Summer Nights: New London Barn Playhouse full of history, future of theater
From right: New London Barn Playhouse Acting Intern Company member Elaine Daiber of Milton, Mass., and musical director Eric Fotreleach of Rochester, Ill., rehearse for "Intern Idols", an hourlong revue performance in which two teams of interns compete in front of an audience, in New London on Friday, July 19, 2013.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
From left: New London Barn Playhouse Acting Intern Company members Alexis Bruza of New Orleans, La., Chris McNiff of Westport, Conn., Hannah Kornfeld of San Diego, Calif., and director Taryn Tonelli of Montvale, N.J., share a laugh while rehearsing for "Intern Idols", an hourlong revue performance in which two teams of interns compete in front of an audience, in New London on Friday, July 19, 2013.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
Wigs for the New London Barn Playhouse performance of "Singin' In the Rain" are seen in the dressing room of the barn in New London on Friday, July 19, 2013. The show features 712 costume pieces and 209 costume changes.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
The skies over Concord have been reliably cloudy these summer nights. But in New London, the stars have been shining. And smiling. And shaking hands.
At the New London Barn Playhouse, the audience gets to spend time after every performance meeting and schmoozing with the actors, professionals and college-student interns alike.
The Barn has been putting on professional shows in New London since 1933, making it the oldest continuously operating summer stock theater in the state. Thousands of college students and recent graduates audition for a chance to join the intern company and perform with professionals from the theater world.
Last Friday, just before the curtain rose at 7:30 p.m., patrons filled the porch and overflowed to the sidewalk as they waited to pick up or purchase tickets and pass through the 1830 barn’s front door. The New London Auxiliary rented pillows for 5 cents to raise money for local scholarships, a vestige of the days when the seats were hard wooden benches. These days, the barn is filled with rows of plush velvety chairs and is even air-conditioned.
In the old days, actors had to run around outside to get from stage left to stage right. One night, the power went out, and the director drove his car around front and used his headlights to illuminate the stage so the show could go on.
Though the barn still looks very
much like a barn inside, recent years have brought many conveniences in addition to air conditioning, seat cushions and a real backstage. The actors have body microphones, technology that was missing as recently as 2008.
Singin’ in the Rain, which continues through Sunday, features actual sprinkles and puddles and splashes, and boasts one dance sequence that’s full of pure stage magic, taking a cloud of dancers in gray dresses and turning them into a rainbow right before the audience’s eyes.
Audience members who arrived early last Friday – very early, before getting a pre-show dinner at one of the many restaurants on Main Street – found the professional leads chatting on the shady porch while the interns scrambled in dance shoes and workout clothes, heading from one rehearsal to the next. The sound of hammers, saws and the radio in the technical production room blared from the basement.
“There’s no predictability” to the days at the barn, said production manager Mark Gostomski, who spent his afternoon fixing a kink in the rain system.
The only routine is, “when they ring the bell, it’s time to eat.”
The 16 interns eat, sleep, work and play together for the summer in two big buildings across the street from the barn. While the guest professionals have to attend only rehearsals for their show in the morning for two weeks, and the next two weeks, their performances at night, days for the interns start early, about 8. They rehearse every day for the show that will open next, and are assigned duties in the production departments to learn about costuming, set construction and more.
At night, they perform, and sometimes, as in the case of Hannah Kornfeld, an intern from San Diego, Calif., playing Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, they outshine the pros on the stage.
Every other Monday, when there is no official show, they perform an original song-and-dance revue called Intern Idols; rehearsals for that get squeezed into 20-minute or hour-long blocks of the interns’ “free time.”
They got one night off this summer, and they won’t get another.
“It feels like we’ve been here for 10 years, in a good way,” said Tony Conaty, a 20-year-old from Walnut Creek, Calif. “I had heard about it from friends and they said, ‘You’re going to learn so much. It’s nonstop pushing yourself to the limits, actually doing it, instead of just learning things at school.”
The hard work doesn’t leave bitter memories, though. “Barnies” return year after year, like Jason Moody and Edward Tolve, two members of the intern Class of 2011 who returned this year to play the two male leads in Singin’ in the Rain.
Just before returning this summer, Moody performed with the international touring production of HAIR.
“Usually, you take a bow, you go backstage and take your costume off and go out the stage door. If there’s any interaction with the audience, it might be there, but usually they don’t even know where the stage door is,” he said.
“Porch time is what it’s all about here. People thank us, we thank them. They say they remember you from last time you were here, or that you were the best Don Lockwood they’ve seen, and they’ve been coming to the barn for 50 years. It really means something. What’s something else that’s influenced your life for 50 years?”
Because the atmosphere is so supportive, the actors and other artists feel safe enough to take real risks with the show.
“I can make mistakes as an artist here. I can try something new,” said Tolve. “I don’t have to be afraid of a bad punch line. . . . It’s like a family here.”
It’s a family in the theater world at large, too. Every job he’s had since his intern summer, Moody has run into someone who has worked at the barn, or knew someone who did.
Andrew Miller is another former intern who came back this summer after graduating from Ithaca College to teach one of the day camps for area children. Next, he plans to head for the mean streets of New York City.
His summer as an intern, he got to play his dream role, Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And no matter what New York throws at him this fall, it can’t take that away.
“The Barn gave me the opportunity to do what I do best, to play sidekicks, to play comedy, to play people who get beaten up. It filled my resume and now I can go places and say, ‘Here, here is proof I can do it,’ ” he said.
“The Barn is really great at fulfilling wishes.”
Singin’ in the Rain is playing through this weekend, but if you miss it, don’t despair. Within 12 hours, the interns and crew will have dismantled the scenery and installed the set for A Legendary Romance, a new musical making its premiere at the barn Wednesday.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)