Published DateMEREDITH — Eleven years ago, Neil Pankhurst had a bold dream. He wanted to build a theater, specifically, a courtyard-style theater reminiscent of the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the three auditoriums of the National Theatre in London.
Pankhurst, along with the rest of the nonprofit Winnipesaukee Playhouse organization, has been watching that dream come true over the past year. The newly constructed theatre, which sits on a Resevoir Road campus unlike anything this side of the Berkshires, will be unveiled to the public today and tomorrow during a weekend-long open house.
On Saturday night, beginning at 6 p.m., the Winnipesaukee Playhouse theatre will host a gala fund raiser. The evening will begin with a cocktail hour and tours of the facility until 7 p.m., at which point patrons will be welcomed into the auditorium for a performance lasting until 8:15. Dessert and coffee will then conclude the event. Tickets for the gala cost $75.
The theatre will host a free open house on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The general public is invited to attend for tours, activities, theater games, arts and crafts for children, a costume photo booth, and to try their luck in winning tickets or Winni Playhouse swag.
Also this weekend, the Winnipesaukee Playhouse will host its third playwriting festival. On Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m., and starting at 2 p.m. on Sunday, works written and performed by local teenagers and adults will be performed. The public is welcome to attend any or all plays, presented in the outdoor amphitheater, for a small fee.
A decade and a year ago, Pankhurst's dream might as well have been so much pie in the sky. He wasn't alone, though. His wife Lesley joined him, as did Lesley's brother Bryan Halperin and his wife Johanna. By 2004, they had formed the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, which offered professional and community theatre performances as well as theatre education at the Alpen Rose Plaza at Weirs Beach through December of last year.
About five years ago, the vision of a Cottesloe–like theatre came closer to reality when the Winni Playhouse, with significant help from well-heeled supporters, began the process of acquiring the former Annalee Dolls campus in Meredith. Featuring several buildings situated on a four-acre space and surrounded by woods, the spot seemed the perfect place to not only build Neil his theater, but also to cultivate a theatre campus, similar to those found in western Massachusetts but unlike anything in New Hampshire.
After identifying and securing the location, the Winnipesaukee Playhouse set out on a fund raising effort which spanned several years and raised millions of dollars. The money paid for extensive groundwork to the property, as well as a $3.5 million conversion/addition of one of the buildings into a theater building unlike anything else in the region. With about 200 seats – more depending on configuration of the stage – the new auditorium can accommodate more than twice as many as their Alpen Rose space.
The building also has many other features, including a lobby for pre-show mingling, a performer's lounge, a practice space, a green room, offices, an orchestra pit for musicals, dressing rooms and storage for props and costumes.
The new theater is not just larger and nicer — it offers the Winnipesaukee Playhouse the opportunity to do shows that were previously impossible. For example, the first professional show this summer, beginning June 19, is Noises Off!, a farce that requires the construction of a two-level, revolving set. Lesley said she and her cohorts have been dreaming of producing the show for years. "It's a great, audience-pleasing show, we couldn't have done it at our old place."
Tickets at the new venue will cost $27 for orchestra seats, balcony seating is available for $15 to $22.
Now that he's finally seeing his long-held dream appear before him, Neil said he was feeling: "Relief. It's a combination of excitement and nervousness, because I'm the one that designed it (with help from an architect)." Although he's happy with the way it's taken shape, Neil said he wouldn't know until the first play is performed how it actually functions as a theater.
"We're excited to get people in here," said Lesley. Dozens of volunteers, helping to put the finishing touches on the building, have had a sneak preview, she said, and all have had the same reaction. "It's literally jaw-dropping, the excitement that people have."
"It's been amazing, the number of volunteers that have come to help," added Bryan. He's encouraged by how excited they have been to have a part in the organization and hoped the excitement would spread to more participation in the Winnipesaukee Theatre's goings on.
"I hope people are going to be awed, I hope they're as excited as I am about it," said Neil.