NICOLE S. COLSON
The pandemic gave many arts organizations the time and opportunity to think deeply about their mission and the future. In the case of Peterborough Players, it was a chance to determine the best ways to reach the largest number of theater patrons. Above all, increased access ensures its longevity far past the 100-year mark.
Tom Frey is artistic director of the 90-year-old rural theater. The venue lives tucked away in Peterborough at the end of a long wooded road—its location since the Great Depression era. Part of an abandoned farm when purchased, the Peterborough Players theater sits within an 18th-century renovated barn. Its storied past includes a visit to a production of “Our Town” by the play’s author, Thornton Wilder, who was sitting in the audience.
Like any such organization, Peterborough Players has had to redefine its place in the performing arts world after nearly a century in existence.
At this time, that has meant expanding access.
“What you get at the Players are beautiful stories expertly told by professional actors, designers and stage managers,” said Frey. “That gives the Players a national reputation—that’s at the top of the pyramid. During COVID, like every other theater in the world, we took the opportunity to examine how we do the plays, how we produce and what we want to do on the campus. We want to make choices the people following us will appreciate us having made.”
The Players enrich programming, audience experience
This summer, the Players have significantly expanded the experience for audiences. On its website, a page titled Come Play at the Players! explains it all. The Players Club Lounge with a full bar opens 90 minutes before curtain time and stays open after the show. On opening nights, patrons may have their photo taken on the red carpet and enjoy a post-show toast and party bites. “Date nights” include a food truck on-site before the show and outdoor garden seating.
“When we plan the season, we make sure the ethos of the Players is welcoming,” said Frey. “It begins when people park their car and continues when they are greeted at the door and offered extra help getting in if needed.”
Talk backs with the audience are now the first Saturday and Sunday of each performance with special guests. Additionally, a new program called Peek at the Players allows visitors to watch a rehearsal, tour the grounds, visit the costume shop and take a look at where scenery is built.
“We’re changing the way the audience interacts,” said Frey. “All of us who work here want to be here and we love the Players. We want people to have a great time there. We love welcoming people—we don’t have to put it on. It’s the attention to detail that helps us become a place where people want to come and can come and stay.
Peterborough Players welcomes a younger audience
Frey said the board and staff are ever-considering any barriers that might prevent audience members from enjoying what the Players have to offer. This especially includes ticket price. For example, the theater has a long-time pay-what-you-can night in place on the first Friday night of each production. Furthermore, they are looking to offer more benefit events to bring the cost for audiences down even more.
“We want to create opportunities for people to come (including students) and be able to afford the evening,” he said, adding that they are looking to do so this fall.
Another plan on the table to expand access to young people is building an organization that will work with local schools and offer an introduction on how to be an audience member.
“They can affect the play from the audience—they can’t affect Netflix,” said Frey. “Every time they go to the theater, they are part of the experience. We can help them make their experience better, and then bring them into the general audience to have a real theater experience.”
As a companion to that initiative, the Players are retooling the Second Company program, now called Players Junior.
“We offered a play group online for two Fridays,” said Frey. “We held a live rehearsal and talked about it. The more (young people) know about theater, the more the magic is apparent.”
The Players cultivate community with theater
Building the audience is key for many reasons, including unexpected ones.
“The audience itself is our greatest outreach,” said Frey. “The rest of us are here to nudge the experience along. The entire point of the exercise is to connect with the audience. I think theater is really vital to building community. It’s an empathy machine. We are in a situation where our hearts are beating along with the rest of the audience. We tend to get in the same rhythm because we are watching and experiencing that event. We are changed. It creates understanding and cracks us open a little bit.”
For more information about Peterborough Players, visit www.peterboroughplayers.org. Also, call the box office at 603-924-7585, or stop into the theater at 55 Hadley Road.
For more information about the Arts Access Project: opening doors to the arts, visit Arts Access project and resources.