By Susan Morse
Hampton Union, Sunday, June 27, 2004
[Photo by Jay Reiter]
HAMPTON - Act One, Hampton Summer Theatre has survived season-to-season since opening its doors five years ago at the Winnacunnet Performing Arts Center at the high school.
Each year, Executive Director Stephanie Voss Nugent questions the financial viability of another summer of live shows. The audience is aging; funds and grants for artistic endeavors dried up after 9/11; she is exhausted.
Yet each season the curtain rises to upbeat, musical productions that look effortless. This summer, "In the Mood: A Musical Tribute to the Big Band Era"; "Forever Plaid" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" are just three crowd-pleasers which have already begun to sell.
Ticket sales started to pick up after Father's Day. Sales are strong and the database shows younger adults are buying tickets to see live theater. Donations are good and the theater is almost out of debt. This looks to be the best season yet.
"They say if you can make it to the fifth year your chances of surviving are pretty good," Voss Nugent said.
It's ironic, then, that Voss Nugent doesn't know if the curtain will rise on a season six.
When construction begins on the $26.8 million project to renovate the high school, Voss Nugent expects to be shut down.
"I found out we can't use the theater next season," she said. "I don't know what the future is more profoundly than ever before."
Close a theater for a year, skip a season, she said, and it's like starting all over again. Moving to another location for a season is not much better.
Winnacunnet Assistant Principal Fred Muscara said he believes Voss Nugent may be prematurely dramatic, though construction is expected to begin before the end of the next school year.
"We don't know what's going to happen next summer; the schedule's not finalized," he said. "The first thing to happen, the gym, doesn't affect Act One. They will lose 200 parking spaces."
The building will be shut down during asbestos removal, Muscara said.
The location has been ideal for Voss Nugent, who stepped in five years ago to rescue summer theater in Hampton. The old barn of the Hampton Playhouse on Winnacunnet Road, which had been holding shows for 50 years, closed after its 1999 season. The property was sold to a developer and the barn eventually torn down.
Voss Nugent looked around for a new theater and found the two-year old auditorium at Winnacunnet High School empty for the summer. It was too large and the high school location confused some theater patrons. Its air conditioning, comfortable seats, and technical capability far outweighed the negatives, Voss Nugent said.
She took on the project of reviving Hampton theater at the Winnacunnet Performing Arts Center.
Each year, right after graduation, Voss Nugent and staff move in and, in late August, move out again.
This year, the theater is running without its long-standing box office manager, Bob Stockbridge. Stockbridge, who headed the box office for 52 years, died earlier this year.
"He walked into the Hampton Playhouse the summer of 1947 and he never left," Voss Nugent said. "He was wonderful for talking to people and taking care of them."
On Thursday, Voss Nugent opened the season with her one-woman show, "Of Pirates & Poets," portraying Isle of Shoals poet Celia Thaxter. Susan Poulin is back at the theater starting July 1 for "Ida: Woman Who Runs with the Moose." The mainstage season then kicks off on July 7 with "In the Mood."
Act One, which stands for Actors Collaborative Theatre of New England, will keep the summer tradition of a visit to the beach and a toe-tapping show alive for another season. Next season, the troupe may move on, but it's not likely Voss Nugent will stray too far from the live theater she loves.
"If you ask where is my heart's love, it was what we were doing at Theatre by the Sea when it was on Ceres Street," she said, "a 100-seat house, intimate."
For more information on tickets and upcoming Act One show times, call 926-2281.