Fresh paint

Restored furniture store to open in Plaistow

Kerri Durkee of Atkinson is taking her upcycled furniture business to the next level with a new storefront, opening Saturday, March 6, in the Plaistow Commons strip mall. Better Than Before Home Furnishings & Design will feature used furnishings and home decor, restored and repainted by Durkee.

“It’s just amazing what a coat of paint will do for an ugly or scratched up or water-stained piece of furniture,” Durkee said. “It just brings it right up to date.”

It all started at a yard sale, she said, where she fell in love with a bench that was “old and dirty and kind of a mess,” but too unique to pass up. She took it home and cleaned it up, repainted it and replaced the fabric on the seat cushion.

“I posted a picture of it on social media, and somebody said they wanted to buy it,” she said. “I think that’s when I caught the bug.”

She started picking up more pieces at yard sales, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, estate sales and from anyone she knew who was looking to get rid of a piece of furniture.

“I ended up filling my whole garage with them,” she said “I haven’t been able to get my car in my garage for years now.”

Now a certified decorator and home stager, Durkee did home design and furniture painting as a side gig for 10 years before quitting her job in marketing four years ago to pursue it full time.

“A switch went off in my head, and I was like, ‘What am I waiting for, to do something that I love? Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed,’” she said.

Durkee ran her business online but kept an eye open for a retail space where she could showcase her furniture to customers in person. When she came across the space in the Plaistow Commons strip mall, she had some concerns about opening a store during the pandemic but was reassured by the success her business had seen over the last year.

“With people being at home more, a lot of them are adding new home offices and workspaces or are just generally sick of their furnishings and want to make some changes,” she said.

Customers will find a mix of traditional, coastal, farmhouse, floral and shabby chic styles as well as unpainted furniture for which they can choose a color and style. The storefront will also serve as a hub for Durkee’s home design consultation and custom furniture restoration and painting services as well as furniture painting workshops for people who want to learn the craft themselves.

“I think a lot of people have pieces at home that they want to use that need a little update, and they’d like to be able to do it themselves but don’t necessarily know the process,” Durkee said.

Durkee said she hopes Better than Before and the furniture painting workshops will raise awareness about the benefits of upcycling and encourage more people to think twice before tossing their old furniture or home decor.

“If something is still functional, I think it’s great to be green and give it a new coat of paint rather than filling up the dump sites with it,” she said.

Better Than Before Home Furnishings & Design
Address
: Plaistow Commons strip mall, 160 Plaistow Road, Unit 3, Plaistow
Hours: Grand opening Saturday, March 6. Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., and Monday and Tuesday by appointment
More info: Call 479-3041 or visit betterthanbefore.co

Featured photo: Better Than Before Home Furnishings & Design in Plaistow. Courtesy photo.

Art

Call for Art

NHAA SPRING JURYING The New Hampshire Art Association accepts new members. Jurying takes place on Mon., March 22. For a prospectus and application form, visit nhartassociation.org and click on “Become a Member.” Applications and application fee payment are due by Thurs., March 18, and can be submitted online or in person at the NHAA headquarters (136 State St., Portsmouth). Instructions for dropping off and picking up artwork will be emailed after an application and payment is received. Call 431-4230.

MAGNIFY VOICES EXPRESSIVE ARTS CONTEST Kids in grades 5 through 12 may submit creative may submit a short film (2 minutes or less); an original essay or poem (1000 words or less); or a design in another artistic medium such as a painting, song or sculpture that expresses their experience or observations of mental health in New Hampshire. Art pieces will be showcased to help raise awareness, decrease stigma and discrimination, and affect change to ensure socially and emotionally healthy growth for all children in New Hampshire. Submission deadline is March 31. Prize money will be awarded for grades 5 through 8 and grades 9 through 12. A celebration will take place in May, date TBD. Email magnifyvoices@gmail.com.

ART ON MAIN The City of Concord and the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce are seeking professional sculptors for year-round outdoor public art exhibit set up in Concord’s downtown. Must be age 18 or older. Submit up to two original sculptures for consideration. Submission deadline is March 31. Sculptors will be notified of their acceptance by April 30. Installation will begin on May 21. Exhibit opens in June. Selected sculptors will receive a $500 stipend. All sculptures will be for sale. Visit concordnhchamber.com/creativeconcord, call 224-2508 or email tsink@concordnhchamber.com.

Classes & lectures

• “NORMAN ROCKWELL AND FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT” Jane Oneail presents a lecture. Part of Concord’s Walker Lecture Series. Virtual, via Zoom. Wed., March 17, 7:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. Call 333-0035 or visit walkerlecture.org.

GENERAL ART CLASSES In-person art classes for all levels and two-dimensional media. held with small groups of two to five students. Private classes are also available. Diane Crespo Fine Art Gallery (32 Hanover St., Manchester). Students are asked to wear masks in the gallery. Tuition costs $20 per group class and $28 per private class, with payment due at the beginning of the class. Call 493-1677 or visit dianecrespofineart.com for availability.

DRAWING & PAINTING CLASSES Art House Studios, 66 Hanover St., Suite 202, Manchester. Classes include Drawing Fundamentals, Painting in Acrylic, Drawing: Observation to Abstraction, Exploring Mixed Media, and Figure Drawing. Class sizes are limited to six students. Visit arthousestudios.org.

Exhibits

• “THE VIEW THROUGH MY EYES” The New Hampshire Art Association presents works by pastel artist Chris Reid. Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce Gallery, 49 S. Main St., Concord. On display now through March 18. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

• “ON THE BRIGHT SIDE” New Hampshire Art Association features works by multiple artists in a variety of media. On view now through March 28, in person at NHAA’s Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery (136 State St., Portsmouth) and online. Gallery hours are Monday and Tuesday by appointment, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Online opening reception to be held on Friday, March 5, at 6:30 p.m., via Zoom. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

Tours

NASHUA PUBLIC ART AUDIO TOUR Self-guided audio tours of the sculptures and murals in downtown Nashua, offered via the Distrx app, which uses Bluetooth iBeacon technology to automatically display photos and text and provides audio descriptions at each stop on the tour as tourists approach the works of art. Each tour has 10 to 15 stops. Free and accessible on Android and iOS on demand. Available in English and Spanish. Visit downtownnashua.org/nashua-art-tour.

Theater Shows

GIDION’S KNOT Theatre Kapow presents. Virtual, live streamed. March 5 through March 7, with showtimes on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10. Visit tkapow.com.

A TEMPEST PRAYER New Hampshire Theatre Project’s SoloStage program presents. Fri., March 19, and Sat., March 20, 8 p.m., and Sun., March 21, 2 p.m. Performances held virtually and in-person at 959 Islington St., Portsmouth. In-person show tickets cost $30, and virtual show tickets cost $20. Call 431-6644 or visit nhtheatreproject.org.

FIFTH ANNUAL STORYTELLING FESTIVAL New Hampshire Theatre Project presents. Five storytellers tell traditional and personal tales inspired by NHTP’s 2020 – 2021 MainStage theme “What Are You Waiting For?” Featuring Diane Edgecomb, Pat Spalding, Simon Brooks, Sharon Jones and Maya Williams; with special guest host Genevieve Aichele and musical accompaniment by Randy Armstrong. Sat., April 10, 7 p.m. The Music Hall Historic Theater, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth. Tickets cost $36. Call 431-6644 or visit nhtheatreproject.org.

ZOOM PLAY FESTIVAL Presented by Powerhouse Theatre Collaborative and Community Players of Concord. Features short original plays by New Hampshire playwrights. Fri., April 16. Virtual. See Powerhouse Theatre Collaborative on Facebook or email powerhouse@belknapmill.org.

THAT GOLDEN GIRLS SHOW: A PUPPET PARODY at the Capitol Center for the Arts (44 S. Main St. in Concord; ccanh.com) on Sat., April 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $35.

ROTARY PARK PLAY FESTIVAL Presented by Powerhouse Theatre Collaborative and Community Players of Concord. Features short original plays by New Hampshire playwrights. Sat., May 29, and Sun., May 30. Outdoors at Rotary Park, 30 Beacon St., E. Laconia. See Powerhouse Theatre Collaborative on Facebook or email powerhouse@belknapmill.org.

TRUE TALES LIVE Monthly showcase of storytellers. Held virtually via Zoom. Last Tuesday of the month, 7 p.m., January through June, and September through December. Visit truetaleslivenh.org.

Classical

CONCORD COMMUNITY MUSIC SCHOOL FACULTY CONCERT Part of Concord’s Walker Lecture Series. Virtual, via Concord TV (Channel 22, or stream at yourconcordtv.org). Wed., April 21. 7:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. Call 333-0035 or visit walkerlecture.org.

Distanced discourse

Walker Lecture Series goes virtual

After canceling its events in 2020, the Walker Lecture Series will return for its 124th spring season with weekly virtual events every Wednesday from March 3 through April 21.

The Concord-based series, traditionally held at the Concord City Auditorium, features free performances and lectures on history, travel, art and science topics. This spring’s virtual events will be hosted by Concord TV, some pre-recorded and aired on the city’s public access TV channel, and some livestreamed over Zoom.

“[When Covid hit,] we were thrown for a loop just like everyone else [was], and we didn’t know what the future would hold,” Walker Lecture Series trustee Jon Kelly said, “but we’re dealing with that reality now. We’re embracing it with a spirit of experimentation.”

The series kicks off with “Banjos, Bones, and Ballads,” where local musician and historian Jeff Warner will perform and discuss traditional New England tavern music, hymns, sailor songs and more.

“He plays old-time music on the banjo, the spoons, the washboard and the bones, just like people did in the 19th century,” Kelly said. “He’s a lot of fun.”

The following week, mentalist and author of Psychic Blues Mark Edward will present a lecture, “Psychics, Mediums, and Mind Readers: How do they do it?”

“He talks about the fraudulence of people who pretend they can talk to the dead and encourages people to use critical thinking to examine the trick nature of it before they believe that someone has magical powers,” Kelly said. “I think our audience will be really interested in that.”

Other programs in this spring’s Walker Lecture Series will include an art lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright and Norman Rockwell; a history lecture on New Hampshire revolutionaries John Stark and Henry Dearborn; an author event with Michael Tougias, discussing his memoir The Waters Between Us; a nature program about bears; travelogues about Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska and the deserts, coastline and safari parks of Namibia; and a faculty concert by Concord Community Music School.

“We try to choose programs that will be edifying for the audience, but we also want it to be fun,” Kelly said. “We want [the topics] to be things that people will enjoy and like.”

The Walker Lecture Series has also planned and released the schedule for its fall season, which will run Sept. 22 through mid-December. Though it remains to be seen whether the series will be held virtually or in person, Kelly said he is hopeful that in-person events will be possible.

“People have done well with socialization over Zoom, but I am nostalgic for the days when people would all pile in the City Auditorium and get there early and talk with their neighbors in the lobby,” he said. “I’m choosing to be optimistic that we’ll be able to have that in the fall.”

