Thursday, July 20, 2006

Genevieve Aichelle The Heart and Soul of New Hampshire Theatre Project

Archived from HEART OF NH Magazine
July 2006

Genevieve Aichelle
The Heart and Soul of New Hampshire Theatre Project

What could a fictional female character from a nineteenth century musical comedy and a modern woman of the double aughts have in common? Not much, one may think, when considering the span of time between the two, and the strides made by women therein. Forget tradition, however, and hone in on those qualities that every woman possesses but not all have utilized, such as an independent mind, willingness to risk, and the ability to lead and lead well. Add to these qualities creativity, talent, and a love for what you do, and you get a “meeting of minds” that surpasses time and transcends both fiction and reality.

The fictional character is Iolanthe, fairy and creation of the well-loved nineteenth century creative team Gilbert and Sullivan. The real-life person is Genevieve Aichelle, Artistic Director of the New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building community through the performing arts.

Now for a comparison. In Iolanthe, a musical comedy, the fairy Leila says this of her: “Iolanthe was the life and soul of Fairyland. Why, she wrote all our songs and arranged all our dances! We sing her songs and we trip to her measures…” Though Iolanthe was banished from Fairyland by the Queen when she fell in love with a mortal, even the Queen fondly remembered the contributions of the rule-breaking pioneer. “Who taught me to curl myself up in a buttercup? Iolanthe! Who taught me to swing upon a cobweb? Iolanthe! Who taught me to dive into a dewdrop, to nestle in a nutshell, to gambol upon a gossamer? Iolanthe!” Genevieve Aichelle, too, has many talents. As NHTP’s director she says, “I wear many hats: actor, director, playwright, singer, consultant, teacher, mentor, producer, and administrator.”

Perhaps it should not be surprising that she shares a multi-faceted kinship with the fictional heroine. “My interest in theatre began when I was very young. The first production I remember [watching] was a performance of Iolanthe, in Washington, D.C.” (An aunt took her to see it when she was six). As a child, Genevieve wrote, directed, and produced numerous plays that starred her siblings and neighbors, though she never considered theatre as a career until she was halfway through college. “I have never been a person who played by the rules (shades of Iolanthe). I designed a college major for myself – Music and Theatre for Community Programs (University of New Hampshire) – which incorporated lots of independent study and work in the field.” After about a year of going the traditional acting/auditioning route, though, she decided she wanted to be “her own boss.”

For two years, she worked with Theatre Resources for Youth, a touring children’s theatre group associated with UNH. Then, in 1977, she founded Kitchensink Mime with Dennis McLaughlin and toured for ten years, no doubt showing others how to swing on cobwebs and gambol on gossamer in whiteface. “This eventually grew into what is now the New Hampshire Theatre Project,” she says.

It was during these years that several grievous events took place in both her personal and professional life. “My father had a stroke, one of my college roommates was killed in a car accident, and our stage manager, Valerie Sherman Blair, was murdered at Odiorne Point in 1982.” Genevieve’s solo shows, Resurrection and Gently Gone tell some of the story of those years.

The New Hampshire Theatre Project was founded in 1984 and incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1988 (Genevieve is the only remaining founder still with the organization). Under her direction, it has flourished and grown into a well-respected and renowned company of artistic excellence, winning her several awards, including the 2001 New Hampshire Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in Education, and the Portsmouth Spotlight Award for her work in Community Arts.

NHTP’s purpose is to enhance traditional education and support an ongoing relationship between the arts and the community. This is done mainly through its four core programs: professional productions for adults, the Youth Repertory Company for ages 10-17, classes and summer camps for ages 6-adult, and an Artist-in-Residence program in which professional performing artist/instructors, in cooperation with schools, education and community organizations, and businesses, conduct outreach programs. NHTP does not actively recruit its artists. There is no need. “We find that the right people find us via the web, or by participating in one of our projects, or are recommended by someone.” For example, one highlight of 2005 was the return of one Jacob Moses, who attended the very first Story Theatre Camp in 1995. He directed the camp in its tenth anniversary year.

From one paid staff member in 2001, NHTP grew to eight in 2005, a very successful year in Genevieve’s estimation, and after 20 years of moving around, NHTP finally found a permanent home at West End Studio Theatre on 959 Islington Street. The generosity of donors allowed NHTP to offer over $6000 in tuition scholarships to Youth Repertory members and summer camp participants last year. In the last two years, that generosity also brought NHTP to 30% of its annual budget, bringing it to $49,000 of its $75,000 goal.

What’s on the horizon? “We are currently concentrating on creating a standard production season, improving our fundraising systems, and strengthening our administrative structure.” As well, Genevieve is seeking to move from a full-time management position to one of “artistic consultant.” “This process will probably take several years,” she says.

Dissolve back to the earlier comparisons with Iolanthe. After many years of banishment, Iolanthe’s contributions are missed and appreciated, and her one-woman revolution sparks a radical change in Fairyland. I think the same can be said of Genevieve Aichelle and New Hampshire’s theatre “scene.” If it weren’t for her drive, her love, and her commitment to theatre and community, New Hampshire would not be the same.

For more information and an upcoming production schedule, visit

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