Concord High teacher moonlights as playwright in Portsmouth
Like hot dogs, potato salad and s’mores at a summer picnic, summer theater has its share of predictable fare. No one’s knocking The Music Man or Grease, but it can be refreshing to find something unusual on the menu.
The Portsmouth Players Ring has its own way of satisfying that craving: Every year the small theater group produces a selection of original works by local and regional artists – which is how Concord High School teacher Aaron Sommers has of late earned the rather august-sounding title “playwright.”
Sommers is the author of the one-act play, A Cross Section of the Hirschfields, which opens at the Portsmouth Players Ring Theatre next Friday and runs through July 28. It tells the story of a woman’s final hours of life, mostly through dialogue with her husband.
“It’s just an intimate conversation between these two people,” said Sommers, a special education teacher at Concord High School. “It started off as an idea because I had a colleague whose husband was dying of cancer. . . . The family kind of formed itself in my head.”
A Cross Section of the Hirschfields began as a short story that Sommers wrote in his “spare time” between teaching, planning lessons and caring for his young daughter. He’d nurtured dreams of being a writer since high school but after being forced to create a new career from the threads of a master’s degree in liberal studies, he’d learned to be a realist. “I kind of figured the only people who got published were professors,” Sommers said.
Then in 2009, he decided to submit a short story to a publication called Confluence, a graduate liberal studies journal for a consortium of colleges. Based loosely on his experiences as a special education teacher, the story was chosen for publication – and Sommers was hooked. He got another piece published in 2011, then stumbled across a journal called Lifelines, a rather unusual publication that primarily provides a creative
outlet for doctors studying at Dartmouth. Despite his fear that the editors wouldn’t look twice at a submission from an “outsider,” Sommers submitted “A Cross Section of the Hirschfields.” Again, he was pleasantly surprised.
After the story was published, a friend who read it suggested that the dialogue-heavy piece would make a great play. So, propelled by his prior successes, Sommers began tinkering with the story and turned it into a theatrical piece. He sent it off to the Players, who invited him to come pitch it to them on stage.
Thus began a new phase in Sommers’s creative career. Last February he sweated through a two-minute “audition” in front of the Players’ board. In April he got a call that the play had been selected, at which time he morphed into a director/stage manager/promotions director. Along with casting the parts, blocking out the scenes and attending rehearsals, Sommers has selected the pre-show music, designed and distributed promotional posters and created props for the show. Last week, he was busy creating authentic-looking awards and diplomas to hang on the stage walls.
Not every playwright who works with the Players is so hands on – in fact, Sommers is their first writer to direct his own show – but for him, it’s worked well.
“I think it’s important for writers to step out of their comfort zones,” said Sommers, who recently went to Boston to read from his latest short story, published in the Emerson Review. “And for their part, I guess they didn’t mind me being really controlling.”
It’s also been fun for Sommers to see the characters he created – an eccentric middle-aged woman who isn’t about to die gracefully, and her practical, long-suffering husband – come alive on the stage. “You have to be prepared to be surprised,” he said.
A Cross Section of the Hirschfields will be shown along with two other original one-act plays at the Players Ring Theatre, July 19 through 28. Tickets are $12 ($10 students and seniors), and all proceeds will benefit the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. For information and tickets, visit playersring.org.