Long before he became a big name in Hollywood, Gordon Clapp had a theater role at a small playhouse in his hometown of North Conway, N.H. that set him on his career path.
He’ll be coming full circle back to his home state to play the role of Stage Manager for the first time in Peterborough Players’ production of the Thornton Wilder classic, “Our Town,” opening August 4 as the first play in the post-pandemic Peterborough Players Summer 2021 Grand Restart Lineup.
In a first for the 88-year-old theatre, this production will be performed onsite, outdoors in downtown Peterborough.
An exploration of the profound in everyday life, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Our Town” is told from the perspective of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, as they grow up, love, live and die there. Their story is told by a character known only as the Stage Manager.
Considered by some to be the greatest American play ever written, the ownership of Wilder’s play is considered to be by the residents of Peterborough (long rumored to be the inspiration for Grover’s Corners).
In addition, the Players has a long and intimate connection to “Our Town”: since their first production in 1940, on which Thornton Wilder himself consulted, it has become the Players’ most produced play to date.
It is not Clapp’s first role in the play—his first was as a townsperson in 1976 in North Conway when he was 28 years old. He played his second role in the play nine years ago at the New London Barn Playhouse.
“Every time I approach it again it has new meaning,” said Clapp in a recent phone interview with ELF. “The older you get; the more emotions are uncovered and the more questions you have. The director’s vision has a lot to do with who I am in it. I am still not sure who I am in it. (My character) knows everybody and interacts with the characters. Some people think he’s a higher power; some think he’s Wilder himself.”
Clapp, a resident of Norwich, Vt., for seven years, had his first acting role at 12 years old at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse, a local equity company in North Conway where he was an apprentice. The play was “The Happy Time,” later a musical, about a family of vaudevillians in Ottawa.
“I had a major part,” he said. “I got to act with some really wonderful actors who had long careers in the theater.”
He credits his acting teacher, Jeanne Tufts, who came from New York, for his continuing to act.
“We did a lot of speech work and memorization,” he said. “I memorized the prologue to ‘Henry V.’”
He graduated from Williams College, where he met frequent collaborators David Strathairn and John Sayles: he appeared in four of Sayles’s films, including “Eight Men Out,” as Chicago White Sox catcher Ray Schalk; and “Matewan.”
During his senior year in college, he was part of the inaugural class at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Center. In his post-college years, he performed at summer stock in the very hometown theater where he began as a 12-year-old.
His television credits are vast: his longest-running role being Detective Greg Medavoy for all 12 seasons of “NYPD Blue.” For that role he won an Emmy Award for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series and the first SAG Award for Ensemble in a Drama Series.
He was also a regular on the Canadian sitcom, “Check It Out,” with Don Adams of “Get Smart” fame.
Other TV appearances include “Cheers,” “The Wonder Years,” “Wings” and “Night Court,” all of which led to his “NYPD Blue” audition.
In 2014, Clapp began a recurring role as Chaplain Orlovsky on “Chicago Fire,” and most recently, this year, he had a modest but critical role in the acclaimed “Mare of Easttown” series starring Kate Winslet on HBO.
Then there’s his theater credits. On Broadway, he most recently appeared in the revival of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” where he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play.[
But where he frequents the stage is in New England, where he has performed at Vermont’s Northern Stage, Lost Nation Theatre and Dorset Theatre Festival, Connecticut’s Ivoryton Playhouse, New Hampshire’s New London Barn Playhouse and Boston’s Huntington Theatre, and Central Square Theatre.
His longest-running theater role—even longer-running than his stint on “NYPD Blue,” has been as Robert Frost in “Robert Frost: This Verse Business,” a role he played at the Peterborough Players for the first time in 2010.
He more recently reprised the role during the Players’ 2020 winter season.
“There’s so much material; there were new things in it, so I tweak (the role) every once in awhile,” he said. “I might come across a good joke or add poems that weren’t there before that have relevance.”
Clapp’s next TV role is in a Showtime series called “American Rust,” about an industrial town in Pennsylvania he described as “dark,” starring Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney.
For Clapp, there’s nothing like performing on a stage.
“While I was barding about with Robert Frost, the audience had been my comfort,” he said. “I would walk on-stage and within three minutes I would identify my kindred spirits in the audience. There were a lot of them.”
To those starting out as actors, he offers some advice:
“Do as much theater as you can; get as much experience in front of an audience; see all the great plays, and be sure to listen,” he said. “After you’ve invested a few years and things aren’t going well, only keep doing if you can’t live without it.”
He feels “Our Town” has been greatly misunderstood as a dark play about grief, and he’s looking forward to interpreting his role in a way Wilder intended.
“(Wilder) didn’t like the idea there were people sobbing in the audience during the third act,” he said. “He felt there was a realization of eternity (in the story) that should triumph over death. I hope I’ll learn something new.”
Tom Frey, who also serves as Associate Artistic Director of the Players, will direct “Our Town,” opening August 4 and running Wednesdays through Sundays at 5:30 p.m. through the final performance August 15, at R.J. Finlay Green, 70 Main St., off Phoenix Mill Lane behind the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and the Peterborough Town House.
A number of Pay-What-You-Can tickets will be available (call the box office at 924-7585 to reserve); all others are $47 and can be ordered at www.peterboroughplayers.org.