Summer Stock - The New London Barn Playhouse

Jul 3, 2015

NHPR's Sean Hurley continues his Summer Stock series with a visit to the New London Barn Playhouse, a theater known for cultivating young talent.  The actress Laura Linney credits the Barn with her love of theater.  Broadway legend Steven Schwartz, creator of Godspell and Wicked, got his start there.  And as Sean discovered, there's even a well known NPR reporter who once graced the stage of the old Barn.

The driveway of the New London Barn Playhouse is alive with the sound of The Sound of Music sets being created.

"One of the challenges we have at the Barn is that we really don't have a modern set shop. What happens is a lot of stuff ends up being made in the driveway."

Rozzy Isquith painting arches for The Sound of Music
Credit Sean Hurley

Tom DeMille, President of the theater's board, checks in with set designer Rozzy Isquith, who sits on the driveway painting archways.

"I am making fake molding out of cardboard fabric and glue and paint. This is for Sound of Music. I know some nuns stand and sing in them.
She works round-the-clock. I've never been in the theater when she wasn't there. 10 o'clock at night, 6 o'clock in the morning."

The New London Barn Playhouse
Credit Sean Hurley

DeMille leads me through the back entrance of the Barn into a small alcove lined with black and white photographs of former "barnies" - past performers who've come and gone. 

"This gal here's Cindy Johnson. CJ we call her. And she played Gypsy in 1981. She is now the associate pastor of the First Baptist Church down the street. So from stripping on Main Street to preaching on Main Street..."

DeMille's own career has moved in the opposite direction.  For 40 years he was a lawyer on Main Street - now he's performing in the Barn's current revival of Gypsy.

"I think this is my 14th crusty old guy role. Some of them aren't crusty they're just grumpy.
Is that a natural fit for you?
Yeah, it seems to be. Some people say they don't notice the difference. They say, "When are you gonna start acting?"

But DeMille isn't a typical barnie.   

"One of our missions is the training of young professionals. So you take these kids and you put them with somebody like Annie T who's got the Mama Rose part in this show and who has been on Broadway and is an unbelievable actress and the training is incredible."

The actor Taye Diggs is a former barnie as is NPR's own Ari Shapiro.

"He told me that he was here and a friend of his said, "Well, you know there's a thing down in Washington where you read the news."  He thought he was gonna dance and sing, but he's found a very successful niche."

As we cross the dark stage DeMille recites the Barn's history. Built in the 1820's, for its first hundred years the barn was filled with hay and cows. But in 1933, Mount Holyoke College drama teacher Josephine Etter Homes came to New London and turned it into a makeshift theater. 

Tom DeMille and Keith Coughlin on stage.
Credit Sean Hurley

"She was part of the Little Theater movement. I read somewhere there were 730 summer theaters during the height of all this and now in that same area from Maine to Pennsylvania there might be 30. Anyway she came up she did just three shows and she loved it so much she bought this barn that winter."

DeMille pauses at the edge of the stage hearing faint music beneath his feet.  Below us in the orchestra pit, music director Trevor Pierce sits alone at a keyboard wearing headphones.

Trevor Pierce in the Orchestra Pit.
Credit Sean Hurley

"I am programming the synthesizer for Sound of Music.  For 16 going on 17 I'll play all this - Sometimes there'll be a harp gliss...."

Artistic Director Keith Coughlin comes onstage to do a rundown of the summer season.  Gypsy, Sound of Music, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Steel Magnolias...followed by a musical Coughlin himself will direct based on the novel Charles Dickens was writing when he died, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

"And when the unfortunate moment happens in the Charles Dickens novel when he passes we then turn to the audience and they get to vote on how the evening will end."

A new ending every night, Coughlin says. The season finishes with Forever Plaid.

Down the road at a large hall at Colby Sawyer College the cast rehearses.  

Cast rehearsal at Colby Sawyer.

"And can I have all dancing couples upstage please?"

Stage manager Brae Singleton says the performers rehearsing Sound of Music today will all be on stage in Gypsy tonight.

" We're working on the party scene that happens at the end of Act I. It's where the kids come out and sing So Long Goodbye…I mean Farewell.  It's been a long day."

With the performers in position, Director Carol Dunne sets them into action.

"Raise the stakes!  Big party! Fun!  Joy!  Ok here we go..."

Back at the Barn's main stage, lawyer turned actor Tom DeMille describes what he says is his one of his favorite places in the world.

"I like to think of this like Fenway Park.  It's just this comfortable part of your life where you grew up. The Barn is like that. You know there's no seat that's further than 35 feet away from the stage. So when we did Les Miz here it was unbelievable and you felt like you were part of the French Revolution."

For its first hundred years the barn was just a barn. Now on summer nights, the Barn becomes everything it never was.  Tonight a burlesque house, next week an Austrian hillside. 

Visit http://nlbarn.org/ for a full schedule of the summer season at the New London Barn Playhouse.