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Nine on Nine: Center Stage with Lesley Pankhurst

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - August 9, 2011

Lesley Pankhurst is marketing director for the popular Winnipesaukee Playhouse. Along with family members, she courageously started a year round theatre in the Lakes Region a number of years ago. The theatre – and Lesley’s responsibilities – have grown over the years. She took a few moments out of her busy schedule at the theatre to speak with us about what it’s like to live and breathe theatre year round.


1. How long have you lived in the Lakes Region and how long have you had the theatre?

Lesley: “We moved to the Lakes Region in August of 2003. I was very pregnant at the time! We found our current space in the Weirs that fall and began renovations in January. By spring we were offering classes for kids and by that summer we were open for productions.”


2. Can you describe your job at the theatre, because it is an unusual occupation?

Lesley: “Technically, my title is Marketing Director, but early on I took on the responsibility of coordinating costumes and have designed the costumes for the majority of productions ever since. We have six year-round staff members, and we all pitch in with everything from teaching classes, painting sets to cleaning toilets!”


3. Why did you decide to get involved in theatre versus more traditional work?

Lesley: “I started doing theatre in elementary school and have been doing it ever since. I don’t think I ever considered a ‘traditional’ job. I knew from around the time I was graduating college that I didn’t have the drive or desire to try to be a professional actress, so I did a masters in Arts Administration knowing that there was more steady work in theatre management. As far as theatre work goes, marketing is about as ‘traditional’ as it gets.”


4. What’s it like running your business?

Lesley: “Our theatre started out as a family business before we expanded and became a non-profit, but at its core we are run by me, my husband, my brother and my sister-in-law. We all put in long hours and there’s basically no escape from work. Even family dinners turn into shoptalk. It’s been great to be able to take on new staff members who come with a different perspective. The summer is also so exciting because of all the staff that comes in from around the country. We have a lot of returning staff from year to year who now feel like they are part of the family!”


5. Your company has introduced the idea of a year round theatre in a seasonal community (tourist area) and made it successful. Why do you think that is when so many theatres are failing?

Lesley: “Probably because we have been able to keep our operation as lean as possible. It helps that we are all willing to take on multiple roles so we can keep staff costs down as much as possible. Early on we established our two separate seasons: the professional summer season and the community theatre ‘off-season’, which has been a formula that works well for us. Fundamentally, we know we produce really good shows with an attention to detail that is not often seen in traditional summer stock theatre. That keeps our audiences happy and tickets sales growing.”


6. What are your favorite Lakes Region views and/or favorite scenic locations?

Lesley: “I am fortunate to drive from Meredith to the Weirs every day and there’s that spot on Route 3 where you get the most beautiful view of the lake. It makes driving to work easier! I recently had some friends visiting from New York for the first time and they were like ‘wow, you get to live here’. I don’t think us year-rounders appreciate it as much as we should.”


7. You also run children’s theatre camps – tell me what the camps offer area kids.


Lesley: “We have a fantastic new Education Director, Kate Wisnioski, who has re-vamped our summer camp program. Whereas we used to just offer a drama camp in the morning, this year campers can choose a morning, afternoon or full-day session. The morning still focuses on drama and storytelling, but the afternoon focuses on music, movement and visual arts, giving full-day campers a really inclusive arts experience. The camps are held on our Meredith campus so the kids have a building dedicated to them, plus great outdoor space. Their final performances take place on our new outdoor amphitheatre, which is really a great treat.”


8. What do you think makes the area so special and what do you think will be different in the Lakes Region 10 years from now?

Lesley: “I think the area is special because of the history it has for a lot of families. As it happens, my family didn’t vacation up here, so we really didn’t know the area at all until we moved here. But I love hearing stories about lake cabins, which have been passed on from generation to generation. It will be interesting to see what the tourist season is like in 10 years. We have only been here eight years, but from the time we opened we’ve had a lot of people in the tourism industry say to us ‘the area isn’t what it used to be’ in terms of numbers of tourists.”


9. What do you do in the winter months when things are not as busy?

Lesley: “We always planned to be not as busy in the winter months, but somehow it hasn’t turned out that way! We have community and youth shows every few weeks, plus we recently launched an expanded education program for kids, teens and adults. Other than a few weeks at the holidays, we don’t really find we have much down time. Plus, between our two families we have three active elementary schoolers who we are constantly shuttling to dance class, music lessons, drama class, etc. We keep saying we’ll try to work that into the schedule but…”


10. How are plans coming for the new theatre building at the former Annalee Doll facility?

Lesley: “Phase I of our three-phase campaign is complete, which is great. That consisted of mostly infrastructure like water, sewer, paving and staff housing. We are currently raising money for Phase II, which is the construction of a new state-of-the-art theatre building.  This summer we are hoping to add 500 names to our list of capital campaign donors and we are almost halfway there. Donations at any level are appreciated and are matched by a generous local couple who have pledge to match up to $1million all donations received by the end of this year.”


11. What is your all-time favorite theatre show?

Lesley: “There are some shows I will try to see over and over no matter who is putting them on. Sweeney Todd is one of them. I’ve seen everything from the recent Broadway revival to a large-scale opera production to a small pub theatre production in Cambridge, England. I would love for us to do it one day. One of my favorite theatre experiences was seeing the original Broadway production of Tony Kusher’s Angels in America when I was in high school.”


12. Why do you think people continue to love live theatre when they could just as easily stay home and rent a movie?

Lesley: “It’s just a different experience and you can’t compare it. Take, for example, The Woman in Black, a thriller we performed back in 2006. I first saw the show in London when I worked for a non-profit, which brought low-income students to see West End plays. These really tough teens would come to the theatre saying how there’s no way a play could ever scare them. Half way through, there is one really scary sound effect which, without fail, would cause every person in the audience to scream and jump out of their seats. A sound effect! By the end of the play the kids would have to concede that a play could be as scary as a movie. Incidentally, when we opened The Woman in Black here, our set and lighting designers stood in back on opening night waiting for the big terror moment. They gave each other silent high fives when our audience jumped out of their chairs!”


13. Will you be doing shows right through the winter?

Lesley: “Yes!  In fact, we start out community theatre season earlier than ever this year with a production of The Guys to commemorate 9/11 followed by Nunsense II in late September.”


14. What is your background/are you trained in acting/theatre?

Lesley: “I performed throughout high school and college and then did a Masters in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy from the University of London.”


15. What are future plans for you and for the theatre?

Lesley: “First and foremost, we are working towards opening the main stage theatre on the Meredith Campus. That will give us many more opportunities to stage larger-scale productions, including many we have been waiting to do for several years that simply won’t fit in our current space. We hope to continue to expand our education program.” 

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