Walker Lecture Series spring season
When: Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m., March 3 through April 21
Where: Virtual, on Concord TV (Channel 22, or stream at yourconcordtv.org), YouTube and Zoom, depending on the program
Cost: Free and open to all; no tickets or reservations required
More info: Call 333-0035 or visit walkerlecture.org

“Banjos, Bones, and Ballads” with Jeff Warner
March 3 on Concord TV

“Psychics, Mediums, and Mind Readers: How do they do it?” with Mark Edward
March 10 on Zoom

“Norman Rockwell and Frank Lloyd Wright” with Jane Oneail
March 17 on Zoom

“Autumn in Denali” and “The World of the Bear” with Tom Sterling
March 24 on Concord TV

“Two New Hampshire Men from the American Revolution: John Stark and Henry Dearborn” with George Morrison
March 31 on Zoom

“Growing Up Wild in the ’60s and ’70s” with Mike Tougias
April 7 on Zoom

“The Road to Namibia” with Rick Ray
April 14 on Zoom

Concord Community Music School Faculty Concert
April 21 on Concord TV

Featured photo: The Walker Lecture Series opens with “Banjos, Bones, and Ballads” by Jeff Warner on Wednesday, March 3. Courtesy photo.

Pandemic puzzles

Mother and son create interactive kids book about Covid-19

Deer orienteer Stephen Stagg is on a new kind of hunt in The COVID Paper Chase, a special edition title of Windham children’s author E.A. Giese’s Stephen Stagg Series that Giese wrote and illustrated with her adult son B.G. Sullivan during the pandemic.

The books in the series feature interactive puzzles for young readers to do as they follow Stephen Stagg on his orienteering adventures. In The COVID Paper Chase, Stephen is looking around his neighborhood for an item of great importance that is in short supply due to the pandemic. It includes hidden images and pandemic-related vocabulary words to find, mysteries to solve and a special activity.

“It’s meant to be more like a workbook,” Giese said. “Educational for children as well as entertaining.”

Giese and Sullivan said they have talked casually about collaborating on a book together for years but could never seem to find the time, so when Sullivan was laid off from his full-time job last March due to the pandemic, they decided to finally give it a go.

“Being laid off had significantly freed up my time at that point,” Sullivan said, “and I really wanted to do something productive with that time … and do something that would be able to help other people.”

Sullivan said he has “always been an artistic person,” having an interest in illustration since he was a child, and going on to attend and receive his certificate from a graphic design school.

“I homeschooled my two sons through middle school and high school, and we were very creative during that time,” Giese said. “We’ve been lifelong creatives, all of us.”

In Giese and Sullivan’s collaborative process, Giese came up with the story and developed the storyboards while Sullivan worked more on the script itself, which is written in rhyming verse. Giese did the hand drawn illustrations, outlined in pen and colored with colored pencils, and used a rubbing technique to give the illustrations texture. Then, Sullivan used his graphic design skills, he said, to add “the finer details, more realism, and really bring her illustrations to life.”

The idea for a children’s book about Covid-19, Giese and Sullivan said, came from seeing parents they knew struggle with explaining the pandemic to their young children. They wanted to create a book that could help parents “broach the subject” in an honest, but comforting way, Sullivan said.

“It’s psychologically soothing for children without being too heavy and grim,” he said.

“There was kind of a fine balance between giving [the book] some lightheartedness to make it palatable to children while still paying respect to the weight and seriousness of the issue,” Giese added.

Giese and Sullivan said they plan to team up for more children’s books for both the Stephen Stagg Series and other series.

“We’re really starting to see a future in our collaborations together,” Sullivan said.

“We have a lot of fun doing this together,” Giese added, “and I think that really comes across in the book.”

The COVID Paper Chase
The book is available at the authors’ website, regalbeepub.com, and will be available on Amazon by the end of February.

Featured photo: E.A. Giese and B.G. Sullivan. Courtesy photo.

The dream reimagined

Local musician creates new version of “America the Beautiful”

What started as a song for a children’s choir to sing at Hancock’s Martin Luther King Day celebration last year has become an ongoing collaboration of musicians and music groups across the country.

As a member of the planning committee for the event, Hancock singer-songwriter Steve Schuch had taken on the task of organizing a musical performance. At the time, he had been reading about the history of the patriotic anthem “America the Beautiful,” originally written as a poem by American author and poet Katherine Lee Bates in 1892, and studying the life and writings of American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

“Then, I thought, what would happen if we took the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ that everyone knows and added a chorus and new verses that reflected Martin Luther King’s wider dream for all of America?” Schuch said.

The reimagined version of “America the Beautiful,” titled “America the Dream,” received such a “strong response” at the celebration, Schuch said, that he decided to keep expanding on the project.

He teamed up with another local musician, Mike Bradley, to write more lyrics and reached out to Shelbie Rassler, a senior at Berklee College of Music at the time, who had produced a viral YouTube video of a virtual choir of students singing “What the World Needs Now,” to assist with the musical arrangement and assembling a virtual choir to perform the piece.

Rassler was “all in,” Schuch said, and has produced three virtual performance videos of the song so far, with more on the way, including a contemporary country version out of Nashville.

“I hope that with each passing year, different singing groups around the country will want to do it,” he said. “It would be neat if someday Keith Lockhart wants to do this with the Boston Pops for the Fourth of July, or, hey, in my wildest dreams, maybe Beyonce would sing it at the Super Bowl.”

Late last year, Schuch and his collaborators launched the “American Dream Project” website where people can find the performance videos as well as sheet music for six different arrangements of the song, sound samples of the different choral parts and a piano accompaniment track for singing groups to use for rehearsals or performances if they don’t have access to live musical accompaniment.

“[The arrangements] run from really simple ones that are appropriate for elementary schools or children’s choirs up through ones for accomplished high school and college choirs and adult community choirs,” Schuch said. “There is enough variety that any music director or conductor could find a version that’s right for their group and their setting.”

What makes “America the Dream” especially unique, Schuch said, is that it’s an open source piece; not only can people access the sheet music and sound samples for free, but they also have permission to create and perform their own versions of the song with different musical arrangements and different or additional lyrics for non-commercial use.

“We encourage people to keep adding to it and would love for them to submit their recordings to add to the website,” he said.

The website also includes a list of suggested reading material and resources for groups or individuals who want to use the “American Dream Project” as “a springboard for discussion,” Schuch said.

“It’s more than a song,” he said. “It’s a chance for all Americans to think about what we hold in common for the dream of our country and what our country can become.”

Featured photo: “America The Dream” virtual performance by Berklee College of Music students, Shelbie Rassler Orchestral Arrangement. Courtesy photo.

No quiet for the choir

Nashua Choral Society sings together from a distance

The Nashua Choral Society is inviting new singers to join its 2021 spring season, which is just getting underway. The non-auditioned community choir has found some creative ways to rehearse while maintaining social distance, including weekly virtual rehearsals over Zoom and monthly “driveway rehearsals” where members can gather in person and sing together from their cars.

When Covid hit last spring, the choir was just polishing up an upcoming performance with Symphony NH, featuring a full program of Haydn music, and a performance with the Nashua Chamber Orchestra, which was to include the premiere of a new song written for the choir.

Those performances were postponed, but instead of losing momentum the choir has gotten stronger — active members have stayed, less-active members have become more involved and new singers have joined, artistic director Dan Roihl said.

“Obviously, performance is a big part of [being in a choir], but I think there is some intrinsic reward in the communal aspect of just singing together, hearing your voice with other voices and creating works of beauty,” Roihl said. “That’s been enough for people right now.”

Still, moving from in-person rehearsals to virtual rehearsals was a bit more complicated than expected, Roihl said.

“As most choirs quickly figured out, singing together live over Zoom just isn’t practical because of the lag time,” he said. “It’s just not possible to synchronize.”

To get around this, Roihl has been encouraging members to record themselves singing the pieces on their own and send him the recordings, which he mixes together and plays at the rehearsals so that members can hear how their voices sound in unison. He also plays the instrumental musical tracks and has members sing along with their microphones muted.

“That way, they can at least have the simulated experience of singing together in real time,” he said.

In addition to the weekly Zoom rehearsals, the choir meets once a month in person for a “driveway rehearsal” in the parking lot of the church where they used to have their regular rehearsals. While remaining in their cars, members sing together using wireless microphones. The sound is run through a mixing board and played back through an FM radio station that members can tune into and hear each other. The choir had its first driveway rehearsal on World Choral Day on Dec. 13 with around 30 members in attendance.

“It was almost magical, because at that point we hadn’t been able to actually hear what we sound like together in real time for about nine months,” Roihl said. “It’s just really amazing to experience singing together again, even if it is just through our car windows.”

The driveway rehearsals are not only more personal than the Zoom rehearsals, Roihl said, but also more productive.

“It’s a lot more like a real rehearsal because [singers] can respond to my gesture, and I can get feedback on how they are responding to my gesture in real time, which is something that had been sorely lacking in the Zoom context,” he said. “It allows us to really assess how we are doing so I can still do some music teaching and we can work on our techniques.”

While the Nashua Choral Society has performed primarily classical music, Roihl is working on developing a more versatile repertoire to include pop song arrangements, familiar hymns and “everyday-use songs” that he believes will appeal to a wider audience and expand the choir’s performance opportunities.

“We always hope to keep one foot firmly planted in our classical wheelhouse, but I think having some easier songs that we can do a cappella or on short notice or if we don’t have the full [choir] there … will give us more flexibility,” he said.

While the choir has no public performances scheduled at the moment, Roihl said they’ve been “kicking around the idea” of doing some community-based drive-in performances in the parking lots of hospitals, nursing homes and such, using the same mechanics as their driveway rehearsals.

“We know it’s not quite the same as a [normal] live performance, but at least [audiences] could see me out there waving my arms and hear us singing in real time,” he said. “It’s more about letting people know that we’re thinking of them and that we’re looking to share the joy of the art we bring.”

Nashua Choral Society
Singers of all abilities are welcome to join. No auditions necessary. Spring season runs now through mid-May, with virtual rehearsals via Zoom every Monday from 7 to 9 p.m., and monthly “driveway rehearsals” in Nashua. Visit nashuachoralsociety.org or facebook.com/nashuachoralsociety or email info@nashuachoralsociety.org.

Featured photo: Artistic director Dan Roihl leads a Nashua Choral Society “driveway rehearsal.” Courtesy photo.

The continuing adventures of NH’s comic creators

Artists and authors talk about their latest comic books and more

New Hampshire comics creators have faced plenty of challenges in the past year, like publishers and distributors shutting down, comic conventions being canceled and collaborative processes taking longer than usual. But more time at home has meant more time for creating, new inspiration for story concepts and themes, and virtual events that reach a wider audience. Nine local comics creators reflect on the past year — the good and the bad — and talk about their latest and upcoming projects.

Shiv

Leary by Shiv. Courtesy image.

