Like many people, Kathy Manfre did some work on her home during the pandemic.
Her addition? A small, makeshift recording studio — PVC pipes, cloaked in black soundproof blankets — where the Peterborough actor has made voiceovers for tutorial videos, cybersecurity advertisements and even a full-length audiobook while live theater performances were on hold.
“It’s a hobby more than anything else,” she said of the voiceover work, which has also included doing the Hail Mary in a local accent. “… It’s kind of a nice gig.”
Manfre, who’s in her late 60s, is set to take the stage again this month, however, when the Peterborough Players starts rehearsals for the Canadian play “Where You Are,” its third show of the season. Farewell, simple voiceover scripts.
“Having to memorize lines now is not as much fun,” she said, laughing. “I’m getting up in age.”
Manfre is among the many Monadnock Region thespians — old and young — returning to the stage this summer, with COVID-19 cases having declined from last winter as vaccines have become available. (Though with cases trending up recently, the theater companies say they’re staying vigilant about public-health protocols.)
Dash Horan, 10, has spent the past few weeks at Andy’s Summer Playhouse in Wilton, which offers youth theater programs and recently launched an abbreviated 2021 season.
Dash, whose family moved to Dublin last year from Somerville, Mass., said he’s done some acting in the past but that the playhouse is different. Andy’s actors are encouraged to share their input on the show — a one-act drama-comedy called “To Begin Again,” inspired by returning to normal life after the pandemic — and even to suggest changes as they see fit.
“We kind of blurred the lines of the pandemic,” he said of the show. “We went back in time and kind of made it not as tragic as it was.”
Andy’s, which typically enrolls up to 80 kids each summer for two or three original plays and a musical, had just announced its 2020 lineup when the coronavirus forced it to cancel those plans, according to Producing Artistic Director Jared Mezzocchi. The nonprofit quickly pivoted to remote programming, said Mezzocchi, a playwright and director based in Washington, D.C., who also lost a different job due to the pandemic.
“It was a horrible experience to put your heart into something that won’t ever open as a show,” he said. “I remember thinking I just don’t want the children to experience the same sense of loss with a place that they trust so much.”
Through a new online portal, Andy’s staff and kids worked together to develop dramatic performances and other creative programs, Mezzocchi said. The events last year — all held remotely — included a live cooking show, poetry lessons with an orphanage in South Sudan, book-group discussions and open-mic nights.
In addition to rehearsals for “To Begin Again,” which Mezzocchi helped write, Andy’s is also offering workshops this summer on subjects such as playwriting and also dance and movement. The performances later this month will be recorded in an empty theater and shown live to an audience watching a projection outside — an effort to help curb the spread of COVID-19’s delta variant.
Resuming in-person work, Mezzocchi said, includes not only dealing with the typical pressure of preparing a live show, but also the emotional challenge of being thrust back into social situations.
“These are things that we haven’t felt in so long,” he said. “… I think that’s why I wanted to make a one-act, instead of a two-act, thing because we can take it slower.”
Dash, who’s in the show’s ensemble, said he’s particularly enjoyed being with fellow cast members after spending much of the past year and a half talking to his peers over Zoom.
“It’s actually very nice to be like, ‘Hey, I can see you. You’re actually real,’ ” he said.
Firelight Theatre Workshop in Peterborough is also holding in-person rehearsals for its fall play, “The Ding Dongs, Or What is the Penalty in Portugal?” after having paused live performances during the pandemic, according to Jason Lambert, who co-founded the theater in 2017.
Lambert, who’s in the new show, said Firelight got creative last year with its ongoing series “We Were Friends” — a contemporary portrayal of the relationship between 19th-century writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Instead of live shows, the theater drafted fictional letters between Emerson and Fuller and sent them to its patrons, broadcast a “phone call” between the two writers on the radio for a drive-in audience at its Main Street studio, and created a video component for the series.
“We were forced to think even more out of the box than we normally do,” Lambert said.
Most of Firelight’s performances this fall will be in Peterborough, he said, but some are set to be held outdoors in Antrim, Harrisville and Jaffrey. Even while edging closer to normalcy, Lambert said arts groups still need to think creatively about how to perform, drawing on lessons from the pandemic.
“I think we’ll have to be open to continuing to think about how best to be a community of artists and how best to participate in storytelling and live theater,” he said.
For all the innovation that local drama groups have shown during the public health crisis, though, theater returned to the Monadnock Region this week in a familiar way: a performance of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” by the Peterborough Players.
Except that play, which the Players has done seven times before and parts of which Wilder wrote while at the MacDowell artists’ retreat in Peterborough, looks different, too. Instead of its traditional venue on Hadley Road, the Players is performing “Our Town” through Aug. 15 at a temporary, 150-seat outdoor stage behind the Town House.
Doing the play — the organization’s first live show since February 2020 — downtown “adds another layer to it,” Managing Director Keith Stevens said on opening night Wednesday.
“Being able to share stories with people is just amazing,” he said. “It’s been a long time. And we’re thrilled to be able to come back with this particular show.”
Lisa Bostnar, a New York actress in the Players’ upcoming show “Where You Are” joked that she — like Manfre — will need to start memorizing lines again, since she could read from a script next to her computer screen for Zoom performances.
Bostnar, who’s been in shows at the Players for 25 years and now lives part-time in Jaffrey, attended opening night of “Our Town.” Eyeing the dark hills over downtown Peterborough during an intermission, she marveled at how the region “just grabs you.”
“There’s something so amazing about this theater and the talent it attracts,” she said. “It’s really like a family.”
Soon, quite literally.
Katelyn Manfre, also of Peterborough, will join her mom in “Where You Are,” which opens Sept. 1 on an outdoor stage at the Players’ own property, with the duo cast as a mother and daughter in the show, too. (The acting company is also putting on “Beehive: The 60’s Musical” later this month.)
Katelyn, 33, said it’ll be her first show at the Players since 2017. She moved back to the area last year after living in Washington, D.C., where she had a staff role with the renowned Folger Shakespeare Library, which hosts theater performances and other programming about the Bard.
That meant going to shows multiple times each week before the pandemic.
“To have that go away, it was weird,” she said. “We’re connected to so much of the theater community, so it was really a hard time to watch everybody go through that period. It was a real existential crisis.”
Noting that theater is one of the last industries to return, Katelyn said she recently acted in her first live show since before the pandemic. “Where You Are,” she said, revolves around characters who have all dealt with significant personal challenges in the past.
“It’s just four people trying to figure out what their next move is in their life. It feels very appropriate to where we’re at.”