By Adam Coughlin
The New England Regional Theater Festival, which will be held Saturday, March 5, in Concord, will celebrate the diversity of theater and will send a local theater company to the national finals in Rochester, N.Y.
New Hampshire held its state festival in September, and M & M Productions’ performance of Lowell Williams’ original Six Nights in the Black Belt and the dramatic reading of Animal Farm by the Milford Area Players qualified for the New England festival. While there are six states that make up New England, the festival only received entries from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. All of these festivals are under the umbrella of the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT), and so they follow a similar format. Each organization has 10 minutes to build the set, 60 minutes to perform and then 10 minutes to tear the set down, according to Charles Emmons, chairman of the New England Regional Theatre Festival.
Emmons said the plays will be judged by three adjudicators, two from New England and one from outside the region, on how well the various elements of theater are used. This includes such obvious things as the script, the directing and the singing but also subtler components like lighting. Emmons said some viewers struggle with this set of standards because they may believe one performance had the best actor and should have won but it didn’t because it wasn’t as strong in other areas.
Emmons said he must often answer the question: why should a theater company participate in the festival circuit? He said when many theater companies participate, if they don’t win, they just assume the adjudicators didn’t like their show and there was no way to improve it. Emmons said the reality is when you perform in your home town people are going to slap you on your back and say what a great job you did.
“When you go out to dinner with your friends after a show, they’re not going to criticize you,” Emmons said. “They’re not going to ask why you were doing a period piece but didn’t have costumes from that time period.”
This is the value of the festival. It allows theater companies unbiased feedback from someone who knows what they’re doing.
“It is a rare opportunity,” Emmons said. “It will give theater companies ideas about how to get better.”
The best of the best will compete against each other in June in the AACT Festival Finals. Emmons said he attended the Finals a few years ago and walked away with some interesting perspective. First, which may surprise many local thespians, he said community theater outside of New England is huge. While it seems like there are infinite theater companies in New Hampshire, many are small and operate on a shoestring budget. Emmons said some theater companies in the Midwest have multi-million-dollar budgets.
Yet the festivals are also a celebration of diversity. He said last year’s winner was a kids’ group from Washington state that was no larger than any New Hampshire theater company. This highlighted another of Emmons’ points. When he attended the finals, he saw nothing that was completely otherworldly.
“I have seen things in New Hampshire and Massachusetts that would stand competitively,” Emmons said. “There is no reason a piece coming out of New England couldn’t do well.”
Emmons said attending any festival can be a great source of inspiration. He said at the Finals he attended he saw a theater company that used lighting for its entire setting. He saw costumes that were completely elaborate and other settings that were built in five minutes. Such diversity is apparent in New Hampshire’s selections, which showcase Williams’ original play as well as a dramatic reading of Animal Farm, where the actors never go off script.
“Audiences will never get bored,” Emmons said. “If you don’t like the show you’re watching, just wait a little and there will be a change. Plus, these are the best of the best. They have all been vetted at the state level.”