December 13, 2007

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Summer stock vs. southern NH
NH Theatre Awards roll out final choices for professional awards for 2007
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

The professional final nominees for the sixth year of the fledgling New Hampshire Theatre Awards were announced last week. The nine participating groups entered 18 shows. Winnipesaukee Playhouse, The Barnstormers, Pirate Stage Company, Advice to the Players, Peterborough Players, NCCA Papermill, Weathervane Theater and Yellow Taxi Productions made the cut, leaving off Second Stage Company.

Suzanne Delle credits the New Hampshire Theatre Awards with putting YTP “on the map.”

“We are the same age,” Delle said about YTP and the awards. She founded the professional company in 2002. Their production of Closer won YTP four awards that first year, a healthy dose of recognition for a new venture.

In the beginning, Peterborough Players won almost everything in the professional category, Delle said. But part of the Awards mission is to raise the bar across the state, she said — the idea is “if people are competing for awards they’ll take their art more seriously.” For straight plays, Peterborough Players, Winni Players and YTP have since become the “big three,” Delle said. Northern summer stock companies often rule the musical categories, she said.

Seacoast Repertory, Lakes Region Summer Theater, and the Belle Center for the Arts did not participate this year. The Palace Theatre no longer submits shows because they host the ceremony.

YTP won best original play for The Warmth of the Cold by Lowell Williams last year, and were runners-up in three categories. In 2005 they had an honorable mention for Proof, and they took best musical award for The Last Five Years in 2004.

Williams was YTP’s playwright in residence this year. His Six Nights in the Black Belt is a finalist for best production, original play, director, supporting actor, supporting actress and best actor.

There are four finalists for best actor — but it will be impressive if James Whitmore doesn’t win for his Peterborough Players performance in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

“He wins every time,” Williams said. Whitmore has appeared on Broadway, and in film and TV for decades, and has made a point of acting at Peterborough every summer for about 50 years. His film credits include Planet of the Apes and The Shawshank Redemption (Brooks). That most likely leaves Doug Chilson from YTP vying for first runner-up with Winni’s Daniel Marmion for Stones in His Pocket and Andy Nogasky for Two Rooms.

Winni Playhouse was founded by a brother and sister and their respective spouses in 2004. The young group made off with nine awards last year: four professional awards for The Woman in Black and five community awards for Our Town. Two Rooms is a finalist in nine professional categories for 2007.

“It was not typical summer fare,” executive director Bryan Halperin said. Lee Blessing’s 1988 story is about an American professor held captive in Beirut. It had the worst attendance of Winni’s summer professional series (they produce community shows in the winter), “even though those who saw it said how important it was to them, how it made them think,” Halperin said. It’s nice to know “even though it was not a commercial success that it was very much an artistic success,” he said of the nominations. The company is planning to move from its Weirs Beach location to Meredith in 2009 for more space for youth programs, set building, seats and the like.

For the community awards, Winni submitted productions of Nunsense, The Diary of Anne Frank, and an original adaptation of the commedia dell’arte Servant of Two Masters by Neil Pankhurst.

The finalists for community entries will be announced in January. Thirty community groups submitted 54 shows.

The awards ceremony is fun, Halperin said. You get to dress up and catch up with people.

“Our favorite part of the entire thing is the after party,” said Kevin Roberge, who founded Pirate Stage about two years ago. They won three community awards last year for Rocky Horror, including best musical. This year they entered Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a professional show because they split revenue, Roberge said. Billy Butler stars as Hedwig and is a finalist for best actor in a musical. He won the community version last year as Rocky. Hedwig is a finalist in six professional categories.

Delle said Six Nights garnered a strong audience reaction and she was pleased nominations seemed to follow that.

Encouraging writing and producing new work are among the Awards’ missions, as they are among the YTP’s, Delle said.

In the beginning, YTP was one of the few professional companies in New Hampshire producing new scripts, but that’s changing.

“I have to think that’s a byproduct of the New Hampshire Theatre Awards,” Delle said. One of the incentives is that each company can enter a third show if it is original. Otherwise, they can only nominate two.

“So obviously this has helped us with our number of nominations, because we’re submitting three shows every year instead of two,” Delle said. YTP won best original professional play for Tender by David Preece last year. YTP’s 2008 season includes the original play Clean Alternatives by Brian Dykstra (www.briandykstra.net).

Delle said Williams was transitioning from writing one-act to full-length plays as the Awards started.

“Right away he got support and recognition for his work. So it certainly helped encourage him to continue with the writing,” Delle said. As a graduate student, Williams was told to look at Horton Foote’s career. Foote wrote about West Texas and Oklahoma — places he knew. Williams followed the advice, writing about New Hampshire. The Warmth of the Cold is set in a former mill town. Six Nights is about Jonathan Daniels of Keene, a young seminarian who died fighting for civil rights. Williams has revised it, adding two characters, for a January production in Daniel’s hometown directed by Kim Dupuis, a Keene State College adjunct faculty member, for Keene’s Martin Luther King / Jonathan Daniels Committee. Williams said he would next like to write about the Iraq war in conjunction with New Hampshire people involved.

In May, Pirate Stage took Hedwig as a fundraiser to an off-Broadway theater in New York that is also a church with a food pantry that serves 500 families. The food pantry was in danger of closing for lack of funding. Since it was the church Roberge attended when he lived in New York, he wanted to help out. They received standing ovations, rare for a New York audience, Roberge said: “I believe it rivaled the other shows happening at that time.” The church and food pantry are doing well these days, and Butler returned to volunteer his carpentry skills.

“There were a lot of challenges with Hedwig and the team with the magic of theater pulled it together. It was a production I think any company would be proud of,” Roberge said.

Roberge said he believes one of the effects of the Awards is a new attention to sound design. “People normally only recognize sound if it’s bad,” he said. For instance, you might hear three microphones out of 30 working in a musical. “Companies are putting more time and effort into that,” Roberge said.

Awards for sound, lighting, scene and set design are not separated by musical or straight play, so they have more competition.

Pirate Stage took a break after Hedwig. Most of the members have been involved in other projects. Roberge said they’ve also opened a Pirate Stage set and costume shop for events and theater, and are planning events for next year including an improv series at a Manchester bar.

Roberge said that through the NH Theatre awards he thinks southern and northern theater companies in the state are more aware of each other. Yet there’s another influence that Roberge thinks has expanded communication in New Hampshire theater — the creation of the online forum nhtheater.org, which has more than 600 members. People use it to discuss auditions, production, acting and Broadway, and to post calls for directors or for swapping sets or props.

“I think that’s a huge factor in the way the community has really banded together,” Roberge said.


And the award goes to...
What: Sixth New Hampshire Theatre Awards Show
When: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008
Where: Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester, 668-5588
Tickets: Individuals $37.50 to $50. Group tickets cost $27.50 before Jan. 1 and $29.50 after.
Web site: www.nhtheatreawards.com.