provides a great opportunity for kids,” Hayward said. “Some of these kids have gone on to Broadway. But it also guarantees that adults will support them and put people into the seats.”
Theater companies aren’t the only organizations subject to cuts during tough times. Many school districts have had to make difficult budget decisions and sometimes the arts suffer as a consequence. This makes it even more important for theater companies to provide opportunities for kids.
Yet still challenges can arise. Clarke said many kids who participated in youth programs at the Capitol Center have now become adults. She said they associate the Capitol Center with their childhood shows and don’t realize it offers entertainment for them as adults. This underscores Bunnell’s point about the need to get your name out in the community.
The rest of the performing arts
Theater companies aren’t the only ones trying to court young talent. For the fourth year, Just Love to Sing, a non-profit singing organization, held an opera competition in Concord. This type of competition is rare these days not only in New Hampshire but nationally. As a result, it attracted participants from as far away as Maryland. This can be beneficial to the state for many reasons. Besides providing a boost in the economy, as these participants sleep and eat in Concord, it increases the state’s reputation as a desirable destination for the arts.
The Manchester Community Music School has been hiring new teachers all year and currently has the largest music therapy program in the state, according to Jeanine Tousignant, CEO. Since the program began four years ago, nearly 1,500 children with special needs have been influenced by the power of music.
One difference from theater is that a symphony or an orchestra can be completely influenced by its conductor. While the Nashua Symphony Chorus is in its 45th year, Jessica Brown, engagement coordinator, said the hiring of Jonathan McPhee as conductor has brought former members back to the chorus because they’re so excited about his direction. David Feltner, the conductor of the Nashua Chamber Orchestra, has also changed its direction and has the orchestra providing a wide range of music from new composers and obscure ones.
While a new face can inject life, it also pays to have a steady hand. Robert Babb has been the conductor of the Granite State Symphony since he founded it in 1994, and Murdo said the symphony’s most recent concert was performed for a packed house.
It was Murdo who was surprised by the recent surge of opera. While the Capitol Center and other venues, like the Music Hall in Portsmouth and the Peterborough Players in Peterborough, are showing New York Opera via HD, a full-time opera company couldn’t survive — the Granite State Opera closed its doors in 2009 after 10 years. Opera New Hampshire still holds two performances a year, but Faith Wilson, executive drector of Opera New Hampshire, said it is getting harder and harder to secure production companies from Europe because of costs.
Hard but not impossible, which seems to be the underlying theme of performing arts in New Hampshire. Give these organizations challenges and they will evolve.
“We are great survivors,” Bunnell said. “Challenges will come our way, but we will learn lessons. We do it because we love it. It isn’t a job. Until you take that love away, we will still be here.”