By Susan Morse
Herald Sunday, Sunday, April 24, 2005
[The following article is courtesy of Herald Sunday and
HAMPTON -- The curtain has closed on 57 years of summer theater in Hampton. ACT ONE, Hampton's summer theater program, will not open a new season of live shows at the Winnacunnet Performing Arts Center. Construction at Winnacunnet High School will keep the auditorium off limits through August.
Executive Director Stephanie Voss Nugent said she was given notice by the Winnacunnet Cooperative School Board following the end of the 2004 season. Though the closure pertains only to one summer, starting again in 2006 would be like starting from scratch, she said.
Struggling financially and physically from five years of keeping summer theater alive, Voss Nugent expressed relief the end came from reasons beyond her control.
"When I got the notice from the School Board, I had a lot of emotion - ultimately relief," she said. "I wouldn't allow myself to stop."
For 52 years, live theater in an old barn was a summer tradition of the Hampton Playhouse on Winnacunnet Road.
In 1999, the barn and property were sold. Voss Nugent, executive director of ACT ONE - Artists Collaborative Theatre Of New England - stepped in and arranged a summer of live productions at the new 750-seat Winnacunnet Performing Arts Center at the high school in Hampton.
The old playhouse barn was demolished a year later, but the shows went on.
From the beginning, bringing in an audience was a struggle. People used to the ambiance of the barn didn't make the transition to the larger, less intimate auditorium. Once inside, they were won over, Voss Nugent said. Others thought the shows were high school productions, despite the theater paying union wages its first two seasons.
Even more of a problem, said Voss Nugent, was that its core audience was senior citizens who lived outside the Seacoast. Two-thirds were day-trippers who lived west of Route 125 in Epping or who were from Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill, Mass. She was never able to attract large numbers of Hampton or Seacoast theater-goers.
Voss Nugent grieves not seeing the same people return to the shows, she said, and not being open for the younger people who want jobs and theater programs.
Voss Nugent wants to continue productions closer to her home in Hampstead. She wants a new generation to love theater as much as she, and she says those who grew up going to live shows do.
"My love of theater goes deep," she said. "Although I don't feel specific grief for death of theater in Hampton, what I do grieve for is death of theater in this country. There is nothing like live theater. Nothing builds a sense of community like sharing a powerful story with 300 people. At a physical level, we're healed in a way. It's a serious thing for us not to have."