The Manchester comic artist who creates under the pseudonym Shiv has a portfolio full of standalone comic art prints and commissioned fan art, original characters and portraits, but has never released a full comic series. That’s about to change. The pandemic provided Shiv (who uses they/them pronouns) the push they needed to move forward with a sci-fi webcomic series. Shiv is co-creating the series with their partner and it’s been a long time in the making.

“That’s kind of been my big, looming comic project,” said Shiv, who preferred not to reveal their full name so as to keep their work as an artist separate from their day job. “Normally, I’ll find any reason to procrastinate, but … Covid life has changed … my motivation. I’ve found myself really on the ball artistically while being stuck inside.”

The series, which is “basically about a big treasure hunt in space with pirates and all that,” Shiv said, will most likely launch next month, and they will continue to add to the series over time.

“Who knows when the entire project will be done since it’s meant to be a series, but … my main focus right now is getting the webcomic up and running,” they said.

Shiv said the events of 2020 have been “very inspirational” for the absurdist humor that they often incorporate in their art, and that they’re interested in exploring that more in their future work.

“Who knows?” Shiv said. “Maybe I’ll make a comic that harnesses the strange and unfortunate emotions that were produced this past year.”

Check out Shiv’s work at shiv-art.square.site, on Twitter @shivyshivon and on Instagram @ohnoshiv.

Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard of Manchester, creator and writer of the sci-fi comic series Sentinel, released the second issue of the series in the fall — but not without some setbacks.

Sentinel, second issue, by Ryan Lessard. Courtesy image.

In January 2020 the Kickstarter-funded comic was in the process of being colored and Lessard announced that it was on track to be sent out to backers in April. Then the pandemic hit, and his colorist had to work double time at his day job at his state health department, “squeezing in time to do colors when he could,” Lessard said.

“So it took a few months longer than expected,” he said. “You do your best estimating when people will get their books, but sometimes stuff happens, and a global pandemic happened to everyone.”

Set in a spacefaring future, Sentinel follows an alien reporter through the investigation of a terrorist attack that nearly killed her and set off a chain of events.

Lessard said he’s hoping to launch the Kickstarter campaign for the third issue in March. So far, his goal has been to have one campaign a year, but now, having completed the scripts for at least another eight issues, he’s looking at the possibility of doing more.

“As my audience grows, I may be able to increase the frequency of production,” he said, “like maybe making two books at once, for example.”

Lessard has also been brainstorming and writing scripts for some graphic novels and one-off comics. He has already recruited an artist for a one-off about a hitchhiking robot, which he anticipates starting production on later this year, and is more than halfway done with the script for a space horror graphic novel, which he said was inspired by Covid life. The story, Lessard said, follows a crew of eight people who, having been stuck on the same spaceship together for a couple of years, are “bouncing off the walls with boredom before things take a dark turn.”

“The original idea and its main twist came to me in a dream,” he said, “but the tone and feel and the idea of being cooped up — I’m sure that came from living in lockdown and quarantine for the better part of the past year.”

The first two issues of Sentinel can be purchased locally at Double Midnight Comics in Manchester. For updates on Ryan Lessard’s upcoming projects, visit orionnewsservice.com and follow him on Kickstarter at kickstarter.com/profile/ryanlessard/created.

Stephen Bobbett

At the start of this year, Dover comics creator Stephen Bobbett launched Earth is the Worst, a new webcomic with a full-color four-panel strip added every Tuesday. The series largely follows two aliens living on Earth as they provide commentary on the absurdities of human culture.

“It’s inspired by a lot of the newspaper comics I grew up with in the ’90s, like Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side,” Bobbett said. “It even has a grainy print style as an homage to that era.”

Earth is the Worst, a webcomic series by Stephen
Bobbett. Courtesy image.

While some of his other comics “delve a little too deeply into world-building,” Bobbett said, he created Earth is the Worst to be more accessible and appeal to a wider audience in the same way that many of the classic “old-school” newspaper comics did.

“Since Covid has put us all in a state of forced isolation, I think it’s become more important to make art that people can instantaneously connect with,” he said. “With Earth is the Worst, I wanted to make a comic where the archetypes were instantly recognizable, where you didn’t have to read multiple pages to get the story, and — most importantly — where you might get a good laugh in the middle of a rough news day.”

Bobbett said he plans to continue adding to Earth is the Worst weekly for now. He’s also currently working on a dark comedy/sci-fi graphic novella series called The Big Crunch, which centers on an interplanetary city revolving around a black hole.

Two to three times a week Bobbett streams his art process on Twitch and answers viewers’ questions about comics and illustration. He’s been doing the streams for around five years now, he said, as a way of “turning visual art into an educational and social event.”

“But this year it took on special significance as a way to stave off people’s loneliness during quarantine,” he added. “It’s been a godsend.”

For more on Stephen Bobbett, visit stephenbobbett.com or catch him on his Twitch channel at twitch.tv/FancySchmancy. See the Earth is the Worst webcomic at earthistheworst.com, with a new strip added every Tuesday.

Ed Smith

Ed Smith of Bedford is currently working on a few comics projects; as of last week he was finishing up a four-issue graphic novel called 2nd Place, co-written with Ben Goldsmith. He’s also working on a monthly sci-fi serial strip and writing a book based on a story idea he had in high school.

“When drawing comics it’s usually a good idea to have as many irons in the fire as possible,” said Smith, who works professionally as a graphic designer but aspires to be a full-time comic book artist.

From 2nd Place by Ed Smith. Courtesy image.

2nd Place is about an intergalactic bodybuilding competition that takes place between aliens. The two main characters are best friends who wish they were living each other’s lives. Smith said it’s an introspective look at them examining their own lives.

“The whole thing is done in a mockumentary style, like The Office or Best in Show,” Smith said. “So even though the theme seems pretty emotional and dramatic, it’s got a lot of humor to it. … I [also] like to draw stuff in the background as little jokes and Easter eggs, so the readers can have more than just a quick page glance when they read it and get their money’s worth.”

Smith describes his work as very clean, emotive artwork that allows the reader to feel motion and emotion. It also transfers well from print to screen, he said, something he’s focused on since he read The Tick as a kid and then watched the TV show that was created based on the comic.

“It looked horrible to me,” he said. “I made it a mission of mine to create artwork that will go from the page to the screen and still look good.”

The serial strip that Smith is working on is for a sci-fi magazine; it’s written by Alex Collazo, as part of his Manalex novel series.

“It’s sci-fi meets martial arts swords-and-sorcery type of books,” Smith said. “I usually handle funny and cartoony styles and stories, so I’m doing my best to make sure that the … author is content with my perspective of his character. … “It’s given me an opportunity to stretch my artistic muscles and do something outside of funny pages.”

Smith is also drawing for The Life and Times of the Supertopian, a book about stories that take place across the lifetime of a superhero that really existed in this comic book universe, written by Rich Woodall. And he has a personal project in the works that he plans to self-publish, a book about a boy who grew up next to a town full of superheroes but was always too insecure to try to be one himself.

“It shows kids that if you have a dream or a goal for yourself, you should never give up. You should always follow it, because you’re worth it,” he said.

While everyone has had to navigate a Covid-19 world, 2020 was especially life-changing for Smith, who had a heart valve replaced at the beginning of the year. At first, he fell into a post-operative depression and reached out to a friend for support. Smith speaks fluent sarcasm and appreciated his friend’s response — something to the effect of, “Gee, it’s really tough for us artists who can use what we do as a way to emote.”

“I started putting out a lot more work and it started to get better,” Smith said.

The pandemic did affect his work, though. He’s explored artistically as well as emotionally through a lot of different story lines. He’s also become much more adept at connecting with his readers, and other artists, online.

“I was really inexperienced when it came to social media, so a lot of contact with my fans was at conventions or through Facebook or Instagram,” he said. “Now I understand social media more; I can interact with fans and post videos.”

Smith said he misses that face-to-face interaction at conventions, but staying in touch with fellow artists hasn’t been a problem.

“Artists are very emotionally raw, so we tend to support each other as much as possible,” he said.

You can find some of Smith’s work on his Facebook or Instagram pages, or on his website, cartoonistatlarge.com.

Meghan Siegler

Emily Drouin

As a full-time professional illustrator, children’s book and comic book artist, video editor and animator, Emily Drouin of Raymond is always creating.

Drouin is best known for her kids sci-fi action-adventure comic EPLIS, but with many comic conventions canceled due to Covid, she has turned her attention to commission work, some of which was new territory for her.

From EPLIS, a comic book series by Emily Drouin. Courtesy image.

“I’ve had more time to work with more clients, which has really opened up some doors for me and [provided opportunities to] improve my art and work on new skill sets,” she said. “That’s one of the things I love most about my job the variety of projects. I love the challenge of doing so many different things.”

One of her biggest jobs was doing the illustrations for two books in The Pumpkin Wizard series, a children’s anti-bullying fantasy adventure series written by Dover authors Derek Dextraze and Caitlin Crowley. Some of her other recent projects are illustrating a cover for a young adult book by a local author (she’s not at liberty to reveal the title yet, she said) as well as some coloring activity books, including one with notable figures from Black history.

Drouin also spent a lot of time reinventing last year’s Kids Con New England, of which she is the founder and organizer. Typically held in Nashua in June, the just-for-kids comic convention was converted to a free two-day virtual event in May, featuring creative workshops, special guest comic creators, book readings, sing-alongs and musical performances, a puppet show, tabletop gaming, costume contests, a coloring contest and more.

“We wanted to capture as many of the in-person events as possible,” Drouin said. “It was actually a more unique experience, because we were able to connect with comic creators and families from across the country, so we had even more people than we would have had at the in-person event.”

At present, Drouin is back to working on comics, including the fifth issue of EPLIS and a new horror comic.

“Children’s comics and children’s book [illustrations] have always been my thing, and this [horror comic] is about vampires and stuff, so it’s a totally new thing for me,” she said. “I’m excited to expand and do something different.”

Check out Emily Drouin’s comics and other work at emilyatplay.com. Recordings from the virtual Kids Con New England event held last May are free to watch at kidsconne.com.

Marek Bennett

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Henniker comic artist Marek Bennett is finishing up the final draft of his contribution to The Most Costly Journey, a nonfiction comics anthology scheduled to be released in February that tells the true stories of Latin American migrant workers working on dairy farms in Vermont.

Marek Bennett works on his Freeman Colby series. Courtesy photo.

It’s one of several projects that Bennett is currently involved in, though he admits that the future is a little fuzzy right now.

“I have some plans that I was supposed to visit in 2020, and they’re on the calendar now for spring 2021, but honestly, there’s no guarantee,” he said.

The biggest upheaval in Bennett’s work has been his involvement with local schools; most years from January through May or June, he’s working in schools several days a week. He was in the middle of a residency in Epping when schools shut down last spring.

“[Those residencies] are 50 or 60 percent of my annual income, and that was just gone,” he said. “[But] If I focus on the money, it’s really stressful and depressing and it’s not why I got into cartooning.”

