History major, THDA help bring a 300-year-old town to life on stage

Thursday, December 8, 2016
Actors in a play about the town of Stratham, NH

Actors performing in "Inspired by the Past," a play written by UNH history major Emily Belanger '17 in celebration of the town of Stratham's 300th anniversary (Photo: Courtesy)

Capturing the spirit of a 300-year-old community in a single play is no easy task. And so, when Stratham community members began making plans for a stage play to celebrate the town’s 300th anniversary, they knew collaboration would be vital.

Enter Emily Belanger ’17, a history major who grew up near Stratham and, during high school, dabbled in drama. Stratham town officials asked Belanger in 2014 to begin work on a play that would pay tribute to the town’s storied past while imagining its bright future. After two years of work and extensive collaboration with members of the UNH theatre and dance department, Belanger’s play, “Inspired by the Past,” premiered earlier this year.

“The play is made up of different vignettes about Stratham history, all tied together through the story of a young girl who is writing a paper for school about how her community has influenced her,” Belanger says. The play explores the town’s past through segments about Samuel Lane, the artisan and civic leader who shaped the town’s early years, the origin of the aptly named Frying Pan Lane, the “witch of Stratham” and others.

“I see history as a collection of stories,” Belanger says. “It was fun to take all these historical events and tell another story from a student’s point of view.”

“Without UNH’s participation, this just would not have happened.”

Belanger worked on the play for two years, beginning during her sophomore year. As the big 300th anniversary celebration approached, John Dold, chairman of the town’s anniversary committee, reached out to UNHInnovation for help staging the production.

“We needed help big-time,” Dold says. “Without UNH’s participation, this just would not have happened.”

After an initial consultation with UNHInnovation assistant director Maria Emanuel, Dold met with theatre and dance department chair David Kaye, who helped Dold develop a budget for the production and suggested the town hire Jamie Clavet ’07, a marketing and promotions specialist with the theater and dance department, to direct the play.

“It was definitely an adventure. I was going into a community that didn’t have any experience putting on theater and helping them do a pretty large project,” Clavet says.

The process started with Belanger’s script. During the writing process, Belanger collaborated with Dold and other members of the town’s anniversary committee. Belanger met with Clavet as production moved forward and “kind of handed it over to her.”

“I wanted someone to completely run off with it and make it come true as they envisioned it. I really wanted it to be a collaborative experience,” Belanger says.

The production itself brought together a wide web of Stratham residents, according to Clavet. When she needed an 18th-century writing desk as a stage prop, a plethora of actors or a seamstress to make costumes, community members responded enthusiastically.

“Stratham residents are really proud of their history, and even if they didn’t know each other yet, because they’re part of the same community, they’re excited to know each other,” Clavet says.

Actors on stage
Belanger says the process reminded her how much she enjoys synthesizing history. (Photo: Courtesy)

More than 1,000 people attended three performances of “Inspired by the Past” earlier this year. Clavet and stage manager Aimee Blesing, who is also a lecturer in acting at UNH, “just knew exactly what to do to make it happen,” Dold says. The residents who participated in the play are still talking about the experience. 

“It was a great time for them. Half the actors were younger kids from our school system, and they’ll never forget this,” he says.

Nor will Belanger. She grew up in nearby Newfields, and writing the play gave her a new perspective on Stratham and the region’s history. Though she’s long had an interest in museum studies and curatorial work, Belanger says writing the play, and working with Clavet and town residents to bring it to fruition, has made her even more enthusiastic about her career in history.

“After writing this and getting everyone interested in the history, I was reminded how much I like synthesizing history in a way that’s fun and educational at the same time,” she says.


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