Winnipesaukee Playhouse rolling forward
Company receives $1 million matching pledge
By Heidi Masek firstname.lastname@example.org
Winnipesaukee Playhouse is a joint venture of a brother and sister and their respective spouses, including a London theater educator who has worked for film and television, which they opened in 2004. The hybrid company runs a high-quality professional summer season, community productions in other months, plus children’s programs.
The Winnipesaukee Playhouse launched in the Alpenrose Plaza (better known for Dexter Shoes) at Weirs Beach in Laconia. Older summer stock stages are scattered mostly away from the Lakes Region in New Hampshire, such as the Peterborough Players, founded in 1933.
Weirs Beach might not be the first place someone would expect to see a production of Proof. In fact, the Winnipesaukee Playhouse has been working on relocating to Meredith. They have had a set-building and storage facility for a few years at another familiar Lakes Region site — the former Annalee Dolls factory on Reservoir Road. An individual donor provided funding for Phase I of creating a campus for the Playhouse, so work has already started on infrastructure like paving, water and sewer, as well as housing for their summer company at the Annalee site, said marketing director Lesley Pankhurst.
And recently, anonymous supporters have pledged $1 million in matching funds for Phase II, which would convert the former Annalee Gift Shop into a 182-seat new main stage.
“Somebody just knew we had the project on the back burner and said we’d love to see this happen and this is what we can do for you,” Pankhurst said.
The company can seat less than 100 at their current Weirs home, and had such a successful summer that they estimate that they had to turn away a few hundred people from Sleuth and Driving Miss Daisy, the last two productions of their 2009 professional season. They usually offer about seven performances over six days per week for professional runs.
“For an organization that relies on ticket sales to fund most of its operations, not being able to accommodate these people is a huge problem,” executive director Bryan Halperin (Lesley’s brother) stated in a press release. The new playhouse will include offices, dressing rooms, a lobby and other support spaces, Pankhurst said.
Winnipesaukee Players have been racking up awards for their shows (also, Pankhurst’s husband Neil helped try to standardize scoring and adjudicator training for the New Hampshire Theatre Awards). However, it was the weather that really helped the Playhouse in 2009.
“Rainy summers are awesome,” Lesley Pankhurst said. They gained new patrons who were looking for something to do indoors early in the season, “and they stayed with us for the rest of the summer, which was great,” Pankhurst said.
Still, the company expects to be performing in Weirs probably for the next two years, Pankhurst said. And she doesn’t know what to expect when it comes to trying to meet this matching pledge through fundraising.
When the new stage does open, a goal is to keep the feel people are used to in the Weirs venue although capacity will be higher. “There are ways to design it so it still feels intimate,” Pankhurst said.
The Annalee campus location is actually more accessible from Interstate 93, Exit 23, she said. The venue will be closer for patrons from Meredith, Center Harbor and other towns to the north, and is only about 10 minutes farther for patrons coming from the Laconia area, she said.
Phase I includes an outdoor amphitheater, which will hopefully be ready for their summer camps to use this year. Eventually, they hope to find funding for Phase III — converting the former Annalee Doll museum into a black box stage like their Weirs one. The second venue will allow the company to resume children’s performances, which they put on hold a few years ago because of the challenges of changing sets so frequently.
“Our goal is to keep it open as often as possible,” Pankhurst said. They’d like to bring in more outside acts like cabaret performers from Boston or New York, as they have previously. Whether they open up the venues to other theater companies “remains to be seen,” Pankhurst said. Stage usage has always depended on their own performance schedule — usually there’s always a show moving in or out.
The Annalee campus is about 10 acres, but about two or three are usable. The rest are wetlands and woods, which will have walking paths for the audiences to take advantage of. The total project cost is probably about $4 million, Pankhurst said. A private company owns the land and leases a building back to Annalee’s outlet store.
The next Winni Players community production at Weirs is The Laramie Project, weekends Feb. 12 through Feb. 21 (366-7377, winniplayhouse.com).