Bennett spent the rest of the spring trying to figure out how to reach an audience that he could no longer work with in person.

“I’m doing some regular live draws,” he said. “That’s really the bedrock of what I’ve been doing since the summer … and Zoom sessions.”

The live draws are every Monday and Friday, for anyone who’s interested but also for those school groups that he can’t otherwise connect with right now.

“If a classroom dials in, that’s one view or one share, but it’s 20 kids who get to draw that’s so much more valuable than selling a mini comic for a dollar,” Bennett said. “I’ve been doing as much as I can through Facebook live and YouTube live, just so it’s a little less prerecorded, [although there are] archived videos [too].”

Along with trying to maintain that connection, Bennett has used some of his newfound time at home to go back to his sketchbooks and do more creative, aimless doodling that leads to new ideas.

“Amidst all the upheaval and the uncertainty, having an excuse to be still … has helped a lot,” he said. “Quarantine and isolation is tough, but to a cartoonist, in some ways it’s kind of an ideal scenario to get things done.”

Other projects that Bennett is working on include a series of drawing activities created with a USDA grant that address toxic lead contamination in lakes and toxic materials in cosmetic and self-care products, and a series around federal sedition laws that explores the implications of current events.

“I’m taking those laws and drawing them out in very simple cartoons [and] making videos,” he said. “I get so stressed about the news, but creating art about it, there’s a sense of relief.”

Bennett is also working on Vol. 3 of The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, and he’s going to do more work with the Vermont Folklife Center, which is producing The Most Costly Journey. The next planned project is a book of comics drawn by New Hampshire and Vermont cartoonists based on the life of Vermont storyteller Daisy Turner, who was born in 1883 and lived until 1988 and whose family’s oral history reaches all the way back to early 19th-century Africa.

“There’s just an incredible body of lore there,” Bennett said.

Marek Bennett’s work can be found at marekbennett.com or through patreon.com, a website that allows fans to support their favorite artists in exchange for exclusive insider access to previews, future projects, workshops and more.

Meghan Siegler

Brian Furtado

As a creative writing and graphic novel storytelling instructor at New England College, Brian Furtado of Manchester found himself with a lot of unexpected free time when many of his classes for 2020 were cut due to Covid.

While the “weeks upon weeks of struggling with unemployment” were difficult, he said, the silver lining was that he had a rare opportunity to focus on his own comic series, Re-Verse, which has been years in the making.

From the upcoming comic book series Re-Verse by Brian Furtado. Courtesy image.

“It wasn’t exactly a stress-free writing retreat, but I did get a lot of work done,” he said. “I got a lot more work done on this comic in 2020 than I think I could have any other year.”

Furtado described the series as “an absurdist, satirical sci-fi comedy about a disgraced pop star turned private investigator who also happens to be an anthropomorphic duck.” It’s the first comic that he is creating entirely by himself, doing the writing, penciling, inking and coloring.

“It’s been a long and arduous task,” he said. “My experience and education are in writing. … Until this project, I never really considered myself an artist. I’ve had to teach myself a lot more new things in order to get the artwork of this book up to the same level of quality I’d expect from an artist I [would] commission to draw it.”

Furtado said he expects to have the artwork for the first issue of the seven-issue series fully completed within the next few weeks, “fingers crossed.”

“Now that I’ve developed my own art style and drawing habits, I should be able to crank out [the artwork for the] issues much more quickly,” he said.

Furtado has started the outlining and writing on a few other comics, which he plans to develop more once he releases the first issue of Re-Verse. For those, however, he’ll be commissioning artists to do the artwork; he’s got his hands full doing the art for the next six issues of Re-Verse.

“I think doing all the writing and artwork on multiple projects at once would actually kill me,” he said. “[Commissioning artists] will free me up to write scripts for other artists to work on while I do all the artwork on Re-Verse.”

Check out Brian Furtado’s art on Instagram @SuperBri64.

Joel Christian Gill

Joel Christian Gill of New Boston is best-known for his graphic novels that tell the lesser-known stories of Black history in the U.S., but his latest book, Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence, released in January 2020, tells a different kind of story.

“It’s a graphic memoir that chronicles my life growing up and is kind of about how kids deal with emotional abuse, sexual abuse and violence,” he said. “It’s definitely a departure from the books I’ve done previously.”

Fights, a graphic novel by Joel Christian Gill. Courtesy image.

Also in 2020, Gill created a series of humorous comic strips called S— my Students Say, which was published in The New Yorker.

His next book, the third volume in his Tales of the Talented Tenth graphic novel series, will be released later this year, he said. It tells the story of Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American man who stole the U.S. Confederate warship The Planter and sailed it to the Union army.

Currently, Gill is collaborating with Ibram Xolani Kendi, author and the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, to create a graphic novel adaptation of Kendi’s 2016 nonfiction book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Gill said the graphic novel is projected for release in 2023.

An associate professor of illustration at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Mass., Gill has also been busy teaching remotely and presenting numerous virtual lectures, panels and workshops on comics.

“Not having to travel has given me the opportunity to say yes to things that I normally wouldn’t have been able to say yes to,” he said.

But having to do virtual events in lieu of the in-person book signings for Fights that he had planned has been disappointing, Gill said.

“Not being able to connect with people in the way that I’m used to has been the biggest hit for me,” he said. “Seeing people in real life and being in a room with them is just different, and I want to get back to that.”

Learn more about Joel Christian Gill’s work and upcoming events at joelchristiangill.com.

Rich Woodall

All things pandemic considered, work has been going well for Somersworth comics creator Rich Woodall. He lucked out last March when his comic book Kyrra #1 hit shelves on the last day of new comic book releases before the Covid shutdown brought comic book presses to a halt; and he got to create the first three issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin and is starting work on the fourth and fifth issues now. But his biggest achievement over the last year has been launching his own horror/sci-fi imprint.

The Recount, by Rich Woodall. Courtesy image.

Woodall and comic artist Joseph Schmalke, with whom he co-created, co-writes and co-illustrates the popular horror comic series The Electric Black, are the co-publishers of the imprint Black Caravan, which is housed under their series’ publisher Scout.

Starting out as a publisher during the pandemic had its challenges, though, Woodall said, the biggest one being that Black Caravan’s distributor had completely shut down.

“We had to change our distribution system entirely,” he said.

Woodall and Schmalke concluded that their only option was to take the distribution process into their own hands. It’s an unorthodox practice and normally frowned upon by retailers, Woodall said, but under the pandemic circumstances, retailers were more receptive.

“Covid really kind of forced their hand,” he said. “Not many comic [publishers] were putting out comics, and some had shut down for good. [The retailers’] shelves were empty, so they didn’t really have a reason not to work with us.”

Black Caravan has published eight titles so far — six of which Woodall has contributed to creatively through writing, coloring, illustrating, design work, character design or lettering — and there are more on the way.

“I think we have about 12 different titles under our belts now … and roughly 30 individual issues coming up,” Woodall said. “[Schmalke] and I have a lot of plans. We’re going to continue creating new stuff and building up Black Caravan even bigger and better.”

Find Rich Woodall’s comics and Black Caravan publications at theblackcaravan.com.

Two decades of arts and culture

A look back at what’s happened in art galleries, theaters and other cultural spots since the Hippo started

A lot has happened in the local arts scene since the Hippo launched 20 years ago — the Palace Theatre in Manchester went from bankrupt to thriving, comic books and gaming became mainstream in pop culture, and fine arts has become more accessible, with more galleries and a focus on local artists. In the second of our month-long series looking back at some of the subjects Hippo has covered over the years, we talked to a few people who have been part of that arts scene about how it’s changed, what it might look like 20 years from now and the challenges ahead.

Robert Dionne. Courtesy photo.

Robert Dionne

Robert Dionne is the artistic director and CEO of Manchester’s Majestic Theatre and is an administrator of Ted Herbert Music School, which the Majestic bought in 2016. He’s been running the Majestic for 30 years. The theater’s next big event is the Majestic Mashup fundraiser, happening virtually on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 6 p.m., featuring interactive dinners, live performances and a scratch ticket raffle. Visit majestictheatre.net.

How would you describe the local arts scene 20 years ago?

All the staples were still there. … As far as Manchester goes, you had the usual suspects, you had the Palace, the Majestic was about 10 years old. We weren’t doing as much as we were doing now. … In the year 2000 we were in the theater at Ste. Marie’s and had been in that space for about five years. We had a pretty heavy production schedule, but not as involved as it is now.

… Twenty years ago there were a lot more smaller companies in the area, smaller community theater companies that sadly have since gone away, like the Acting Loft, the New Thalian Players. … Now it seems like a lot of the Manchester theater groups are down to just a few.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

I think what’s happened … [is that] unless you have a group of people really passionate about keeping something going … it’s not [sustainable]. What ends up happening with theater companies a lot of times, unless you have a core group of people, they usually end up getting tired. … You don’t make a lot of money in the arts. People that do theater for a living … they kind of get sick of not making money. … I think that some of the companies, their shelf-life, it aged out. … With Covid, the companies that are established, we’re going to be around on the other side of this. I’m not going to say it’s not a struggle right now, but we do have a lot of people in our corner. We’ve worked way too hard in the last 30 years just to casually throw it away. It’s definitely worth fighting to the bitter end. … We need to stay alive for a few more months without programming. 2019 was our best season we’ve ever had … 2020 was our worst. But [patrons] are really hungry. We’ve sold every seat we could for every show we’ve had in these past few months.

How did your venue impact the local arts scene?

Twenty years ago we probably weren’t the biggest, but now we are the biggest community theater in the state. The amount of people we involve [in each production], if it’s not the highest [amount in the state], it’s definitely one of the highest. We offer a product that audiences in the area have grown accustomed to [and keep coming back for].

What has surprised you about the way the state’s arts scene has developed?

Community theater is all about building people up and what ends up happening sometimes is, we’ve seen a lot of new companies coming out with just a small group [of people], putting their own money in, [which spreads resources thin]. … Years ago [separate theater companies in] Amherst and Milford, they realized over time they were much stronger joining forces [to become the Milford Area Players]. … Twenty years ago was a time where people had home companies in their community. … Now, you may have a company that’s closest and dearest to your heart, but [performers] now don’t just do shows at one company. … I can go do a show [for another company] and not have to worry about filling seats and marketing and paying the bills.

What do you think the arts scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

I think we’re going to definitely gain some wisdom from all the livestream we’re doing right now. … Twenty years from now you’re going to see that theater is going to be a much more multimedia experience. … [On the flip side], I think that 20 years from now, people are always looking for opportunities to do hands-on things, and I think you’re going to find … people are going to still want to come out for shows. … [As for challenges], 20 years ago when we held an audition for a show we’d get like 60 people. … Now it’s a lot different, because there are so many shows. … You might get maybe a dozen people or maybe 20 people. The quality of the people we’re getting to audition now is definitely better, because there are so many opportunities for people to learn about theater and be in shows and get experience, so we’re always getting [that] quality actor that we need, it’s just, we’re getting less people to come out for auditions. And that’s because in a normal life, pre-Covid, there might be six or seven or eight auditions happening at the same time. … There are more shows than there are actors at this point, and it’s only going to get worse. … You might get a theater person doing show after show after show, and eventually they get to the point where they’re like, yeah, I just need to take a break from doing shows. So you lose those people … but then you gain some new people. So I think the message I would send is … if you want to be in a show, you should audition for a show. You don’t have to have mess loads of acting experience to get a part in a show. You can start with a small part and learn.

