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  • by Tom Eastman

Community Theater, Staged Right

A friendly warmth and camaraderie was exuded in the Eastern Slope Playhouse as it sheltered the group of 35 community residents against a light spring rain one late evening last week. The gathering consisted of a varied assortment of individuals who ranged in age from 13 to 74, and in vocations from salesmen, bicycle mechanics, and realtors to housewives, hotel clerks, and retired citizens. They resembled an average audience as they sat there in the rows of theater chairs, but there was a difference. They weren't there to see a play; rather, to rehearse one, Peter Pinkhan's musical, "Resort."

It's been said that community theater differs from repertory productions because it is performed by and for a community, and such a definition applies to the Resort Players and their return to the stage this spring in Mt Washington Valley. Sixty-four persons strong, they exemplify dedication, tenacity, and a desire to present an enjoyable form of entertainment for Mt Washington Valley residents and visitors. Of course, community theater is also a lot of fun, and that's the main reason that these otherwise unlikely thespians have spent the past winter and spring rehearsing in between their jobs, day and night.

The cast and stage crew for the upcoming production at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in North Conway represent a diverse background of theatrical experience, and it is that aspect which makes them such an appealing lot. For the one Bruce MacKay in the crew, an Orson Welles-ish actor with 35 years of professional acting experience on Broadway, there are a number of talented amateurs such as Red Peckham, Brain Day, and Marka Spelsberg, who previously had never expected to find themselves onstage. Under the meticulous direction of Linda Bate and Doris Levesque, as well as through their individual efforts practicing, the 25 actors, chorus members and dancers for this engaging musical comedy have gelled into a cohesive theatrical unit.

Most of the work has been fun over the past six weeks; for many, it has also been educational and enlightening. Bate's instruction has enabled the actors to get to know their characters inside out, allowing them to see the action in the play through their characters' eyes. Ever since the actors were chosen at auditions last January and early February, Linda has met individually with the actors and actresses to help them understand who their characters are, and why they behave the way they do onstage.

As she explains, "Every character onstage is a full human being who acts for a purpose, as in life. Acting is simply learning how to act naturally as the character would. We've explored the characters through impromptu sessions together to find out who they are, what their lives are outside of what they do onstage. If you do all the steps right and learn not only how the character is similar to you, but also how they differ, and still act the way they would, then it should all work out right. That's the most exciting aspect for me, and I think that the actors have really learned a lot about acting that way."

Changes in the 1981 version of the engaging musical comedy include a few new songs penned by Peter Pinkham, the plays' author and well known Mt Washington Valley resident. Along with Bob Fisher, Pinkham is the only member of the original cast who is appearing in "Resort" this time around. Looking back at that initial presentation, Peter noted that in contract, the 1981 production involved more work. "We have exceptional talent for this production, with all of the new people who've moved into the Valley since 1970, but the problem has been in organizing it all. "Resort" is a complicated play to present with its 26 speaking roles, 14 musical numbers and dancers, but at least we had a nucleus the first time around. We were starting from scratch this time, and I had some reservations. But all that makes the way this presentation is coming around even more remarkable. As the play's author, it's very exciting indeed."

That experienced "nucleus" Pinkham referred to consisted of actors and stage crew people who had been involved with the Pied Piper Children's Theater, a community group founded by local residents for children in 1960. Composing and writing had always been a hobby of Peter's ever since his days as a prep school roommate of Jack Lemmon's, so he naturally became involved with the local children's productions in between his duties as owner and manager of the Eastern Slope Inn. His first major play, "The Button Tree," was performed by the group at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in 1966, and was considered a success. During the off-season in 1968, he began assembling the amusing anecdotes of resort life he'd experienced in his 12 years at the Eastern Slope Inn. Using real life guests and hotel staff persons as his models, the musical comedy began to take form. In 1970, it was completed, songs and all. The Resort Plays were founded, taking their name from the title of the play and the work was presented at the Eastern Slope Playhouse for a one-week stand that spring.

The two-act musical comedy is set at a resort inn in a New Hampshire town, both of which strongly and intentionally resemble the Eastern Slope Inn and North Conway. "Pretty remarkable, eh?" Peter laughs when asked about the not so coincidental similarity. There are petty government officials who constitute the antagonists in the play, eccentric guests, stuffy old dowagers and socialites, and an equally vibrant staff of hotel employees all of whom interact to provide the ingredients for a most entertaining comedy.

Should anyone wonder if the play is merely an exaggeration of the zany goings-on of the resort business, its playwright responds to the contrary. "By and large, it really was like this when I was at the Inn for those 12 years," Peter related in between his appearances onstage at the Playhouse. "Every character in the play is based on a real guest or employee at the Inn at one time or another. And dealing with petty government bureaucrats and the guests really was all part of the fun. The bureaucrats were a continual fact of daily life, and they meant business." Examples of the type of regulations the hotel was constantly forced to live up to included a variety of unusual laws concerning the use of alcohol. As Peter recalled, "We couldn't serve alcohol in the same room where dancing was taking place nor on Sundays without dinner. Furthermore, guests weren't allowed to have a drink standing at a bar, nor could they stand and drink in the lounge area - they had to be seated at a table." Similar regulations beset Peter's character onstage, and form the basis for his amusing and frustrating encounters with Red Peckham's robot-like, self-important bureaucrat character.

