The End Of An Era?

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Curtain is set to close on Hampton's theater
tradition as ACT ONE may bow out at summer's end

By Ian Nadeau

Atlantic News, Thursday, August 9, 2001

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News]

HAMPTON -- Hampton has been the proud home of live theatre for more than half a century. For as long as many of us can remember residents have had access to the splendor of the performing arts in one form or another.

[Photo right: HISTORY -- ACT ONE Founder and Executive Director Stephanie Voss Nugent stands outside of the box office with images from old Hampton Playhouse productions.
-— Atlantic News photo by Ian Nadeau]

For most, theatre came in the form of the sights and sounds of the Hampton Playhouse. Few here can say that they have never had the pleasure of witnessing one of the awe-inspiring performances consistently put on at that wondrous, old barn.

Of course, the Playhouse was closed down two years ago, but live theatre has nevertheless lived on, this time in the form of the ACT ONE organization. After hearing of the Playhouse's impending destruction, the Artists' Collaborative Theatre of New England mobilized to save this 52-year-old tradition.

Now in their second year of carrying the torch in the Playhouse's wake, ACT ONE may be in danger of suffering the same fate.

A stumbling economy has forced many to curtail discretionary spending, leading to poor attendance for their summer performance series. The group has already made last-minute alterations to their line-up to account for the decrease in ticket sales.

ACT ONE Founder and Executive Director Stephanie Voss Nugent was forced to cancel the run of A. R. Gurney's "Later Life" which was supposed to play from August 1-10. The show has been replaced by the historical piece "Of Pirates and Poets."

"It was sad to have to cancel ["Later Life"] because I truly wanted to put on the comedy, but if there's no audience then that's just the reality of it all,"

says Voss Nugent, who also co- wrote "Of Pirates and Poets" with Celia Thaxter historian Sharon Stephan.

Coming off an extremely successful summer run in 2000, Voss Nugent anticipated similar numbers when planning this year's programming. However, it soon became painfully clear that this summer would not be nearly as successful as last.

"The core audience has stayed with us, but that only makes up about a quarter of the normal audience," she states. With only a devoted few appearing at each show, the production of the programs has become extremely difficult.

As a non-profit theatre, ACT ONE depends on revenue from their Circle of Friends, the generous patrons who support the group by their attendance as well as their donations.

"When we realized that we wouldn't meet our expectations, we did three things," says Voss Nugent. "First, we reprogrammed, then we had to downsize, and finally we launched a community appeal.

"The response to the appeal has been wonderful," she continues, citing the slight increase in support from the community. Unfortunately, only time will tell if such a boost in support is enough to sustain ACT ONE.

"We don't know if the theatre will be here next year," Voss Nugent reveals, struggling to mouth the words she has dreaded hearing herself.

"We have to wait and see. I won't make promises that I can't keep and I can't keep the playhouse if the audience is not there."

When Voss Nugent formed ACT ONE as a means to keep the Playhouse alive, if only in spirit, she knew that it would take a few years to get that audience back. There was no doubt that it would be staggeringly difficult to get an entire audience to move to a completely different location that also happened to be at a high school. Upon hearing the words "high school," people automatically think wooden tables and folding chairs. Those who subscribe to that stigma would be shocked to discover how beautiful and comfortable the Performing Arts Center at Winnacunnet High School actually is.

While the summer theatre's new home doesn't have quite the history the Playhouse did, it is actually superior to the barn in many ways. A combination of airconditioning, comfortable seats, a stadium-like seating pattern, and pitch-perfect acoustics make the Performing Arts Center a near ideal venue for this means of expression.

Voss Nugent predicted that it would take 2-3 years to win the audience back — and a struggling economy could not have emerged at a worse time for ACT ONE.

While the project has been horribly taxing on the dedicated Voss Nugent, it has always been — and continues to be — a labor of love. She has found her true calling in the theatre and helps others discover the art as well. She would be truly heartbroken to find a generation of children who have grown up without the presence of live theatre.

"I believe very passionately that if professional theatre were discontinued, then society would not be as complete as it could be," she states. The ideas explored, emotions investigated, dialogue inspired and electricity generated within the theatre make it a wholly necessary enterprise.

"If you suspect that live theatre is important, then take some time out of your schedule and join us some evening," Voss Nugent pleads. "You need to see it to understand it. Give us a chance to prove ourselves, and then judge us on our work."

Voss Nugent reminds theater goers that the Hampton Playhouse was a staple of Hampton for 52 years — and then it was gone in an instant. And now all live theatre in the area may possibly be fading as well. There are plenty of opportunities to show support and also to see some of the greatest productions around.

"Of Pirates and Poets" will be running through August 10 followed by "Forever Plaid," which will finish off the summer, running from August 15-24. Shows run twice a day on Wednesday and Thursday (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and once on Friday (8 p.m.). Don't forget about the kids' performances on Saturday, which are followed by the weekly summer concert series. Ed Gerhard, the Shaw Brothers, and the Spectras are set to play in the coming weeks.

For show times, prices, or general information, contact the ACT ONE box office at 926-2281 (926-ACT1).

If you've been to the Hampton Playhouse and enjoyed yourself, you owe it yourself to see if ACT ONE lives up to its predecessor. If you've never seen a show, come see what you've been missing.

The only way you can decide if this cause is worthy enough to support is to see it for yourself.

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