Aside from the Majestic, what’s your favorite local spot to enjoy the arts?

Well, I have to say, being a native Manchester person, I love what they did with the Rex Theatre. … Having been by that building for years when it was [night] clubs, it was [depressing]. … So congrats to the Palace for doing such an amazing job.

Meghan Siegler

Chris Proulx

Chris Proulx. Courtesy photo.

Chris Proulx is the co-owner of Double Midnight Comics, which he started in 2002 with his brother Scott and best friend Brett Parker. In addition to the store the trio also organizes the Granite State Comicon each September.

How would you describe the local comics and gaming scene 20 years ago?

The scene 20 years ago was quite different than it is today. When we first started, comics and games were viewed as nerdy pursuits. It was tough connecting with people that loved the same stuff [we] did, which is why we started Double Midnight Comics. Since then Marvel conquered Hollywood and brought comics into the mainstream consciousness. Dungeons and Dragons had a resurgence and became cool. Board games became a big deal. Magic the Gathering hit the mainstream. Being a geek was suddenly cool!

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

Comics and games hitting the mainstream. Never in a million years did we think Iron Man, let alone Rocket Raccoon and Groot, would be household names. Then you have major Hollywood actors coming out as D&D enthusiasts — it’s insane.

How has Double Midnight impacted the local comics and gaming scene?

When we first started we were the place anyone could come in and feel welcome. You didn’t need to know 30 years of Spider-Man to come in and shop, and I think that struck a chord with our customers. Our annual Free Comic Book Day grew into a wild event each year, calling more attention to comics. We never imagined on our first Free Comic Book Day in 2003 that people would be traveling from all over the Northeast and camping out for days to be a part of our event. Then there’s the comic con we launched. The Granite State Comicon has become an event people look forward to each year … and acts as a gathering for all fandoms.

Any surprises about how the comics and gaming scene has developed?

For sure. When we started we didn’t have the business acumen but we knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to create a fun inclusive space where everyone was welcome to come shop and hang out. That strategy struck a chord and over time we grew our audience and learned a thing or two along the way. That plan of throwing open the gates and welcoming everyone as friends in geekdom allowed us to expand our operations, first expanding our original store and [then expanding] to two locations, which is something we never even dreamed of back when we opened.

Where do you see the world of comics and gaming 20 years from now, locally, and what challenges will it face?

Comics are at an interesting crossroads. Marvel and DC tend to cater to an older audience. I’m interested to see what the next generation of comic fans will look like. Kids these days devour Dog Man and the Raina Telgemeier books, [and] graphic novels for kids and young adults are a huge market, [so] it will be interesting to see how their tastes will change comics for the better. Gaming I can only see getting bigger. People love getting together and playing games face to face and chatting with other players. There are lots of online options, but nothing beats real-life community.

Aside from Double Midnight, what’s your favorite local spot to enjoy comics or gaming?

We’re big fans of Boards and Brews downtown [in Manchester]. If you had asked us 20 years ago if we would see a board game cafe/bar downtown we wouldn’t have believed it. It’s a cool place to hang out and try games and it’s nice to be able to collaborate with a fellow geek business in town!

Meghan Siegler

Hope Jordan

Hope Jordan. Courtesy photo.

Hope Jordan was the public relations and marketing manager at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester from 2000 to 2005. In 2006 she co-founded the first New Hampshire poetry slam series, Slam Free or Die, and in 2007 she coached the first New Hampshire slam team to compete in the National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas. She has served on the staff and board of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project, on the New Hampshire Poet Laureate selection committee and as the statewide coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation program for high school students.

How would you describe the local arts scene 20 years ago?

We still had former Arts Commissioner Van McLeod, who was the most important advocate at the state level that the arts in New Hampshire may ever have. We still had the great poets Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall with us, writing and giving readings. The New Hampshire Writers’ Project was based in Concord and was doing events and workshops that were for a wide range of writers children’s literature, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and their annual Writers’ Day was the event of the year. They were also doing statewide programs like Poetry and Politics. There weren’t any venues for performance poetry, although we had some slam poets come up from Boston for showcases in Manchester from time to time. The Poetry Society of New Hampshire was, I believe, a rather different organization, much smaller, and seemed more focused on the office of the Poet Laureate and publishing their literary journal they’re quite different today.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

Twenty years ago, I would have said that New Hampshire writers were mostly white, older and interested in writing informed by the natural world. I mean, four of the U.S. Poets Laureate are from our tiny state Kumin, Hall, Charles Simic, and I’ll count Robert Frost. Today I’d say we have a far more diverse population of writers, although we still are overwhelmingly white. But now we have younger poets who are hosting open mics. We have performance poets who are mostly younger. There is a strong cadre of writers who specialize in speculative fiction [and] amazing folks like Jennifer Militello who are producing more experimental writing like her memoir Knock Wood I just think the writing community is much less homogenous in many ways. I also hope and believe that having Poetry Out Loud in high schools every year continues to demystify poetry for students. I remember sitting in a high school cafeteria in the North Country and listening to two male student-athletes sitting near me discussing line breaks. That felt extraordinary.

How did the organizations you’ve been involved with impact the local arts scene?

The New Hampshire Writers’ Project has evolved a great deal over the years. I unfortunately haven’t been in touch with them in a while, but they seem to have narrowed a focus to prose and fiction writing, offering many more online workshops, and within that, being very strong in speculative fiction. Meanwhile the Poetry Society has become the go-to for poetry workshops, readings, events and an excellent annual poetry festival that has attracted top national talent. To my everlasting delight, the people I co-founded Slam Free or Die with continue to host a weekly slam in Manchester, or they were until Covid. We celebrated the 10-year anniversary a few years ago. They have represented New Hampshire at every National Poetry Slam since, and have done quite well. I’m so proud.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s arts scene has developed?

I think the recent controversy over the state Poet Laureate position surprised a lot of people. Without getting too political, I suspect there was a general feeling that poetry wasn’t a big deal, not going to be a hot-button issue. But I like to joke that every third person in New Hampshire is a poet, and a great many of us spoke out when we felt that this post was not being treated as seriously as we felt it should be. This state has a fantastic literary lineage, and I think we take a great deal of pride in that. The fact that this became national news surprised me, but it also made me glad. Poetry is not inconsequential.

What do you think the arts scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

In 20 years I hope the literary scene in New Hampshire is more diverse, especially in age and ethnicity. I hope we continue to celebrate the fact that our state is mostly a rural state, but that we also hear more voices from places like Manchester and Nashua. I think some of the future changes depend on what happens with higher education, which is the only place it has been remotely possible for someone to work and do any kind of creative writing, unless they have family money. We’ve had wonderful writers like Ernie Hebert, who was at Dartmouth, Simic at UNH, Liz Ahl at Plymouth State and Militello at New England College. All these writers have been able to elevate New Hampshire’s literary profile because they have had positions in higher ed. And higher ed, I suspect, will go through some huge structural changes over the next two decades. Will that mean there are fewer opportunities for writers to support themselves, or more? An expanding gig economy and some kind of affordable universal health care may make it more possible for more people to do creative work. The perennial challenge is always money, and I can’t imagine state funding for the arts will improve. But who knows? The pandemic may be creating a kind of reckoning. Another challenge that will probably get worse before it gets better is the perception of the literary arts really, all the arts by people who think they are unnecessary for economic growth. A few years ago I had a conversation with a venture capitalist who described the kind of creative thinking he looked for in entrepreneurs. I immediately thought of poets. I wonder if 20 years from now our society will value all forms of creativity.

What’s your favorite local spot to enjoy the arts?

I have an abiding love for the Currier Museum, and it will always be one of my happy places in the state. That we have such a collection of art, not to mention the special exhibitions, and that they are so accessible, continues to impress and amaze me. My other favorite is Gibson’s Bookstore, which always has the most amazing roster of literary events and book launches, and they just do it so well.

Joni Taube

Joni Taube. Courtesy photo.

Joni Taube co-founded Art 3 Gallery in Manchester in 1980 and is its current proprietor. The retail fine art gallery offers corporate and residential art consulting and custom framing services and, according to Taube, has one of the largest collections of art by New Hampshire, New England, national and international artists.

How would you describe the local arts scene 20 years ago?

When we opened in 1980, there were one or two other galleries in town and the Currier Museum of Art was then known as the Currier Gallery of Art. By 1990 the Currier had purchased the Zimmerman House and it was opened for tours. By 2000 the art scene in Manchester had expanded to include a few more galleries and framing shops like the Hatfield Gallery. The next decade saw the emergence of Langer Place on Commercial Street, which housed several boutiques and artists’ spaces. EW Poore Framing on Canal Street offered classes and supplies. The Manchester Artists Association and Framers Market were opened on Elm Street. Manchester City Hall had a rotating exhibit of art and the New Hampshire Institute of Art expanded their curriculum and offered BFA degrees.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

In 2005, in an effort to make art accessible to everyone, the Majestic Theatre, with the backing of community leaders and businesses, organized “Open Doors Trolley Night.” Four times a year, galleries and museums [in Manchester] were open to the public with exhibits that celebrated the amazing diversity of artistic expression and dynamic experiences that the city has to offer.

How did Art 3 Gallery impact the local arts scene?

One of the missions of Art 3 Gallery has been to advance the arts in Manchester by hosting multi-artist exhibits. Since our inception we have had group shows with art from local, regional as well as national artists. We currently have a virtual exhibit titled “Beyond Words” in video form on our website.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s arts scene has developed?

New Hampshire committed itself to enriching state-funded buildings with The Percent for Art Program, enacted by the New Hampshire State Legislature in 1979. This program authorizes one half of one percent of the Capital Budget appropriation for new state buildings or significant renovations to be set aside in a non-lapsing account for the acquisition or commissioning of artwork. For the past 88 years, the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen has promoted fine craft [and] supported craftspeople … [and] is recognized today as one of the country’s foremost fine arts organizations. … [Its crafts] are valued throughout the United States and around the world for their creativity, authenticity and technical expertise. The New England College of Art and Design, formerly the New Hampshire Institute of Art, has a strong foothold in Manchester and a commitment to enriching the arts in Manchester and New Hampshire.

What do you think the New Hampshire arts scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

Twenty years from now, if Manchester continues to grow as a technology center, bringing in fresh people with varying viewpoints, a younger generation must take the reins and continue the celebration of the arts in Manchester and New Hampshire. A large and diverse ethnic population must add their voices to the arts, [which would add] to the rich cultural base already in place.