The play captures the hilarity and nonsense with an appealing charm and wit which is pure Pinkham. As Linda Bate remarked, "Peter has beautifully pictured the sweetness, hilarity and powerful influence of life in a resort inn. He offers a delightful compendium of love relationships of people who range from their 20s to 70s, and show a bunch of wacky nuts who certainly are familiar to anyone who's involved in the resort business. Furthermore, he captures the mindless power of the almighty bureaucrat and the frustration we feel in dealing with it. He colors it all with great warmth and humor, filling the entire fabric with marvelous songs which stand on their own."

Peter's talent for accurately depicting the quirks of his guests almost backfired on him when the play was presented before an audience which was largely populated by members of the National Society for New England Women in 1970. Longtime traditional guests at the Inn every spring, the conservative social group was known for their preference for straitlaced formality in all matters -- a trait which serves as a major target of Peter's sharp wit in the play. Borrowing a line from his stage counterpart, Mr. Allison, Peter remarked, "I made a tremendous blunder. For the whole first act of the play - and remember, this was a musical comedy - there wasn't a sound. No laughter, no applause, nothing." As the impact of the performance began to disintegrate Pinkham's nerves, he headed for the bar to console himself about his loss of business, and to contemplate his next move. A few belts later, a messenger of good fortune related that all was well after all, much to the playwright's surprise. "Apparently, some of the ladies were hard of hearing, and the others courteously remained silent so that their colleagues could hear all the lines. They loved it," Peter laughed. A second performance in front of the three members of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission at a meeting of the old NH Hotel Motel Association also resulted in no unfortunate outcries, proving that some bureaucrats have a sense of humor in real life, if not in Pinkham's plan.

Following their successful presentation of "Resort" in 1970, the Resort Players went on to a number of other well-received productions. As is the case with many small-town organizations, however, interest faded as some cast members moved away and others who stayed decided to leave some of the thankless yet necessary organizational chores to others. The group became dormant in 1975, a hibernation which lasted until two sisters - Doris and Yvette Levesque - initiated the community theater's return in the fall of 1980.

"I'd been involved with community theaters in the Greater Boston area, and enjoyed it immensely. I could see no reason why the Valley shouldn't have productions, so my sister and I decided to see if anyone else felt the same," Doris commented, explaining that she consequently placed an ad in local newspapers seeking persons who might be interested in forming such a group. Among the persons who attended that first meeting was Holly Gaudette, now the producer of "Resort" and a former president of the NH Community Theater Association. Gaudette suggested that the group perform Pinkham's musical comedy, primarily because it would be a fun play for a resort audience, and secondly, because no royalties would have to be paid. Equipped with their ideas and enthusiasm, the trio approached playwright Pinkham to ask for his support. "I agreed to do it only if it was well directed - that was my one and only condition," Pinkham stated, adding that he suggested that Linda Bate be asked to handle the directing duties. Bate had been away from the theater for 10 years, but says that she felt that the time was right for the return of quality community theater to the Valley, and she wanted to be part of it. She accepted.

Invitations were sent out to various community persons in November for an introductory party at Pinkham's North Conway residence to acquaint people with the play. The enthusiasm for the venture was in high gear at the affair, and it is that fun-loving spirit which has carried over into the rehearsals along with the volunteer effort which typifies this presentation. Following the party, the next step was to hold auditions in late January and early February at the Red Jacket. Once again, the turnout was strong, with over 100 persons parading their talents before Doris Levesque and Bate.

In many cases, however, the acting trio went in search of the right persons for a particular character in the Valley "We knew what we were after," Pinkham explains, although he noted that their efforts were not always successful at first. The problem of finding a large - some might say gigantic - person to play the silent but imposing role of the dimwitted Bus Boy Randolph is a case in point. Enter the salesmanship talents of Terry Bragy, an advertising representative for WBNC/WMWV in Conway who had been chosen to play the role of Les Fanshaw, a hotel room clerk who is flashy, cynical and something of a womanizer and worshiper of the almighty dollar. As he tells the story, "For the Randolph part, we immediately thought of Brian Day, but I guess no one knew how to approach him. Being a salesman, however, I went to work". Day weighs in at a substantial 200-plus pounds, is built like a fireplug, and is actively involved with the North Conway Softball League. In other words, he didn't want to have to sacrifice his softball to be in a play, "I just told him, 'Brian, we can schedule all of the play rehearsals around your games, no problem.' After that, he agreed to play the part," Bragy proudly related. "Now, he schedules his softball games around our rehearsals!"

Prior to his agreement to do the role, Brian's only previous acting experience had been as a Norwegian farmer in a 5th grade production of "Santa Claus." The lack of any further theatrical exposure had never bothered him in the intervening years for that matter, but Bragy's persuasive powers proved to be too effective. Standing in the rain outside of the back stage door last week, he awaited his cue to go onstage for Act Two. He'd missed the rehearsal for Act One due to a softball game, in which he'd belted two doubles and a single en route to helping his undermanned team to a convincing 23-3 victory that night.

Others talked of the hope and belief that this presentation of "Resort" is only the start of a rebirth of community theater here in the Valley, and noted that additional performances of other plays with new cast members are a strong probability for the fall and spring. Brian intends to be acting in them, once the softball season is over in September. "Who knows," he said, "I might even shoot for a role with two lines next time. It's really a lot of fun." And that's the best part about community theater - it's fun for audiences and actors alike.

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