Thoughts ... Along The Seacoast

By Harold L. Pierson

The Merchants Review, Thursday, August 15, 1963

[Circulation 4,300]

Will the footlights at the Hampton Playhouse be dark next season? Will the memorable echoes of such wonderful productions as "South Pacific," "Mister Roberts," "The Miracle Worker," "The Glass Menagerie" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" bounce off the barn boards over empty, dusty seats? There is great danger that after fifteen years of cultural achievement that has brought character and publicity to the New Hampshire seacoast the Hampton Playhouse, under the capable management of John Vari and Alfred Christie, will not open for the 1964 summer season.

Why? Very simple is tIme answer — an economic roadblock or more specifically, an unwillingness on the part of the property owners to renew the lease on the theatre which expires in 1964. They have offered the theatre managers only one choice, buy or close up shop. Any further consideration of a lease is out of the question.

There is really nothing wrong in buying the theatre and Vari and Christie have been trying to do this for years. However, in order to buy the theatre, they must buy the adjoining house plus the property in the rear of the theatre as part of the package. The theatre alone will not be sold. This full package produces an economically unsound proposition for a summer stock theatre that has to struggle with a short New England summer season to end up in the black.

There are arguments which give some weight to the owners request. To have a theatre operating in one's back yard does detract from private ownership of the house and the property down behind the theatre received a lethal blow this summer as a potential housing development when the yawning hole in the ground made by the transfer of thousands of loads of gravel from the abutting property to the new expressway across the marshes from Hampton Beach to Exeter left the unsightly view of a worked out gravel pit to the west. So naturally the owners would like to find a buyer for the whole package. Who can blame them?

The combination of unfortunate circumstances does create an economic impasse and certainly the seacoast area of New Hampshire will suffer a great loss if its most outstanding claim to cultural advancement picks up its grease paint, costumes and stage lights and shifts to another location.

Hampton Beach has never been a seat of culture and never will be compared with summer places like Rockport and Ogunquit and Tanglewood in the Berkshires or Lakewood in Skowhegan, Maine, but the Hampton Playhouse over the past fifteen years has done much to raise the cultural standards of the region and bring favorable publicity to Hampton Beach.

When John Vari and Al Christie made their humble beginning fifteen years ago this season, they laid down some rigid rules for themselves. They would bring nothing but the highest quality theatre to Hampton Beach -— they would be financially responsible —- the members of their company would conduct themselves as well-behaved and cooperative summer citizens of Hampton — they would not bring in star-package shows hut would remain a stock company and training school for aspiring young actors -— and they would cooperate in every way with community projects of the New Hampshire seacoast.

They have done all this and more. The Hampton Playhouse has grown and strengthened in every one of its fifteen years from its stumbling beginnings to the stature and respect it has in theatrical circles all along the Eastern seaboard today.

The latest Broadway hits have been brought to Hampton as quickly as they have been released so that summer visitors and local residents could be entertained by the best plays as soon, and sometimes, sooner than any other theatre in the country. This season, for example, the Hampton Playhouse produced Brendan Behan's, "The Hostage" for the first time in any New England theatre. And recently, the comedy, "Come Blow Your Horn" reached New Hampshire theatre-goers concurrently with the movie version of the same play.

Favorable publicity appears weekly in the Boston and New York papers about the theatrical doings at Hampton Beach which all helps to build up the image of Hampton Beach as a vacation resort. One can not constantly -— week in and week out —- see the Hampton Playhouse mentioned on the theatrical pages of such great papers as the New York Times without being aware that good summer theatre is available to visitors at the New Hampshire seacoast.

In a smaller circle of actors, writers and producers, the training school at the Hampton Playhouse has enjoyed a fine and growing reputation among theatrical people. The variety of training for apprentices in all phases of the theatrical arts from stage designing to performing in the strenuous timetable of a summer stock company that changes plays but not players each week has made the Hampton Playhouse a choice selection for hopeful youngsters. Each season Vari and Christie have many, many more applications for apprenticeships than there are openings available. They can be very selective of the young people that they bring into the company as trainees.

There is an unfailing willingness on the part of the Hampton Playhouse managership to cooperate with community projects. For several years now, they have turned over the entire theatre and all its equipment to the local amateur players groups for their annual spring one-act play competition. Last season, the entire proceeds of a Saturday matinee were turned over to the Winnacunnet Scholarship Foundation — military personnel in the area have received hundreds of free tickets to the plays — and they have given assistance and technical advice to the area non-professional theatre groups whenever it has been sought.

It is impossible to put a dollar and cents value on what the Hampton Playhouse has meant to the seacoast area over the past fifteen years and the intangible effects, such as the cultural contributions, are immeasurable but anyone who has followed their progress over the years, knows that the closing of the Hampton Playhouse would be a serious loss to the entire area.

One can not inject one's self into the personal business arrangements of any two differing parties but can only hope that honest discussion will produce a resolution of these differences and that the Hampton Playhouse will be in full swing again in 1964 to continue, unbroken, the skein of fifteen summer seasons of top flight theatre under the managership of John Vari and Al Christie. The continuation of summer theatre means so much as a strong facet of the character and cultural quality of the New Hampshire seacoast.