Aside from Art 3 Gallery, what’s your favorite local spot to enjoy the arts?

The Currier Museum is still the premier place in New Hampshire to explore art in all its forms. The Currier exhibits have always tapped into the heart of the community, and it provides a calm and enlightening place to regroup, refresh and see something amazing.

Peter Ramsey

Peter Ramsey. Courtesy photo.

Peter Ramsey founded the Lakes Region Summer Theatre in Meredith in 1990, which he owned and operated for 12 years. In 1999 he agreed to work part time for the Palace Theatre in Manchester, which was bankrupt and closed at the time, to help reopen its doors. In 2001, after the Palace reopened, Ramsey became its CEO and president, and he still is today.

How would you describe the local arts scene 20 years ago?

Very different. … Statewide, there were more small, local arts organizations, very active in the summers especially, and almost every town had a theater. There were very few big organizations. That’s been the biggest change. Now, there are fewer and fewer local theaters and more big organizations, [like] the SNHU Arena, which has over 10,000 seats, and Meadowbrook [now called the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion]. They tend to dominate the art scene because they have more seats, obviously, and more money to deal with. The other thing that has changed dramatically is a lack of theater and the arts in education. … The focus in schools is on sports, and the arts are becoming forgotten.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

In Manchester … the arts scene was dominated by three big organizations: the New Hampshire Symphony, which went bankrupt and is gone, the Opera League of New Hampshire [now called Opera New Hampshire] and the New Hampshire Philharmonic, a phenomenal volunteer orchestra. All three have changed dramatically. … When I started at the Palace, the New Hampshire Symphony was the biggest organization. It had a $3 million budget a year, six employees, a marketing director and an executive director, and all that went away after five years. I think the struggle for classical music is that fewer and fewer children appreciate it, and that’s just a change that has happened in our society. I think the big venues have also changed things. Audiences want to go see big-name acts like James Taylor and Aerosmith at [the SNHU Arena]. … It’s a good thing that they’ve brought shows to New Hampshire that never would have come before … but think about it: with 10,000 seats, and tickets at $100 apiece, that’s a million dollars of artistic patron money going to a show. Is a person who just spent $200 for two tickets to see Aerosmith on Friday night going to go see a [community] theater show on Saturday night? … Community arts organizations have a bottom line and have to figure out how to pay their bills … and it’s been getting harder and harder for them to survive.

How did the Palace Theatre impact the local arts scene?

Tremendously. Twenty years ago, the Palace’s doors were closed, and they [were] $250,000 [in debt]. In 2019 we had the best year we ever had; 159,000 patrons paid to come to the Palace, and we hired over 500 artists. That’s a paycheck to artists, which is important because, at the end of the day, [the survival of the arts] all comes down to, can an artist make a living? … There have been economic studies of the city of Manchester that showed that the Palace brings about $10 million a year to downtown. On the nights we have a show, every restaurant within five blocks is doing very well. … An active arts scene can change a downtown; there’s no debate about it anymore.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s arts scene has developed?

I’ve been incredibly disappointed that education in New Hampshire has pretty much thrown the arts out the door. It hurts me to my core that kids no longer read Shakespeare, that they no longer debate shows like Our Town and 12 Angry Men. Those are great pieces of art that should be done … and loved by our kids, but there’s just less and less of it. Online education is completely going to kill it. There aren’t going to be kids playing in an orchestra or performing on stage, and I think [that has] long-term consequences in New Hampshire. It’s almost impossible to [produce] a Shakespeare show now. No one comes. No one will buy a ticket. It’s not depressing, but it’s concerning. It could change around again, but there would have to be a lot of work done about that.

What do you think the arts scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

I think the nine historic landmark theaters, [including] The Music Hall, the Palace, the Capitol Center for the Arts, will still be here. They may be different, but they’ll still be here. … I think unfortunately, there are probably going to be fewer arts organizations at a local level, just because they’re so hard to run and finance. … I think theater will still be alive … especially summer theaters … if they come out of the pandemic alive. … Classical music I pray will be alive, but I wonder whether it can survive. Opera is probably going to be gone. It’s very expensive to [produce] live opera, and it’s going to be hard to keep it alive. … But I’m optimistic, because one thing we have in New Hampshire is loads and loads of people who love the arts, and I think that will continue to grow.

Aside from the Palace, what’s your favorite local spot to enjoy the arts?

Red River Theatres up in Concord is wonderful. … I love the Bookery … and the Capitol Center for the Arts … and the Currier. I go [to the Currier] once a month and spend a couple of hours there walking around, and I always end up smiling.

Joe Gleason

Joe Gleason. Courtesy photo.

Throughout the 1980s, Joe Gleason did freelance technical and stage work and lighting design for local theaters like the Palace Theatre and the Dana Center in Manchester and the Capitol Theatre in Concord, which would later become the Capitol Center for the Arts. He then served as the director of production and facilities at the Capitol Center from 1995 to 1997. After he left, he remained a member of the theater and, about 10 years ago, became a board trustee. In 2016 he accepted his current position as the Capitol Center’s assistant executive director.

How would you describe the local arts scene 20 years ago?

Not as strong as it is now, but it was there. … I’d say it was still growing. … In Concord in particular, the Capitol Center, Concord Community Music School and the Concord City Auditorium, where the Community Players of Concord [performed], were sort of the big three for the presenting arts. Beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot. … It took a little while before Main Street really came to life … [with the] Main Street Renovation Project in 2016, which basically reworked all of Main Street and changed the flow of traffic in a way that made a lot of things in downtown seem more accessible and exciting to the public. … It felt like there were more opportunities for outdoor performances after that, as well. … Then, when the Capitol Center opened its second venue, the Bank of New Hampshire Stage, in 2019, that really brought some additional energy into downtown … and that’s really become a hub of activities, particularly for a younger demographic.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

What I’ve seen in the theater world in New Hampshire is a real willingness of small companies and small groups to get together and generate productions. … I’ve seen actors banding together to form production companies of their own and find places to perform. … You have people like Andrew Pinard, who started the Hatbox Theatre about five years ago by converting an old retail outlet at the Steeplegate Mall [in Concord] into a small black box theater. That just shows the creativity that we’ve got in the state to … provide even more opportunities for local performers and musicians to thrive.

How did the Capitol Center for the Arts impact the local arts scene?

The longstanding presence of the Capitol Center for the Arts has been an anchor of the arts. … It’s been one of the largest venues in New Hampshire and tended to bring the best national entertainment and touring productions into the state because it has more seats than the Palace or the Dana Center or The Colonial [in Keene] or The Music Hall. … We’ve had some off years, as most venues do, but generally, we’ve been an organization that moves forward. … In the last five years we’ve had tremendous growth in the number of productions we mount each year and the quality of the entertainment that we bring in.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s arts scene has developed?

The amount of variety of art that we have, for being such a small state. … That’s become more visible, I think, over the years, with a lot of artists being featured on Chronicle and on the news and in print. … I think the very supportive nature of communities in New Hampshire has allowed the arts to thrive. In an age where you can get all your entertainment through the phone in your hand, people still have a great desire to see performances in person and share a live experience.

What do you think the arts scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

I wish I had a crystal ball. … I will say that if you look back in history at the Roaring Twenties after the 1918 pandemic, there was a great pent-up demand [for live entertainment] after living under restrictions like we are today. … There is a hunger and a need to socialize with fellow human beings, and gathering in the theater and sharing entertainment is one of those things that’s not easily replicated in other ways. … So I do expect that [the arts] will come back, but we just don’t know exactly when. … I do think that livestreaming and other things that we have been doing during the pandemic are probably here to stay. That’s a great thing, because it gives additional opportunities for people who may not be able to afford a ticket or get to the venue. … I’m not sure there will be any major arenas or theaters built in the next 20 years they’re all very expensive propositions but you never know.

Aside from the Capitol Center, what’s your favorite local spot to enjoy the arts?

I absolutely love going up to the Weathervane Theatre in Whitefield for summer stock theater. The Stockbridge Theatre in Derry is also good because it gets such a variety of entertainment.

Meet the neighbors

NH comics artist tells the stories of migrant farmworkers

Henniker comic artist Marek Bennett is one of 15 New England comic artists contributing to The Most Costly Journey, a nonfiction comics anthology from the Vermont Folklife Center, set for release in February and available online now.

The comics depict true stories told by more than 20 Latin American migrant workers working on dairy farms in Vermont, exploring themes like language barriers, substance abuse, separation from family, work issues, domestic abuse, depression and other challenges that many migrant workers face.

The idea for the anthology was conceived by Julia Doucet, a nurse at The Open Door Clinic, a free health clinic in Middlebury, Vermont, serving uninsured and under-insured adults, after she noticed a trend of migrant patients suffering from untreated anxiety and trauma. She believed it could be therapeutic for them to tell their stories and wanted to create a safe outlet for them to do so.

“There’s a lot of healing in forming narratives and making sense of your experiences,” Bennett said, “and making it into something visual, like comics, is a great way to do that.”

Bennett, who teaches at The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, first heard about the anthology in progress when one of the organizers, an archivist from the Vermont Folklife Center, visited the campus to give a presentation on ethnography in comics.

“He mentioned this new project he was working on, and when I heard what it was about, my ears perked up,” Bennett said. “It really spoke to me because of the kinds of comics I usually do, which tend to focus on the unknown and unheard stories and voices from our communities and from our history.”

The comic artists conducted one-on-one interviews with their paired storytellers. A transcript of the interview was made and provided to the artist, who then got to work on an eight-or-so-page comic.

Creating a “condensed distillation of the person’s experience” from the transcript, some of which were pages long and “could easily be made into a whole graphic novel,” was one of the hardest steps, Bennett said.

“At that point, the question becomes, what do you include? What do you leave out? How do you arrange things?” he said. “It’s your own creative process — you choose what aspect or what element [to focus on] in those eight pages, and you choose the style and how to show the story — but you’re doing it in service to the storyteller’s vision.”

He didn’t always get it right the first time; the comic artists were expected to consult with the storytellers throughout the process to make sure that the comic was an accurate representation of the story and the storyteller, and that it “got to the heart” of what the storyteller wanted to communicate, Bennett said. In one instance, the storyteller felt that the artistic style Bennett used for the comic was not a good fit for the story.

“I scrapped it, backed up and redesigned the whole thing, because ultimately it’s their story,” he said. “If they say to me, ‘No, that’s not what [the experience] was like,’ I actually really appreciate that. … I think having them there to teach you and show you what direction to go in helps you create a stronger project.”

Bennett said he hopes the anthology will give a more human face to the issue of immigration, and give readers a greater sense of appreciation for the people behind “the nice New England farm pictures on the milk and cheese labels.”

“Much of the time when we hear about immigration it’s in terms that are abstract for us: ‘down on the Texas border’ and ‘some detention center in the South,’” he said, “but these stories are coming out of Vermont, and whether we recognize it or not, these people are a part of our society. They’re our neighbors.”

