Playhouse 101 focus of upcoming events

Photo by KATHY CLEVELAND Bonnie Gondola is shown with part of the Playhouse 101 display she created at the First Congregational Church in Milford.

MILFORD – Bonnie Gondola was looking through some of the archives at the First Congregational Church last year and found items not usually associated with a church: two playbills.

Gondola is the parish historian, so she took them to the Milford Historical Society and was told to call Terry Lorden in New York.

It was a phone call for which Lorden had been waiting for a long time.

The playbills were from Playhouse 101, the professional summer theater Lorden co-founded here 46 years ago with Roi White, then head of the theater department at Plymouth State College, now University.

Next week, Lorden will be here for events commemorating the theater that began with his dream thousands of miles away.

Lorden was raised in Milford, and he developed the idea for a Milford summer theater while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

When he returned home, he broached the idea with Cabinet Publisher Bill Rotch and other area residents who might be in a position to help, including artist Phoebe Flory, whose parents were among those who founded the Cleveland Play House as an avant-guarde theater in the early years of the 20th century.

In June 1971, the theater opened in the First Congregational Church parish house with the Neil Simon comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” followed by “The Fantastics” “Bus Stop” and other classic American plays. They were all hits, with 10,000 evening tickets sold that first season.

Over the next few years of its existence, Playhouse 101 productions attracted rave reviews from major newspapers, including the Boston Globe.

In a written remembrance of “Barefoot in the Park,” Peter Phillips, one of the early actors, said the audience was thrilled.

The parish house “was jam-packed and just plain squealed with surprise and delight to see an ensemble so polished give them a show so fun,” he wrote. ” ‘Barefoot’s’ run was soon sold out, as well as the entire summer season.

“Playhouse 101 enlivened a deserving town with new visitors, new summer residents and new energy.”

Soon, the playhouse outgrew its church quarters, and a new theater, the American Stage Festival, was built off Mont Vernon Street near the Souhegan River.

After seven seasons of summer theater, Lorden left for a directing position at the Circle Repertory Theater in New York, but part of his heart stayed in Milford.

He loved all of the shows – “They’re all my children,” he said. But when pressed, Lorden said he is especially fond of “The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show,” inspired by, but not about, Milford’s Hutchinson Singers.

Known simply as “The Prairie Show,” it went on to a successful off-Broadway run.

Milford audiences had an“amazing reaction” to “The Prairie Show,” he said in a phone interview last week. “They were in tears. … It was a very lovable show.”

If Playhouse 101 was Lorden’s baby, next week’s retrospective is Gondola’s, who has invited many people who were involved in the theater.

Some of the original actors will be here, she said, including the child actor who played Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”

“It’s taken over my life,” she said last week. “I talk with Terry about four times a day. None of us are getting any younger, and I felt it was important to get it all down.”

And that is important, Philips said in his rememberance, because Lorden should be honored “for having a vision, not just for a theater, but for a town, a region. And that success was all the more worthy of acknowledgment, because at a particular time in the life of a particular town, it was profoundly shared.”

Brad Craven remembers the way the American Stage Festival transformed the town during summers in the early 1980s.

“We had dozens of people hosting actors, directors and designers, and interns from all over,” the Milford High School principal said in an email. “Restaurants were very busy before and after the shows. The Unitarian Church was the rehearsal hall for shows in preparation while the current show was playing by the river.

“Late nights, crazy ‘changeovers,’ lots of tiny Pilgrim Airlines little prop planes shuttling folks to and from NYC. It was something else.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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