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New London Barn Playhouse launches $3.5 million building campaign

  • The New London Barn Playhouse is planning the largest construction project in its 89-year history. The $3.5 million project will expand the venerable Barn's porch, install new restrooms, a courtyard and parking, and it will add a new building for rehearsals and education programs and a scene shop. Barn officials say they plan to break ground in the spring. (Courtesy New London Barn Playhouse) Courtesy New London Barn Playhouse

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2021 7:58:36 PM
Modified: 1/31/2021 7:58:34 PM

NEW LONDON — Throughout its long history, the New London Barn Playhouse has been a summer place.

The converted barn itself was too drafty for any but the warmest days, and for much of the theater company’s 89-year history, it produced only musicals, the sunniest of theater pieces.

But the past 20 years have wrought big changes at the company, most notably a pivot to nonprofit status. And the biggest change is in the works.

If its strong fundraising continues, the Barn Playhouse will break ground in the spring on a $3.5 million project to improve the old barn and to build a new Center for Artistic Development that will turn the company into a year-round operation. So far, a capital campaign has raised $2.7 million. The public phase of that campaign, when the Barn will ask the wider community to contribute, opens Monday.

“We’re honoring all the traditions and history that are beloved by our patrons, but this project allows us to chart a new course for the future,” Keith Coughlin, the Barn’s executive artistic director, said in a phone interview. 

The building project is intended to improve the experience of attending plays in the converted barn by expanding the porch and installing an adjacent courtyard, by improving parking and installing an elevator from the parking area to the porch-level and by putting in restrooms on the same floor as the theater.

The project also includes a myriad of other improvements meant to make the Barn Playhouse a better place to work for staff and the summertime cast of visiting actors, directors and crew, a group that typically numbers around 100 people, including new offices, a larger costume shop and a larger box office.

The planned Center for Artistic Development will be a four-season space that will contain a multi-purpose space for rehearsals in the summer and education programs the rest of the year. The space also could be used for public programming, such as small productions or script readings. Downstairs will be a new scene shop.

Overall, the aim is to set the Barn Playhouse up as an inviting destination for talented performers and designers, to cement the theater into the Lake Sunapee region with a wider range of programming and to ensure the company’s continued success.

The construction is slated to cost around $2.8 million, including architect’s costs, with another $440,000 to go into a fund to cover maintenance. The new building was designed by Banwell Architects, of Lebanon.

Discussions about expanding the theater company’s footprint date back around eight years, to when Carol Dunne was running the show. Dunne left the Barn Playhouse to become artistic director of Northern Stage in White River Junction, where she shepherded through a capital campaign and construction of a new $7.4 million theater

The Barn Playhouse’s project will be the latest development in local theater infrastructure, which includes in the past decade Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts and the Grange Theatre in South Pomfret. Barn Playhouse leaders said there’s a hunger in the community for good theater, and for theater education.

Janet Miller Haines, who chaired Northern Stage’s board of directors while its new theater went up and is now on the Barn Playhouse’s board, said Dunne started to make improvements, including bringing up the pay scale for cast and crew.

Elliott Cunningham, who started at the Barn as an actor and is now its managing director, said that the company’s production values have been improving year after year, and casting for the summer’s shows improves as well. The construction project is meant to solidify those improvements.

“I just think the way the Barn Playhouse works will be totally changed in a really, really positive way,” Cunningham said. 

The company has been able to keep the ball rolling during the pandemic, including producing some shows on site that could be watched, or in the case of a radio play produced in conjunction with NHPR, listened to, online. Thanks to federal and state funding, the Barn hasn’t had to lay off any of its seven staff.

The coronavirus might even have benefited the capital campaign, Haines said. As a result of having to cancel the summer season, each board member had to phone 30 or so ticket holders to ask them if they’d like to roll their tickets over to the following year, give the ticket money as a donation or receive a refund.

“The 32 people that I called proved absolutely inspiring,” Haines said. The support that patrons showed “was very affirming of the part the Barn plays in the lives of people from this area.” 

The pandemic also will play a role in when the new construction can open to the public.

“We are anticipating that the new building will be completed by October,” Coughlin said. “Based on health conditions, we would be thrilled to begin holding programs in the fall or by the spring of 2022.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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