Find Marek Bennett’s work
To view the comic online, visit vermontfolklifecenter.org/elviajemascaro-eng. For more from Marek, visit marekbennet.com.


Art

Exhibits

• “MANCHESTER’S URBAN PONDS: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE: A CELEBRATION OF THE MANCHESTER URBAN PONDS RESTORATION PROGRAM’S 20TH ANNIVERSARY” Through its cleanup efforts, the Manchester Urban Ponds Restoration Program has helped restore the city’s ponds to their historic uses. The exhibit provides a look at the history of some of those ponds, including Crystal Lake, Dorrs Pond, Maxwell Pond, Nutts Pond, Pine Island Pond and Stevens Pond. State Theater Gallery at Millyard Museum, 200 Bedford St., Manchester. On view now through Nov. 28. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission costs $8 for adults, $6 for seniors age 62 and up and college students, $4 for youth ages 12 through 18 and is free for kids under age 12. Call 622-7531 or visit manchesterhistoric.org/millyard-museum.

JOAN L. DUNFEY EXHIBITION The New Hampshire Art Association presents artwork in a variety of media by regional NHAA members and non-members. The exhibit theme is “Intrinsic Moments.” NHAA’s Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery, 136 State St., Portsmouth. On view now through Nov. 29. Gallery hours are Monday and Tuesday by appointment, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., but are subject to change. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

• “MOMENTS IN NATURE” The New Hampshire Art Association presents oil paintings by BJ Eckardt. Concord Chamber of Commerce Gallery, 49 S. Main St., Concord. On display now through Dec. 17. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

• “UNSEEN LIGHT” The New Hampshire Art Association presents infrared photography by Mark Giuliucci. 2 Pillsbury St., Concord. On display now through Dec. 17. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

• “AN EXTRAPOLATION OF CLOSE OBSERVATION” The New Hampshire Art Association presents prints and paintings by Kate Higley. 2 Pillsbury St., Concord. On display now through Dec. 17. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

• “THREADS: A COMMUNITY QUILT FOR 2020” A Portsmouth Historical Society exhibit. Discover Portsmouth, 10 Middle St., Portsmouth. On view Nov. 20 through Dec. 22. Visit portsmouthhistory.org or call 436-8433.

• “PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT” Exhibit features photography from the Civil Rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s. Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester. On view now. Museum hours are Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed Monday through Wednesday. Museum admission costs $15 for adults, $13 for seniors age 65 and up, $10 for students, $5 for youth ages 13 through 17 and free for children under age 13. Reserve in advance online. Call 669-6144 or visit currier.org.

Special events

NHAA 80TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY New Hampshire Art Association hosts a silent art auction fundraiser. Bidding runs through Dec. 11. Visit nhartassociation.org or call 431-4230.

Tours

PORTSMOUTH HOLIDAY ARTS TOUR/ORIGINAL SEACOAST ARTIST STUDIO TOUR Tour includes four Portsmouth studios featuring eight artists, plus five member artists online. Sat., Nov. 21, and Sun., Nov. 22, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit portsmouthartstour.com.

Theater

Shows

MARY AND ME Glass Dove Productions presents. Hatbox Theatre (Steeplegate Mall, 270 Loudon Road, Concord). Nov. 13 through Nov. 22, with showtimes on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $22 for adults and $19 for seniors and students and should be reserved in advance. Visit hatboxnh.com or call 715-2315.

PROOF The Players’ Ring Theatre presents. Performances are live in person and virtual. Nov. 13 through Nov. 22. 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth. Tickets cost $24 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. Visit playersring.org or call 436-8123.

THE NUTCRACKER Southern New Hampshire Dance Theater presents. Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester. Thurs., Nov. 19, and Fri., Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 21, 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.; and Sun., Nov. 22, noon and 4:30 p.m. Tickets cost $39 to $46 for adults and $25 for children. Visit palacetheatre.org or call 668-5588.

• “CLASSICS WE’D LOVE TO DO (BUT MAY NEVER GET THE CHANCE” TheGarrison Players Readers’ Theater program of Dover performs scenes from Shakespeare (Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet), Moliere (Tartuffle) and Sheridan (The Way of the World). Virtual performance. Fri., Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free. Registration in advance is required. Visit garrisonplayers.org.

A TEMPEST PRAYER Theatre KAPOW presents. Virtual, live stream. Nov. 20 through Nov. 22, with showtimes on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets cost $10. Visit tkapow.com.

THE ROCKIN DADDIOS Doo-wop music presented by The Majestic Theatre. Sat., Nov. 21, 2 and 7 p.m. Virtual live-stream and in person at The Majestic Theatre Studios, 880 Page St., Manchester. Tickets cost $20 for in person performance and $10 for virtual performance. Call 669-7469 or visit majestictheatre.net.

THE ADVENTURES OF SLEEPYHEAD New Hampshire Theatre Project presents its 2020 – 2021 MainStage Season Opener. Fri., Nov. 27, and Sat., Nov. 28, 7 p.m., and Sun., Nov. 29, 2 p.m. Live in person at 959 Islington St., Portsmouth, and virtual live-stream. In person tickets cost $10. Virtual tickets cost $10 per streaming device. Call 431-6644 or visit nhtheatreproject.org.

Classical

Events

UTE GFRERER Concert soloist performs. Sat., Nov. 28, 6 and 8 p.m. The Music Hall Historic Theater, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth. $130 for a table of two, $260 for a table of four and $390 for a table of six. Visit themusichall.org.

A DICKENS’ CHRISTMAS WINE DINNER WITH PICCOLA OPERA Piccola Opera’s Dickens Carolers perform. Sat., Dec. 5, 6 to 8 p.m. LaBelle Winery & Event Center, 345 Route 101, Amherst. $387.20 to reserve a table of four, $580.80 to reserve a table of six. Visit labellewineryevents.com.

At the movies

How locally-owned movie theaters are weathering 2020

With Covid-related capacity restrictions and a scarcity of big new movie releases, movie theaters are struggling to cover their operating costs and some haven’t been able to open at all.

Among the big chains, area Regal theaters are temporarily closed and the AMC theater in Londonderry is mostly open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as is the Cinemark in Salem, according to their websites. Likewise, locally-owned movie theaters have worked to find ways to adapt to regulations and uncertain movie release schedules.

Limited capacity, limited releases

One of the biggest challenges movie theaters have faced this year is the shortage of new movies being released.

“Whenever we think [a movie] is coming out, we get news that the studio has pushed the release date out,” said Mike Mannetta, marketing manager for Chunky’s Cinema Pubs, whose screening rooms offer chairs arranged at tables and food and bar menus, with locations in Nashua, Manchester and Pelham. “It’s like we’re chasing a carrot that just keeps moving on us.”

Some studios are bypassing theaters altogether and distributing the new films straight to home video, streaming platforms and on-demand services.

“It’s really hard to get people engaged [with movie theaters] when they have Netflix and HBO and so many different options,” said Angie Lane, executive director of Red River Theatres in Concord, which is a non-profit cinema with a mission to highlight independent films. “And I don’t blame them. It’s definitely easier right now to be like, ‘I’ll just find something to watch on Netflix.’”

Theaters may be able to get a hold of some new indie, local or foreign films or classic movies, but those alone don’t attract enough moviegoers for the theaters to make a profit or, in many cases, even break even with what they have to pay in licensing and operation costs in order to show the movie.

“A lot of these [indie] titles are great films, but they don’t have a great marketing budget,” Lane said, “and it takes a certain attitude that a lot of people don’t have to say, ‘I’ve never heard of this and have no idea what it’s about; I’m going to watch it.’”

“We need the blockbusters; the movies from Disney and all those big studios are the meat of our business,” Mannetta said. “Not having those is what’s really, really hurting us right now.”

But, as Wilton Town Hall Theatre owner Dennis Markaverich can attest, even first-run movies with big-name actors aren’t a surefire antidote to moviegoers’ reluctance to go out, especially to a small, intimate theater. When the theater reopened with new releases Irresistible and Emma in July, it was, Markaverich said, “a disaster.”

“They were first-run movies, one with Steve Carell in it, and guess what? They did terrible,” he said. “The film companies still wanted their regular percentage, which is high, and we weren’t even making the minimum. People weren’t even coming inside. It was like shoveling money into the boilers of the Titanic.”

If and when more moviegoers feel comfortable going to the theaters again, the state’s regulations for theaters, which currently call for a 50-percent reduction in capacity, may still make it difficult for theaters to cover their operating costs.

“Our largest theater can normally hold 150 people, so realistically, right now, with social distancing, we could sell maybe 50 tickets for that one, and maybe 25 tickets for our other theater, which can normally hold 100 people, and that’s at best,” Lane said, “and if we can’t sell enough tickets to cover the cost of opening the theater, our hands are tied. We can’t risk our financial future by trying to stay open. We have to be responsible.”

Bringing back the classics

Local theaters have taken a variety of approaches to coping with the challenges posed by Covid-19.

It’s been easier for some than others. Drive-in theaters were among the first entertainment venues permitted to reopen in New Hampshire on May 11, which was great news for the Milford Drive-In Theater, which has two screens.

“I was ecstatic that the governor’s office recognized that we would be able to [operate safely] and allowed us to open back up so quickly,” said Barry Scharmett, one of the family owners.

The Milford Drive-In Theater opened that same weekend with double features of Onward and The Call of the Wild on one screen and The Invisible Man and The Hunt on the second screen, new releases from February and March that were in the middle of their run when theaters were ordered to close. Tickets sold out fast for all showings. The drive-in continued throughout the summer and fall with a wide range of double features, including family-friendly favorites like Shrek and Despicable Me, horror duos like It and It Chapter Two and The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, comedy pairs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Big Lebowski, and a “Christmas in July” weekend with titles like Elf, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

“Covid never actually hurt us. The turnout this season was steady and fantastic from the get-go,” Scharmett said. “People wanted to get out of the house and do something, and we were able to provide a safe place for them to do that, so things worked out well for us.”

Milford Drive-In has closed for the season and will reopen in the spring, according to its website.

When indoor theaters got the green light on June 30, Chunky’s opened its doors right away with screenings of Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters and The Goonies. It continued with themed events like “Shark Week” in August, which featured shark-centric movies like Jaws, Open Water and Shark Tales; a screening of Mean Girls on Oct. 3 (fans know it as “Mean Girls Day”); and Halloween classics like Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice. They also brought back some popular flicks from the last few years, such as The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody.

But screenings of older movies, even if well-attended, bring in nowhere near the amount of revenue that new blockbusters do, Mannetta said. In an effort to compensate for that loss, Chunky’s has been hosting other kinds of entertainment, including live comedy, music, magic and variety shows, trivia, 21+ events sponsored by an alcoholic beverage brand, a celebrity chef dinner series, paint nites, special promotions for kids and more and is, according to Mannetta, “constantly coming up with new, creative events to add.”

