Forum generates discussion on Playhouse future
By Liz Premo
Atlantic News , December 21, 1999
HAMPTON – Approximately 40 people gathered in the Lane Room at the Lane Memorial Library last Thursday night to participate in a forum which was held in an effort to garner public input and generate ideas for some sort of solution that would allow the Hampton Playhouse to continue being a viable business in the Seacoast area.
Purchased last year by developers and business partners Michael Wakeen and Ed Patenaude, the 52-year old theatre (and the land on which it is situated) has been the center of a great deal of discussion since the legal papers were signed. Tales of impending doom for the venerable summer venue have surfaced over and over again as plans for a housing subdivision were drawn up, giving the appearance that there would be no room for the theatre, its affiliated buildings, or future summer performances once construction began.
However, Wakeen and Patenaude took on production responsibilities for the Playhouse’s 52nd season, in an effort to keep the theatre operating this past summer despite, they maintained, taking a big ($40,000 worth) financial bite in the process.
With much public outcry being heard to keep the historic Hampton establishment up and running, Wakeen and Patenaude seem to appear to want to somehow keep the business from biting the dust and arranged last week’s public forum – which featured plenty of drama of its own at times – with assistance from Governor Shaheen’s office and former Hampton Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Glen French.
A good balance of interested parties was represented among those who attended the forum, including community leaders, business owners, theatre professionals and area residents who simply enjoy live theatre in general and the Hampton Playhouse in particular.
Playhouse Artistic Director Stephanie Patrick-Chalfant, Hampton Board of Selectman Chairman and Heritage Commission member Fred Rice, and Gordon Lane of the Seacoast Business Alliance were in attendance, as was Glen French, who offered some opening remarks and then went on to introduce Commissioner Van McLeod, a former theatre and film producer who is currently serving in Concord with the Department of Cultural Resources.
McLeod operated as an effective moderator for the two-hour meeting, during which several impassioned exchanges arose that on one hand punctuated the desire of many in the community to keep the Hampton Playhouse in operation, yet confirmed from the developer’s point of view that, financially at least, things for the theatre cannot continue to be run “business as usual.”
McLeod urged the group to “not get ahead of ourselves” during one such exchange, and maintained that “there are ten different routes that can be taken” to save the Playhouse, “a building that has 52 years worth of tradition” offering “true community value.” McLeod commented he held the belief that “there’s a solution – a community solution” to the whole situation, and he effectively steered the group through varying degrees of dialogue, which saw several options suggested, including moving the barn to another, more commercial location; leasing the three acres upon which the Playhouse is situated; and leasing it with an option to buy.
One cautiously optimistic discussion came about when Patenaude was asked if he and Wakeen were committed to another Playhouse season. When Patenaude responded, “We are not committed at this time,” McLeod offered to rephrase the question and ask if the developers were “open” to the ideas of running another season. Patenaude admitted, “We would consider it,” adding “we’re developers, not producers,” and that if there was a 53rd year for the business he and Wakeen were “not planning on producing plays next year,” even though “we’d absolutely love to open it [the Playhouse] up in 2000.”
When Patrick-Chalfant asked Patenaude about leasing the Playhouse for at least the year 2000 season, Patenaude countered by asking her if there was even still time to organize a full season of productions, to which the artistic director emphatically responded “Oh, yes,” an opinion which was echoed by McLeod who, also having been professionally associated with the world of theatre, affirmed, “Yes, it can happen.”
However, issues regarding a current lawsuit involving a lien on the property may possibly stand in the way of any further Playhouse seasons, according to Patenaude, who did a little finger-pointing toward the party involved (who had also attended the forum) and demanded that the lien be lifted, saying “the fate of the Playhouse lies in your hands. We need you to sign that discharge.” The party that Patenaude singled out maintains that it is the developers who need to make the next move in resolving the issue.
Selectmen Chairman Fred Rice told the group that town selectmen would like to see the Playhouse stay, and commented “there would be a willingness to do what can be done” if a plan can be developed which does not conflict with the ZBA or the Planning Board. However, in an earlier exchange of dialogue with Wakeen, Rice did acknowledge that the town “can’t buy a playhouse” when Wakeen asked him why the town manager didn’t call the developers regarding the future of the business when murmurings about the Playhouse’s possible demise were first heard by members of the town government.
Eventually, it all came down to the agreement that the general consensus is that the community would like to see the Hampton Playhouse continue to operate, and that any interruption in its operation would be detrimental to its future. With that in mind, McLeod encouraged the group to consider solutions for both the short term (next season) and long term (all seasons to follow).
Near the conclusion of the forum, Seacoast Business Alliance (SBA) board member Gordon Lane commented that “there’s a way that this can be done and turn it into a win-win situation.” Lane suggested that the property be donated to the state, which would generate a tax credit equal to the value of the property, and upon acceptance by the developers and the town, the Playhouse would be turned over to the SBA, which would assume the title to the property, thus paving the way for its continued operation. This suggestion appeared to offer the most encouragement as far as possible options were concerned.
At that point, it was suggested that those who took part in the forum break up into two groups, with committees working on both the short term and the long term future of the Hampton Playhouse. McLeod encouraged the two groups to continue to keep the lines of communication open and for members of each committee to meet as soon as possible to begin to generate a solution which is agreeable to all concerned.
The forum ended with members from both groups taking the time to speak to one another about the issue at hand. Future meetings will be planned and communication between the two committees will remain an important factor in whether the state’s third oldest and New England’s fourth oldest theatre will continue to bring live performances to the community. Commissioner McLeod compared finding the solution to the Playhouse situation to how things are run in the theatre world, saying “[It’s] about process. You do the right process [and] you get one hell of a show.”