Acting Up: Festival of Fun

Stephanie Voss Nugent's Pulled it All Together
For a 'Festival of Fun'

By Jeanne McCartin

Spotlight: Seacoast Arts and Entertainment, August 7, 2008

[The following article is courtesy of Seacoast Media Group, Portsmouth, NH]
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]
{Photo not in original article.}

Pros Take the Stage at Festival of Fun:

ACT ONE's story is inextricably one of production company and its founder, Stephanie Voss Nugent launched it -- a step towards a dream. Over time it morphed along with her vision, interests and personal life; occasionally more a nightmare than the intended outcome.

This is ACT ONE's second year - in its third incarnation - as a presenter at West End Studio Theater for the month of August; finally, largely, the fulfillment of a dream.

"It takes a lot of years to see what you love. When you let go then you see what makes you happy. You can figure out what the hell you are," says Voss Nugent. "I think this is close to what I wanted to do. It's very sustainable, in the right place ... the right length ... and I like it!" The company will present it's "Festival of Fun." "Were entirely in rep., you come Tuesday and you see a special treat for history buffs '(The Story of a Bad Boy).' Then if you come Wednesday or Thursday you see `Ida – Woman Who Runs With the Moose,' or `Spousal Deafness.' Friday and Saturday you see "Over the River and Through the Woods).' On Sunday its (music) Lucie Therrien, the next Ed Gerhard. We're also showcasing Pat Spalding's new work, which is brilliant." Year one Michael Tobin took on a fair hit of ACT ONE's artistic responsibility, leaving Voss Nugent to some of her favorite tasks the administration work, box office "(I love talking and dealing with the people)" and marketing "(I hate the marketing)." This year she's "missing Michael" and shouldering most the small company's responsibility including directing its single in-house production "Over the River."

"Last August I was as a fresh as a daisy.... This year I decided to direct. Right about now I'm melted down to just about zero and the season is just starting," she says. "I have minor concerns about holding up ... not fresh as a daisy this time."

Perhaps. But she's still fresher than the final years ofy the company's second incarnation which clearly took its toll on the producing artistic director.

Voss Nugent's moved to the Seacoast in 1976 and within a month was working at Theatre by the Sea, a professional Portsmouth theater. She stayed with them till 1986. There was an 11 year hiatus from theater at that point. Then in 1999 she formed ACT ONE.

It was originally an arts and education non-profit says Voss Nugent. "I was hoping to reunite wonderful actors from Theatre by the Sea.... But the concept was broad. We could do art exhibitions, concerts; it was an artist collaborative." Its first production was an original multimedia piece, "Of Pirates and Poets - A Visit to the Isles of Shoals with Celia Thexter," penned by Voss Nugent.

After the first tour of nine theaters she knew the concept needed revision. She'd found the cost of touring and paying equity expenses too expensive a proposition.

About that time opportunity seemed to knock. She was called about the closure of the Hampton Playhouse after 52 years of doing business at the beach. "Folks called and said we have a mailing but no theater," she says. Voss Nugent decided to breathe life into it. In the end it nearly arrested hers.

Phase Two of ACT ONE was an attempt at keeping Hampton theater alive. There can be no doubt she and her crew worked their tails off trying. But there were numerous factors working against success. For starters the original Hampton Playhouse location was demolished. In its new guise it was relocated to the Winnacunnet High School community auditorium. State of the art or not, it was in a high school auditorium, which lacked the charm of the original location. In addition it was very difficult to locate.

The Playhouse patrons were also used to plays frontloaded with equity actors. The new theater wasn't able to handle that expense going in and was unable to generate the funds through its five season run.

The observant could see the stress the huge undertaking took on the founder. Voss Nugent, the happy greeter in the lobby, started showing the strain. By year five it was apparent it was taking its toll.

Still Voss Nugent would likely have given it another year she admits. But the school needed to shut down for a season for repairs. They'd worked five years for small gains. The company decided a year off equaled starting over. "We said like crazy!" It simply wasn't successful enough for all the work put into it.

"I did learn so much it's one of those cases of what doesn't kill me makes me stronger. It was an interesting time," she says calmly.

One of the key lessons goes back to her original intent -- that dream -- and more importantly sticking to it. "You have to follow your bliss. Mine had always been intimate theater rather than big proscenium theater." She took the summer off simply to rest. She emerged knowing she'd do it again, but stick to her vision. "I didn't know how I was going to do it because I didn't have a theater, but I wanted to do intimate theater." That's when Pontine Movement Theatre's co-artistic directors Margaret Mathews and Greg Gathers asked Voss Nugent if she'd be interested in running summer theater at their location, "and I jumped at the chance!" "I love that theater. It's so intimate, so inviting. You can really make magic happen there. It would he small enough that it wouldn't be exhausting like the Hampton had been and I wouldn't lose so much money. Anyway, I thought ... it was 47 seats instead of 700. So it was worth a try." And last year proved "joyful" she says. The space is easy to clean, "even the toilets and mopping the floor." At Hampton she had to build her box office annually. At W.E.ST, "My box office was a computer and a file box and cell phone and it all fit in a canvas bag." Here too, she runs the lights and is able to watch the show and audience -- something she loves to do. So much nicer than the constant "putting out fires" at Hampton. Voss Nugent learned something else along the way, she wants to produce and present what interests her.

"I've decided I'm not as deep philosophically as I would have always wished. I'm not. My conclusion is I'm a popularist. I like pieces that make me laugh all the way through and give me a big lump in my throat and maybe tears at the end because I've learned and experienced something about life that makes my life better or fuller."
--Stephanie Voss Nugent

"This latest (incarnation) is Mickey and Judy in the barn. It was all there just like when I was a little girl. It's wonderful."