Summer Stock - The Barnstormers Theatre

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There's plenty to do on a summer day in New Hampshire.  Go to the beach, go to the lake, climb a mountain.  But what do you do on a beautiful summer night? Maybe some theater. In his new Summer Stock series, NHPR's Sean Hurley is checking in with NH Theater Companies. First up he heads to Tamworth where rehearsals at the Barnstormers Theatre are already underway...

"Do you hear that static? Ha ha ha...I love that sound. To me it's the sound of a time machine starting up. All right now, visualize if you will - it's November 1928. You've just arrived at the doors of the Belasco Theater in New York City...."

I've just arrived at the doors of the Barnstormers Theater in Tamworth and already it's 1928 and I'm somewhere else.

Rehearsing The Drowsy Chaperone.
Rehearsing The Drowsy Chaperone.
Credit Sean Hurley

"Isn't this wonderful? It helps if you close your eyes."

But when actor Doug Shapiro opens his eyes, he realizes he's not going to be able to hit his next mark.

"I can't get to the tea.  Guys?  I can't get to the tea. Cause the curtain's down.
Hold...
Hold please. Do you want me to fight my way through the curtain to make the tea?"   

It's two days until opening night and getting to the tea is one of a hundred problems to solve during this technical run through of The Drowsy Chaperone - the first show of the Barnstormers 85th Season. Shapiro reads from a magazine as the tea problem is sorted out.   

"I am Man in Chair.  I'm sitting in a chair the whole show.   I'm the one that's relating the story of the record that means the most to me."

After director Robert Shea handle the situation, 1928 resumes.

The Barnstormers Artistic Director Robert Shea flipping through The Drowsy Chaperone script.
The Barnstormers Artistic Director Robert Shea flipping through The Drowsy Chaperone script.
Credit Sean Hurley

"Well we're opening with Drowsy Chaperone. Which is a play within a play. It's about a man who is a scholar of American musical theater and he supposedly is listening to an album of his favorite play from 1928."

Shea first came to the Barnstormers in 1980 as an actor and stage hand but for the last ten years he's been its Artistic Director.  He spends his winters reading scripts and listening to musicals and refining "the list" - the 6 works that will make up the Barnstormer's summer stock season.

"It's hard because it's kind of like designing a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers. It's almost like you kind of want to feel that a kind of personality is peeking out behind this menu of very different plays."

After clearing his choices with the board, Shea travels to New York and Boston to the Equity Auditions to handpick 75 performers to add to the core group of actors who live locally.  

"We basically audition nationwide and we just get these unbelievable young professional people who come in and they just blow people away. They just can't believe that a company like this is nestled away in the White Mountains of New Hampshire."

Shea runs down the summer schedule.  After Drowsy Chaperone, it's Good People, a working class comedy set in South Boston.

"And then we go into Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, who is probably the funniest American playwright in a century. Number four is Relatively Speaking by Alan Aykbourn. This was his breakthrough play. And then we go into The Hollow by Agatha Christie which is a perennial favorite and then we close with Urinetown, which is just an insane musical."

Watching from the back row, Dale Bragdon provides a quick history of the company she manages.  

"We are known as the longest running professional theater company in the United States. In 1931 President Cleveland's youngest son Francis started this theater. His father Grover had a summer house just a mile up the road and summered here."

As a girl, Bragdon would sell cookies on the lawn outside the white pillared Greek revival theater before shows - and then when she was old enough,  Francis Cleveland asked her if she wanted a job inside.

"He ran the theater from the day it started till the day he died but he was always here for every show, directed every show. His wife was here every night. It was really just an absolute labor of love. I mean they loved the theater."

Alice and Francis Cleveland, c. 1968
Alice and Francis Cleveland, c. 1968
Credit Barnstormers

As the next number starts up, Bragdon's focus shifts to the stage.

"This is actually my favorite part. I really love behind the scenes personally. It's really fun to see everybody running back and forth with their props.  There's an actress coming down the steps right now. It actually sometimes brings tears to my eyes."

"Places for the top of the show, places for the top of the show."

Silence and darkness until Doug Shapiro, the man in the chair, is hit by a spotlight.

"You know what I do when I'm sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the show to begin? I pray. Oh dear God let it be a good show. And let it be short. Oh Lord in heaven please. Two hours is fine. Three hours is too much. And keep the actors out of the audience. God I didn't pay good money to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears. I just want a story and a couple of songs that will take me away. I just want to be entertained. I mean isn't that the point?"

Summer stock theater in a nutshell.

The Barnstormers Summer Stock Season:

The Drowsy Chaperone: June 25-July 3
Good People: July 7-11

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: July 16-25
Relatively Speaking: July 28 - August 1
The Hollow:  August 6-15
Urinetown: August 20-29

For more information, visit the Barnstormers website: http://www.barnstormerstheatre.org/