“If we just relied on the classic movie showings, we would be really struggling,” he said. “We’re still down significantly [in revenue] from last year, but all these special events we’re doing have been helping a lot with allowing us to continue [operating].”

Regional chain Cinemagic, which has theaters locally in Merrimack, Hooksett and Portsmouth, opened in New Hampshire in August with a similar mix of classic blockbusters as well as the new movies that came out in late summer, like The New Mutants and the Christopher Nolan directed Tenet. Local Cinemagic theaters’ current line-up of films includes new releases such The War with Grandpa featuring Robert De Niro, Honest Thief with Liam Neeson and other films with lower profiles than the big franchise films that have been delayed until 2021.

At Wilton Town Hall Theatre, after seeing the negligible turnout for the two first-run titles that he showed after reopening, Markaverich said he is resigned to showing only classic movies for the foreseeable future. The theater continues to run its Saturday classic films series each week and has been increasing the frequency of its well-attended silent film series, which features live music by silent film accompanist (and Hippo co-founder and associate publisher) Jeff Rapsis, from once a month to several times a month. Markaverich said he still looks forward to “going back into the movie business,” he said, “meaning the real movie business, being open seven nights a week with regular commercial films,” but he’s not going to take that step lightly.

“I already tried, and that act didn’t fly, so why would I try again when I know I’m just going to end up back in that same boat?” he said. “That’s why I’m waiting until I see other [similar theaters] start to turn over some good figures and get some steady flow. That doesn’t seem to be happening, but hopefully someday it does.”

Red River and O’Neil Cinemas in Epping have yet to reopen to the public. Red River has been subsisting on federal relief as it waits for “the safety and the financial viability” to reopen, Lane said, adding that the theater is preparing to attempt “a very limited reopening” before the end of the year.

“The funds have allowed us to breathe a little,” she said. “They’ve given us a bit of a cushion so that we can take the time to survey people … and look at every possible scenario … and really think about what our reopening is going to look like before we do it.”

In April, Red River launched its “virtual cinema,” inviting moviegoers to support the theater by purchasing tickets for new independent films, to be streamed from home.

“It’s not really enough to fund us, but we see it more as an engagement opportunity,” Lane said. “We feel that it’s important for us, as part of what we do as a nonprofit, to be out there in the community in some way. We want to make sure that we’re always meeting our mission, even when we’re not open or not making any money.”

Loni Dirksen, marketing manager for O’Neil Cinemas, said the theater is hoping to reopen next year but will not do so under the current circumstances for as long as they persist.

“We’re waiting for Covid numbers to improve, for restrictions [enforced by the state] to be lifted, and for new movies to start being released again,” Dirksen said, adding that O’Neil has no interest in reopening only to show classic movies.

Though their theaters were closed, O’Neil and Red River were, however, able to host some outdoor events during the summer. O’Neil had four drive-in showings of classic movies like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, which Dirksen said “were pretty popular.” Red River partnered with Concord Parks and Rec for an outdoor showing of Toy Story, and with Canterbury Shaker Village for an outdoor showing of Casablanca. Lane said Red River may even hold another outdoor movie during the winter.

“Sometimes early December can be a little warmer, so we’re trying to see if that would be feasible and are looking into maybe getting some heaters,” she said.

Want a private screening room?

Another way that many local theaters are supplementing their income is by renting out their spaces as venues for private events for a reduced price. Depending on the theater, renters may be able to show their own DVD or Blu-ray disc or play their own video games on the big screen, and some theaters will provide concessions for the events.

Chunky’s and the Wilton Town Hall Theatre have been doing the rentals for months with a lot of success, according to theater representatives. It’s the main source of income (aside from federal relief funds) for O’Neil Cinemas and for Red River, which just started offering the rentals this week, their representatives said.

Dirksen said the rentals at O’Neil Cinemas have been popular for holiday get-togethers, business meetings, birthday parties and the like.

“It gives people a chance to get out and do something enjoyable,” she said, “and they can feel safe knowing that they’re coming into a clean environment that’s been disinfected just for them, and that all the people there are people from their own group who they’ve been socially distancing with.”

Pandemic protocols

In addition to limiting their capacity to 50 percent as mandated by the state, theaters have implemented a number of different protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and ensure a safe environment for moviegoers.

Standard procedures at all theaters include required mask-wearing for theater staff and patrons, socially distanced seating arrangements and frequent sanitizing of common areas.

“I was adamant about people wearing masks while outside their cars,” Scharmett said of the Milford Drive-in. “If someone came in without a mask, they’d have to find one or leave — no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it.”

Rules about food and concessions vary from theater to theater. Chunky’s, for example, is continuing to offer a scaled-back selection of its pub fare, whereas Red River, when it reopens, will not offer concessions.

“We want people to be able to keep their masks [on] at all times,” Lane said.

Some theaters have taken other kinds of precautions as well. Both Chunky’s and the Drive-in (when it was open) conduct temperature checks with every staff member before every shift, and Red River has updated its air filtration system and is currently working on creating a contactless system for buying tickets in preparation for its reopening.

Dirksen said the actions taken by theaters across the country have been “very effective” so far.

“We recently learned that, as of now, there have been zero cases of Covid-19 connected to a movie theater,” she said. “That’s really great news for us.”

How patrons can help

Support from moviegoers is essential to the survival of movie theaters now more than ever, Lane said.

Theater staff said that one of the best ways to support local theaters is to consider becoming a member if the theater has a membership program, which often gives dues to the theater and gives patrons perks such as reduced admission pricing, guest passes, complimentary popcorn, invitations to members-only events and more.

Some local movie theaters have hosted fundraising events. O’Neil, for example, had a drive-thru popcorn and candy sale in October, and Dirksen said the theater may have another one in the future.

Gift cards are another option, Dirksen said, and can be a big help to theaters that still aren’t open and able to sell tickets.

“We will be opening again, and when we do, those gift cards will be good to use,” she said.

Lane at Red Rivers says donations of even $5 or $10 helps.

“We understand that a lot of people are out of work and struggling and it’s hard to give right now, but whatever they can give is enough,” she said. “Five dollars doesn’t seem like a lot, but if everybody gave that, it adds up.”

Though the CARES Act did provide some loans for small movie theaters, it simply wasn’t enough, Dirksen said, especially for theaters that are still closed.

“Some of us have been closed for six-plus months now and are still not getting any income,” she said.

By encouraging patrons to reach out to local congresspeople to advocate for them and “raise awareness … about how much independent theaters are hurting right now,” Dirksen said, theaters are hoping that Congress will be compelled to provide them with additional relief funding to help them stay afloat.

What’s going on(line)

ArtWalk and Writers’ Conference to be held virtually

Interviewing Tiffany Joslin of the YMCA of Greater Nashua, one of the 7th Annual Meri Goyette Arts Awards recipients, for ArtWeek Nashua 2020. Photo by Wendy Fisher.

While many of the fall’s large annual arts events have been canceled, some, like Nashua ArtWalk Weekend and the 603: Writers’ Conference, are still happening virtually.

ArtWalk Weekend has been reimagined as ArtWeek, with virtual programming on social media and local television from Saturday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Oct. 25.

“We could have easily put this off until next year, but we wanted to make this happen,” said Wendy Fisher, project manager for City Arts Nashua, which hosts the event. “Art in any form is really healing for people, and I think bringing art to folks virtually right now during this crazy time and forming a community around the arts is filling a void.”

The schedule for ArtWeek is still in the works, but Fisher said it will feature around 30 Nashua-area artists and performers through a series of video segments and social media posts. In the videos, which have been professionally filmed in partnership with Access Nashua Community Television, artists give tours of their studios, show their artistic processes and give an in-depth look at some of their works of art. The videos will be broadcast on Access Nashua (TV channel 96) and City Arts Nashua’s YouTube channel. Other artists will have spotlights on City Arts Nashua’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages and website.

“You can learn about the artists and see the work they’re creating [and hear about] how the pandemic has impacted them and how you can support them,” Fisher said. “It’s just like meeting them in person, except instead of walking through downtown Nashua you tune in [virtually].”

ArtWeek will also include elements of the “KidsWalk,” which debuted at last year’s event.

Videos and photos submitted by young artists and performers showcasing their talents and pandemic-era creations will be featured; and, with contributions from the YMCA of Greater Nashua, there will be a scavenger hunt with clues posted on social media where kids can find art kits hidden around Nashua. Kids can then watch a YouTube video with instructions and inspiration for projects they can do with the art kit.

“The KidsWalk was so popular last year,” Fisher said. “We’re so excited to bring back more things for kids.”

Finally, ArtWeek will also air the presentation of the Meri Goyette Arts Awards, which was recorded over the summer. The awards recognize three non-artist community members who have made outstanding contributions to the arts.

The New Hampshire Writers’ Project’s 603: Writers’ Conference, known this year as 603: Writers’ “Sit and Click” Virtual Conference, will take place on Saturday, Oct. 17. Normally held in Manchester in the spring, the conference will feature most of its traditional activities, including panels, classes and a keynote speaker, virtually over Zoom.

“It’s all brand new territory that we’re trying to pioneer, just like everybody else,” said Beth D’Ovidio, marketing director for the Writers’ Project, “but I think most people have become fairly well-versed and confident and comfortable with Zoom by now.”

The conference kicks off with a presentation by keynote speaker Brunonia Barry, New York Times- and international bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places and The Fifth Petal.

Then there will be two sessions with a total of 14 different classes offered, plus one panel, taught by published authors and industry professionals and covering a variety of topics related to the theme “Choosing Your Path to Publishing.” Topics will include the mechanics of powerful prose, protagonists and antagonists, researching a historical novel, strategies for developing a story, dealing with plot holes, beating procrastination, creative approaches to telling personal stories, revising, sci-fi and fantasy world-building, submitting a manuscript for publication, working with an editor, creating a video trailer for a book, selling self-published books through Amazon ads and planning a book tour.

All classes will be held live as well as recorded, and participants will have access to the recorded classes for 90 days after the conference.

“You’ll be able to access every single workshop that is presented that day, which we’re really excited about, because we haven’t been able to offer that in the past,” D’Ovidio said. “I think that’s going to really increase the value of the experience and is a really cool selling point this year.”

Virtual arts
ArtWeek Nashua
When
: Saturday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Oct. 25. Schedule of programs TBA.
Where: Content will be broadcast on Access Nashua (TV channel 96) and City Arts Nashua’s YouTube channel and posted on City Arts Nashua’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages and website.
Cost: Free
More info: cityartsnashua.org

603: Writers’ “Sit and Click” Virtual Conference
When:
Saturday, Oct. 17, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Where: Content will be broadcast live over Zoom.
Cost: $125 for NHWP members, $145 for non-members, $100 for teachers and $50 for students. Registration required by Friday, Oct. 16, at 3 p.m. Includes recorded content accessible for 90 days.
More info: nhwritersproject.org

Featured photo: Interviewing Gail Moriarty of Colibri Designs. Photo by Wendy Fisher.

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