American Stage Festival paved way 40 years ago

MILFORD – Forty years ago, a group of theater lovers decided to form their own troupe in Milford, the legacy of which has persevered over the decades.

Back on July 18, 1975, the American Stage Festival opened its doors at The Souhegan Valley Theatre, and prevailed until 2002, whereupon the legacy that it left inspired other budding thespians to this day, paving the path for the Milford Area Players, who now tread the boards at the Amato Center for the Performing Arts.

Actually, given the rushed circumstances that the group first met the public, it’s remarkable that this theater ever got off the ground at all.

Funds were raised for the theater throughout 1974, and construction was rushed through. By the time the curtain was set to rise, they were hardly in the position to stage a show of the caliber they were anticipating. There was no air conditioning in the building, and the audience had to sit in folding metal chairs. Nevertheless, the show, as they say, must go on.

“We inherited a building with no floor and only the bare studded walls,” said former Director Terry Lorden in a recent interview from New York City. “At any rate, we decided to open with the 1927 musical ‘Showboat’ with barely-finished costumes and sets. I really can’t believe that we managed to pull it off. Unfortunately, the major Boston reviewer decided to attend that first show.”

Despite these difficulties, the show was an immediate success, with 600 people in attendance. With this triumph under their belts, the group decided to pursue other productions at the same time, as the core cast were in repertory. These included “The Petrified Forest” by Robert Sherwood and “The Miser” by Moliere. In ensuing months, these triumphs were followed by other lights of the stage, including “Death of A Salesman” and “The Devil’s Disciple.”

For the most part, however, Lorden stayed away from somber titles, believing that they would drive away potential audiences.

“Our only commercial pressure is that we can’t do plays with ‘down’ titles,” he told the Boston Herald in 1975, “say ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ Audiences don’t come. We could get away with ‘Golden Boy,’ even though it’s somber, because the title is upbeat. It’s a strange business.”

What worked for Lorden was that he had the backing of the community as a whole. Raised in Milford, he was first a high school English teacher, then an “apprentice in development” at a San Francisco theater. Later, he returned home, and founded Playhouse 101 in the 215-seat hall of the Congregational church.

“I had a head start,” he said at the time in an interview with The Boston Herald. “I knew this town and exactly who’d be too embarrassed to refuse me help.” Fully aware of the town and its conservative values, he stipulated that short haircuts be in the contracts of his actors.

The theater was a success, filling 95 percent of its seats throughout its first four years.

“It was really an astonishing accomplishment,” Lorden said. “Remember, this was in the middle of the mid-1970s recession. Additionally, Milford wasn’t really seen as a tourist or theater destination, most of those venues being either in the White Mountains or Peterborough or Massachusetts. As a matter of fact, the Peterborough Players were a wonderful help to us at that time. We worked together, and occasionally even traded actors.”

Lorden stressed that the festival was actually a larger event, with the stage production playing but one part.

“The Stage Festival was a multi-arts festival,” Lorden said. “There were three weekend Arts and Crafts Fests, with live outside performers, which filled much of the then nine-acre riverside, roadside and wooded site. Monday Specials brought concert, opera and dance troupes, memorably including “Pops” concerts from the Monadnock Music and N.H. Music Festival.”

As it was, Lorden set the goals remarkably high for his nascent organization, and felt that it could be a real player on the world stage.

“We had an idea that this was going to grow into something that could be America’s answer to the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Festival,” he said. “Of course, they completely concentrate on Shakespeare, while we were going to focus on large-scale American plays and musicals.”

Lorden headed the American Stage Festival for three years, leaving at the end of the 1977 season.

“After that, there were five or six eras of leadership,” he said. “With each change of leader, it changed more and more. By the early 1990s, the focus changed to the theater in Nashua. Of course, the theater in Milford was shuttered from 2002 to 2004, whereupon it reopened as the Amato Center for the Performing Arts.”

It was during this dark period that the Milford Area Players formed, intent on continuing the area’s theater tradition. Their initial productions were performed in the Milford Town Hall, while they were also working financially and physically toward the old theater. In 2004, they became the resident theater company of the newly-opened Amato Center for the Performing Arts, under the auspices of the Boys and Girls Club of Souhegan Valley.

Lorden says that he’s planning on celebrating this notable anniversary in a rather low-key manner.

“I’m probably going to go out to dinner with some of the surviving original actors and directors who are here in New York,” he said. “We’ll talk over old times and tell each other stories. When you work with people in the theater, no matter how many years it’s been, you just pick up right where you left off. We’ll all meet up when one of our members ends up in the hospital or passes on. We’ve stayed in touch all these years.”