Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Old Homestead, Swanzey, NH

Imagine Garrison Keillor talking about a stage production from his childhood, a Lake Wobegon tradition, now long since defunct. Now imagine the first awakening of that Sehnsucht for Keillor, a nostalgist from his childhood, describing for young Gary a stage play from their own town that toured the country in 1900, and was a big deal then (though no one remembers it now). Theater hanging by a thread on the prairie, because people wanted to have it for a dozen reasons of their own.

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Dropping by before the production, a guy who seemed to be one of the head techs points out to me the 11 instruments that light the show, and informs me "Five of them came from an old battleship.  It's hard to get bulbs for them now."  I'll bet. I look at the stained burlap main curtain and the few bare benches on the grassy hillside.  My first thought was I have to tell my brother Jonathan about this.  And he thought Sudbury Savoyards and Plymouth State College was primitive lighting.

Thus I am surprised the next night when the four sets are elaborate and quite good. One in particular is a marvelous backdrop.

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We have long been driving to church camp past the Potash Bowl, where they stage a community production of The Old Homestead every year. You can catch the history at the link, but the short version is this: It's a long-running community theater production in Swanzey NH. The playwright was a minor 19th C song-and-dance man who hit it big with this one script when he fell on hard times, playing the lead role 15,000 times and making a fortune. The town revived the playscript of their favorite son in 1939 as a fundraiser. It is now the third-longest-running outdoor play in the country. The Lost Colony in NC and Ramona in CA seem to be ahead of it. I can't find the definitive list, but my own search uncovers no others earlier. All of the similar productions seem to be largely professional, tourist-driven affairs about historic events, though with more modern scripts.

Whatever is fourth on the list is going to become third-longest in two years, as Swanzey is throwing in the towel after the 75th year July perfomances in 2016. (Arithmetic note: WWII. Blackouts.) I see their point, and I think they are making the right decision, but it's shame. This script and performance are historical in a different way, and I can't find anything else in the country like it. The play is not "about" the 19th C, it is from the 19th C, and produced in a fashion that would have been common then. Local musicians, local actors, local designers, directors, everything. Just the regular folks you meet in church, or the elementary school, or the aisles of stores, and the surprise is "Hey! Some of these people are really good!"

I should note that it is also historically accurate late-19th C American humor, which is less funny in a 21st C context. As in Oh, yeah, I get it now. Ha ha ha. Yeah. More on this later.

It's a midpoint between the feeling you have at every talent show, when Act#5 shows real talent* - you are pleasantly surprised - and "Britain's Got Talent" when some shy housewife shows jaw-dropping professional talent. This is between. These are the best talents of your neighbors, better than people-who-got-up-and-sang-a-duet-because-the-program-was-short, but not those magical talents that go viral on YouTube. You are so happy that they're good. You never knew. The eight guys in Act I who seemed to be pointlessly working together on someone else's farm before going home for the evening did a very decent barbershop rendition of "Massa's In The Cold, Cold Ground" and "The Old Oaken Bucket." The town band from the next community over was just fine. How do they pull such a group from so few people?

"The Old Homestead" is not a good script, though it made it to Broadway in 1903. The NYC shine and fame of Denman Thompson was the foundation for this community theater's origin, but it's the modern talent that's carrying it now.  This was before American Musical Theater. In 1900, transitions into musical numbers basically amounted to "Fellers, let's have a song." It's cornball, and the current actors get the irony lovingly. Yet back in the day, this was as good as entertainment got.  "Before you go, could you play my favorite song?" Thompson steers the script so that he can work in a pointless joke about the Centennial, and names a character Jack Hazzard so that the old coots can ask "Any relation to Hap Hazzard?" (knee slap.) The plot meanders into several of these, but the basic idea was dear to the hearts of the people of a moving, expanding, population where children went away - and we hope not astray. A country boy goes to New York and turns to drink. A NYC boy becomes a railroad tramp and turns to drink in the country. Through the kindness of strangers, they both repent, return to their homes, and are restored. Tying this together is country mouse/city mouse humor from each group encountering the other.  Plus Irish servants, old coots competing for the same woman, and a flirting girl.  Great stuff.

