Summer Stock - The Audience Sits In Pews At The Little Church Theater

Jul 31, 2015

The Little Church Theater in Holderness is just that.  It's a little theater in a former little church.  While its current summer season is charged with familiar Broadway mainstays, the playhouse also does something a "little" different.  In this latest installment of our Summer Stock series, alongside the big familiar hits The Little Church Theater puts on original works by New Hampshire natives.

One hundred years ago, most of the worshippers at the Sacred Heart Chapel in Holderness arrived by ferryboat.  Shuttled across Squam Lake, they stepped ashore on one of the Chapel's three docks.  But by the late 90s Sunday Mass had been suspended and the church was left vacant.

The Little Church Theater.
Credit Sean Hurley

It was about that time when Austine Howard and her husband George bought a camp house on the lake and noticed the dormant chapel.

"And we would pass this little church and it was never in use. Anyway I kept thinking what a perfect theater this would be."

So she tried to buy it.

"We'd reach out to the Catholic Church and we would reach out and never get a call back."

Three years later, the Church finally responded, agreed to the sale, and performed one final ritual.  

"They had to dechurch it. That's a word? I think so. They had to do something to desanctify it."

In 2003, The Little Church Theater opened its doors.  Its first play - an original work by a Los Angeles playwright.  

"My vision for this place was to bring something new and interesting and different to Holderness. Meaning actors from LA, actors from New York. It turns out it didn't end up that way. It's become a community theater and the community has embraced it."

Local audience, local actors, even local writers.  Playwright Jessica Davis says the Little Church Theater is just 7 minutes from her house.

Holderness playwright Jessica Davis at her writing desk with her dog Lucky.
Credit Sean Hurley

"It's really fun to work with these community actors. I mean they're fascinating.  These people who have other jobs and other lives but they live for community theater. The star of The Salon, Dan Mitchell, who's wonderful, runs a homeless shelter for 97 guests in Portsmouth."

Davis's The Salon is one of two original works the theater is producing this summer.

"It's a story of a hairdresser, Mario, whose salon is kind of crumbling around him. And his different clients, women of different ages dealing with different problems, all of which they share with Mario. And I guess the storyline is the way that Mario helps them through their issues and they ultimately save his life."

Still from the Video recording of "The Salon" with Dan Mitchell as Mario at left.
Credit The Little Church Theater

In this scene, 76 year old Florence asks Mario the hairdresser for advice, while being heckled about her age by one of Mario's younger clients, Coco.

"Mario, I need to get your opinion as an aesthetic guru and visionary. I'm thinking of getting a facelift. Why? Are you thinking of having an open casket?"

"That's what really sets us out."

Managing Director Dan Pelletier.  

"There are not a lot of places in the area that do original work. And that's one of the things that drew me into the Little Church. It's a huge necessity in the theater world to get new works seen because if you don't have new work you just get to go see Annie for the 50th time."

Managing Director, Dan Pelletier
Credit Sean Hurley

Which doesn't mean the theater would never stage Annie, but that they actively leverage the unknown with the known.  

"So if they come and see The Odd Couple and they say, "Oh man, I really loved The Odd Couple, that was a really good show," - if we can go "Well if you loved The Odd Couple, we're doing this original play in a few weeks and I guarantee you it will be just as much fun as The Odd Couple. I know you may not know it but take a risk on it." You got to build that trust."

This season, two original works - Davis's Salon and Nashua Playwright Lowell Williams Questions in a Quiet Cafe are supported by The Odd Couple and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, now in rehearsal. 

Adam Messinger and Jen Schaffner in a scene from "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"
Credit Sean Hurley

At the Little Church theater, the actors perform on a stage that was once both altar and pulpit. The stain glass windows remain as does the cross above the door.  The audience sits in pews in the former nave. Founder Austine Howard says current theatergoers are often former parishioners.

"The actors perform on a stage that was once both altar and pulpit. The stain glass windows remain. The audience sits in pews in the former nave."
Credit Sean Hurley

"They all go, 'Oh my gosh I used to go to this church! I used to kiss my boyfriend underneath this church. I love this church.' They just have wonderful memories and they're thrilled to see it being used in such a wonderful way."

It may have been de-churched, but as playwright Jessica Davis recalls an early table read with her gathered cast, the theater still provides a sacred space for the community. 

"And I said, 'You know I don't know about you but I'm creating a work of art.' And I felt a little self-conscious for a moment coming out with this statement like that. And I looked around the room and their eyes were filled with tears and they were all nodding. And I realized, Wow.  So are we.  You know, they said, So are we.

Summer Schedule:

The Salon: June 25-28 with a Command Performance August 5th
The Odd Couple:  July 30-Aug 1
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change:  August 15-17 & 20-22
Questions in a Quiet Cafe:  Aug 27-29

Visit http://www.littlechurchtheater.com/ for more information and a full schedule of the summer season at The Little Church Theater.