Barnstormers retake the stage

  • Director Clayton Phillips delivers notes to the cast and crew of The Barnstormers’ upcoming production of “Our Town” during a recent day of rehearsals. Casey McDermott / NHPR

Published: 7/27/2021 4:54:25 PM

When the pandemic shut down live theater across most of the country last year, Chazmond Peacock tried to make the best of things, keeping his theatrical skills and his sanity intact with plenty of virtual performances. But the chance to return to the stage with The Barnstormers in Tamworth this summer couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

“I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, because I am so sick of Zoom,’ ” Peacock recalled. “I’m over it. I don’t want to have another Zoom meeting. I don’t want to learn how to try to sing musical theater on Zoom.”

Thankfully, he won’t have to wait much longer to get back in front of a live audience. The Barnstormers will kick off their 2021 season this week with a modern interpretation of the Thornton Wilder classic, Our Town. The show runs from July 27 to 31, followed by a full lineup of other productions scheduled through the fall.

“It just feels so wonderful to be doing theater with people,” Peacock said, “and ultimately going to be on a stage, after the year and a half – or more – that we’ve had.”

For the cast and crew members behind Our Town, the pandemic meant losing out on a big part of their livelihoods.

Cast member Cheryl Mullings spent her last day out in the world before things shut down last year in the company of fellow Barnstormers’ alumni, following a series of auditions in New York City for the company’s 2020 lineup. That evening, she said, nearly all of her jobs dried up. She didn’t know when they’d come back.

“It really felt like a nightmare,” Mullings recalled.

Now, it doesn’t quite seem possible that she’s back in the company of her friends at The Barnstormers Theatre in Tamworth, preparing to perform in front of a live audience.

“I keep waiting for someone to pinch me, like it’s a dream,” she said in between rehearsals this weekend.

The return has also felt surreal for Joe Longthorne, a former member of the Barnstormers’ company who’s wading into a new role as the theater’s interim artistic director. It was especially important for him to welcome audiences back with a show like Our Town, because it underscores the importance of community and not taking the little things for granted, lessons that felt especially resonant in this moment.

“After such a long, sort of tiresome, really tough year for a lot of folks, to come back to the theater with a play like this, it just teaches us that we have to appreciate every moment in life and that life is such a beautiful thing that’s worth cherishing,” Longthorne said.

Peacock, one of the cast members, said he’s also excited to be part of a production of Our Town that defies expectations in its casting choices and speaks to the contemporary moment in other ways, nodding to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. As an African American man playing the role of Simon Stimson, the town outsider, Peacock said he was able “to channel things that I’ve experienced in life through Simon and make the role my own.”

“Having certain pivotal characters being cast in a way that they’re not traditionally cast really does shed a light on things that we need to be paying attention to,” Peacock said.

The play also feels personal to Mullings, who plays Mrs. Webb, the matriarch of one of the two families at the center of the show.

“After everything that’s happened this year and the loss of life, and people that I know that I’ve lost, from COVID or otherwise, it’s especially poignant,” Mullings said. “It’s like there’s more to draw from, which is unfortunate.”

But on the other side of her losses in the last year, Mullings also said she can understand even more deeply the message at the heart of Our Town.

“We’re all vulnerable,” she said. “Sometimes I cry more than I used to. Sometimes I laugh more than I used to. But I think that’s the beauty of this play, and especially at this time, to just really remember to appreciate life.”

A few things to know before you attend a Barnstormers show:

■While things are back to normal in some ways, this production will look a bit different than before the pandemic. Instead of performing inside the company’s iconic theater in the heart of Tamworth, the Barnstormers will instead host audiences at an outdoor stage just across the street, on the lawn of the Tamworth History Center.

■Audience members will also have their temperatures checked upon arrival and are asked to wear masks, except for when they’re eating or drinking, “except when consuming food or beverage.”

■Unlike in past seasons, the public won’t be able to mingle with cast members for photos or autographs after the show.

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