Before vaudeville. Not all vaudeville was great, you know. It was mostly crap, or at best, ephemeral.  The cream, the 1% that survived that, and the transition to radio and the talkies and even (gulp) TV, give us the false impression that the touring performances were just riotous, laugh-a-minute humor.  Nah. Plus, vaudeville (the earliest versions frankly suck, but you can see the potential if you squint real hard) drew on French Variety and English Music Hall entertainers, so even that was the top shelf of three cultures. And still wasn't usually all that funny, and they didn't sing or dance that well.

Even before that.

If I lived in Swanzey I would have been roped into this years ago, because I sing a little, act a little, all of that. I would bring up the average an five fronts, but not outshine the lot. My dad would have owned a succession of roles of this had it been Westford, MA. (My two younger brothers would probably have participated as teenagers and then wisely moved on.) For those inside, it's just a local thing, trying to drum up people to move scenery or work the concessions every year.  The play isn't that big in the history of theater, it's only important because (blush) well it's Swanzey, and it's all we've got. No one else came from here, and people in Keene laugh at us.

*"She also had a Minor in Voice at State U. You didn't know?"

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Next year, for the last performance, everything changes. This year, it is a Thornton Wilder universality drawn from the specific: dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of towns and stagehands and nights. In 2016, The Old Homestead enters a W.P. Kinsella, Tom Stoppard, Ionesco, Borges world.  The cliche "it works on so many levels" becomes true. This is the last dinosaur - a small one, unnoticed, disappears into the forest.

The curtain rises at 7:30pm.  Cloth being cloth, and the sun setting in the west, the scene changers after the long first act are not visible through the burlap. The audience sits impatiently, wondering what could possibly take so long in an amateur production. The town band plays on, one old song and two from Disney movies, as if losing the battle of securing us to a receding past.  But as the sky darkens and the many backstage workers need light later, their overhead hardware-store floodlights behind the curtain start to illuminate their many movements after Act II, and are fully, though eerily visible after Act III. We sit and watch the ghosts of decades of stagehands move complicated scenery to set up another 19th C moment, defiantly staking the past into the stage.  Five minutes, almost ten of human shapes disassembling a Place and assembling another. Next year it will be even more pronounced, and they will set the scene One Last Time before it slips into the abyss. It will not be some magnificent Wagnerian set they preserve against the Götterdämmerung; it's just an old farmhouse behind a scrim. Oddly, it is revealed at the end they had another curtain they could have pulled between to disguise it all along. Accident.

Touch carefully.  If you go next year you might leave this time and not get back.


Unknown said...

I think your comments are right on the mark. As president of The Old Homestead Association and "Uncle Josh" we have been faced with several problems over the years. First, it is harder to get people to commit to a five week rehearsal schedule, 4 nights a week for some from 7 to 9:30 pm, second is getting enough other people to handle tasks like advertising, stage crew and now refreshment stand, our local Lions Club folded this year, and lastly we are "selling" a product that was very well received in its day 1886 to 1911ish. When the play opened in 1939 people had seen the original or knew of it as Denman Thompson did not play it in NH that often. So for the first 35 or so years we packed the Potash Bowl. But the last 35 or so years we have seen a steady decline in attendance. And how do you sell a dated play about a simpler life? Well we work on the history end of it, that some of the characters were actually real people who are buried in the cemetery right behind the Potash Bowl. Well enough from me. We forge on to next year, our 75th and maybe our last year. I say that because maybe we will have those new people who come in to get involved. I've be coming to the Potash Bowl ever since I can remember, I couldn't stay past the 1st act at first. Officially I got on the program in 1970. There has been a Dunham on the program since the beginning in 1939. Part of me doesn't want to see it go for it is about my ancestors. My great,great,great grandfather was Capt Otis Whitcomb and half of the real Swanzey resident that gave Denman his main character "Joshua Whitcomb". So we will see as we head into this 2016 season what lies ahead.
Thank you for your comments
Lee Dunham president, The Old Homestead Association

Sam L. said...

A fine piece of writing, Mr. AVI. There's a comedic melodrama out my way, some 30 years old, set in about 1900 +/- 10 years. Indoors. Much easier to deal with. I was in Ramona country for a time, but never went. Read that Victor Jory had been in it (and I'm old enough to have seen him on TV and know who he was).