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When Playwrights Play With History

Lamplight_Dialogues00HISTORY MATTERS

Until someone invents a real time machine, Kent Stephens will do. His series of six "Lamplight Dialogues" places live audineces in the real historic homes of re-animated characters from Portsmouth past. It’s the ultimate intimate theatre, and you get to keep your clothes on. (Read more below)

My brain thinks I met Ichabod Goodwin and his wife Sarah last week. That’s not possible, of course, because the former NH governor died more than a century ago. But my brain insists I was there, sitting just inside their mansion on Islington Street. That can’t be either, because their house was moved to Hancock Street in 1963 while I was still in grammar school.

Playwright_Kent_StephensYet the mind knows what the mind knows. Until last week when I met the Goodwins in the flesh, Ichabod was a pallid bust with a blank stare and a bulbous forehead that sits on a pedestal in the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He never said a word to me. He was just some rich politician who made a killing in the railroad biz and backed Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin was a pretty woman of 20 staring silently from her wedding portrait painted in 1828.

Much has been made recently of Kent Stephens theatrical double-trilogy entitled Lamplight Dialogues. The name doesn’t do it justice. The six one-act plays swept the annual Spotlight Awards for best acting, best writing and best directing. One of those plays is about the Goodwins and it is performed in the parlor of the Goodwin Mansion at Strawbery Banke Museum. The other five 18-minute plays take place in five other historic Puddle Dock homes and shine a dramatic light on the people who lived there. If Kent Stephens isn’t a playwriting genius, then I’m not two payments late on my estimated income tax.


The Dead Zone

But this is not a column about theater. It is a column about how we interact with the past, which for the most part, is about our relationship with old buildings, old stories, old streets and the kind of old things on display in museums. In Portsmouth we live among the stuff that dead people left behind. It’s our stuff now, and we cherish it.

As tangible as these artifacts are, they don’t tell us much about the people who first owned them. The ancient dead, for the most part, are dead to us. Their epitaphs and records, their photographs and portraits, even their letters and journals rarely conjure an image that sticks.

Writers can get you halfway there with evocative descriptions and colorful dialogue. History re-enactors, film actors and Chattaqua-style speakers, the good ones anyway, can draw you even closer to characters Xeroxed from the past. But only an accomplished playwright like Stephens can put you right in the room with a living being transmigrated -- flesh, bone, blood and soul – from a distant time.




The job of theatre

Back when I used to write theatre reviews in the early 80s Theatre by the Sea director Jeff Rosenstock told me bluntly that "Theater is hard work." Rosenstock (now at Queen’s Theatre in New York) was talking about the audience. It is enormously taxing, he said, to dress up, buy a pricey ticket, and sit for hours in a crowded room where real people are laying their emotions on the line. Easier just to veg-out in front of the TV.

That was especially true of the intimate 100-seat Theatre by the Sea back when it was located in the basement of an old grain warehouse on Ceres Street. The audience sat crammed in uncomfortable chairs packed so close that we all knew what everybody else, actors included, had eaten for dinner. I was once wedged so tightly into the front row that the cast of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice had to step around my knees.

Stephens has turned the work of theater into forced labor. Audience members must walk from the Tyco Center at Strawbery Banke to the six houses were the plays are performed. And they must do this outdoors in the dark following a tightly timed schedule. Because the venues are small, the audience is divided into three groups and led by three guides. The actors perform the first three plays three times in a row. Then they change costumes, change roles, change houses and do it again. Lamplight Dialogues is New England’s first aerobic stage production.

Alive and onstage

lamplight_Dialogues_AldrichBack in the late 90s Strawbery Banke president Denny O’Toole invited Seacoast Rep director Roy Rogosin and I to join a panel offering creative new directions for the 10-acre museum. "You’ve spent 30 years building a beautiful stage," we told the nonprofit board of directors. "When does the show start?"

Historic houses, after all, are filled with beautifully restored rooms in which nothing ever happens. Life, for the most part, has gone out of them. Tourists file through in season, stand behind the velvet ropes, and file out. The rooms sit empty at night.

Last year museum president Larry Yerdon gave Stephens the green light to craft a series of plays around dramatic moments in the life of Puddle Dock, then stage them right where they occurred. That is even harder than it sounds. All you need to powerfully re-enact the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre is a guy with a beard and a gun. Our memory and our emotions fill in the rest. But what ever happened at Puddle Dock?

Stephens dug deep and found gold. He says he was inspired by my book on the history of Strawbery Banke, and for that compliment I humbly thank him. But that’s like saying Sir Edmund Hillary was inspired by a day-hike up Mt. Agamenticus. I’ve seen a lot of theatrical productions based on local history over the years, but nothing like this. In scene after scene the playwright reaches into the past and pulls out a beating heart. I know these stories well, and Stephens gets them right.

Lamplight Dialogues manages to find the soul of each building within the characters who lived there. The language is artful and intelligent. The acting is top notch. The rooms are historic. The plots are revealing. The messages are clear. And like flies on the wall, we get to watch these characters work life out at close range in their own homes.

Most playwrights strive to create a world so real that audience members willingly suspend their disbelief. Stephens has gone a step further into the realm of invented memory. Which is why I am convinced that I spent an emotional Shabbat with Mollie and her father Avrum Shapiro in their kitchen one evening. And I clearly remember the day that Thomas Bailey Aldrich turned 16, and the night Leslie Clough got a raise at the Abbott Store. The mind knows what the mind knows. These memories are mine now.




Too good to be true

It is possible that Kent Stephens has gone too far, raising our expectations and turning innocent audiences into history voyeurs. Having ridden in his time machine will we ever be satisfied with the 21st century again? Inquiring minds want to know what happened inside 30 other houses at Strawbery Banke and in historic homes across the Old Town by the Sea. If we peer inside each others windows will we be carted off to jail?

Stephens also forces us to commit the sin of gluttony. For me, four plays were plenty. The human mind can only process so much intimate reality in a single evening.

And having seen the past, I worry about the future. These plays are good enough to be performed successfully on any stage. The play about the Shapiros, for example, does not need the Shapiro House. But the Shapiro House needs that play. So do we.

What I’m asking is whether Lamplight Dialogues is both ingenious and sustainable. At most the cycle of plays can accommodate 45 audience members per night. By my calculation, with a dozen cast members and more support staff, the price of admission should be $100 to make this venture both brilliant and profitable. Yet most tickets are a mere $25.

It’s heresy to say so, but someday we must admit that Portsmouth is a cultural Mecca because its talent works for peanuts. Writers and performers and musicians and artists get paid today what they got paid back when I arrived. Back then downtown Portsmouth was home to empty storefronts and topless bars. Then the artists were drawn to the many restored historic houses here, and the economy began to rise. You do the math.

I understand that no one wants to broach this painful subject. I’m sorry, but since I met the Goodwins and the Shapiros, my understanding of Portsmouth history is evolved beyond architecture and artifacts. I want to see them again and meet their neighbors. It is obvious that the playwright knows incantations that the historian does not. Historians are pretty good at rescuing fascinating people from the past. But we lack magic. The playwright knows how to make them sit up, open their eyes -- and sing.


Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of and author of a hardcover history of Strawbery Banke Museum.

BONUS PHOTOS by David J. Murray



(c) Photos courtesy David J. Murray


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