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When Playwrights Play With History



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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