WATERVILLE VALLEY — Theatre Under the Stars can claim several unique or shared “firsts” in its productions of Shakespeare, but founder Donna Devlin-Young is proudest of the fact that until all American servicemen and women come home from foreign battle fields, tickets to every show — for everyone — are free.
Now in its ninth season, TUTS was started by Devlin-Young, an actress, producer and director who grew up in Waterville Valley, as a way of bringing to her hometown the thrill she felt while working years ago with underprivileged children at a summer theater in California.
Thanks to her determination, and some luck, Devlin-Young was able to get TUTS off the ground in Waterville Valley and she recently recalled that the first person to sign up for the TUTS’s inaugural summer camp was a local kid, Marc Paul Decoteau.
In addition to being a scholar and a standout athlete in lacrosse and football at Plymouth Region High School, Marc Paul, as he was known — to differentiate him from his father, Mark F. Decoteau — was, in his bones, a thespian.
Following his graduation from PRHS in 2008, Marc Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, following in the footsteps of his father, who attended and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before serving for 17 years on both active duty and in the reserves from which he retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
While the elder Decoteau, who along with his wife Nancy, is a native of Maine, was able to have a long and distinguished military career, his son’s was tragically brief.
On Jan. 29, 2010, while serving at a forward fire base in Afghanistan and just 30 days into his first overseas deployment, Decoteau and a fellow soldier were shot and killed by an Afghani who was working as a translator for a private contractor.
Marc Paul’s death, said Devlin-Young, devastated the TUTS community, but it also inspired the members to came up with a unique way to honor and remember him and other veterans.
Because TUTS doesn’t own the land in Waterville Valley on which it performs, the group knew it wasn’t going to be able to erect a statute to Marc Paul, Devlin-Young said, but found something just as significant.
Since its beginning, TUTS has always had a special place in its heart for the military, thanks in part to Devlin-Young’s husband, Chris Devlin-Young, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard until 1982 when he was seriously injured in a plane crash in Alaska.
Paralyzed from the knees down and partially paralyzed below his waist, Chris Devlin-Young went on to become a world champion paralympic skier. He qualified for seven Winter Para-Olympics and competed in five of them, including the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. The third generation of his family to serve in the U.S. military, Chris Devlin-Young is also the house manager for TUTS.
The theater had been offering active duty and retired military personnel half-price tickets well before Marc Paul was killed and after his death, “We thought that he lost his life to defend us and as long as we have men and women serving on foreign soil losing their lives —and as long as we can afford to do so — we will offer all that we have at low or no cost,” said Donna Devlin-Young, although donations are always gratefully accepted.
That pricing policy, she added, makes TUTS unique as does having a disabled veteran for a house manager. Additionally, TUTS, “to my knowledge, is the only, free professional, outdoor classical repertory theater in New Hampshire and only one of a few along the East Coast,” Devlin–Young said, noting that the other ones are located in New York’s Central Park and on the Boston Common.
While Waterville Valley is its home and TUTS plays there Fridays and Saturdays on Gazebo Hill, the nonprofit group also takes its show on the road, performing Tuesdays during the summer at the Town Gazebo in Bethlehem; Wednesdays at the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire on Beech Street in conjunction with the Manchester Community Theater’s “$5 Shakespeare” series; and Thursdays at the Greene Street Amphitheatre in Plymouth.
The house opens for all performances at 6 p.m. and the curtain rises at 6:30. All shows are held rain or shine and attendees can set up their own picnics. A complete schedule is available online at www.shakespeareinthevalley.com.
TUTS also hosts theater camps for kids at different venues, and it has been honored by former Gov. John Lynch for that work as well as with veterans.
Although The Bard of Avon is TUTS’ focal point, “this ain’t your momma’s Shakespeare,” Devlin-Young joked, adding that in some respects, it’s like Shakespeare’s Shakespeare.
There are no elaborate costumes, no high-tech gizmos and no “Midsummer Night’s Dream in space,” said Devlin-Young, but there is, as in Shakespeare’s time, boo-ing and huzzah-ing — which actors rehearse the audience in before performances — and there is a minimum of stage directions.
In recent years, one of TUTS’s most popular productions has been “original-practice Shakespeare” which is intended to replicate the manner in which the plays were thought to have been performed 400 years ago.
Unlike modern playwrights who provide actors and directors with voluminous instructions, Shakespeare was a minimalist, said Devlin-Young, adding that he would write one copy of the complete play, but the actor’s copies contained just their lines, beginning with a five-syllable prelude from the previous speaker.
In those five little syllables, the actors got their cues and a sense of where they are in the storyline, Devlin-Young said, adding that should the actors in a TUTS production not understand what’s going on, they will be literally prompted by the on-stage manager who will honk a horn.The audience gets to watch actors learn on their feet, she said, “We call it the ‘audience’s revenge’” because while the audience has the entire plot synopsis in their programs, the actors are flying blind.
“There is no other company in the U.S. that does ‘original practice’ that way,” Devlin-Young summed up, adding it’s an experience not to be missed and one made possible by Mark F. Decoteau, who as Waterville Valley’s town manager since 2001, green-lighted TUTS’s request to use some land near the recreation department for the theater’s first home.
Decoteau explained that while stationed in Knoxville, Ky., he once took a weekend trip into Louisville where he saw a Shakespeare play performed outdoors. He said he enjoyed it, so that when Devlin-Young approached him about TUTS, he was already favorable to such an idea.
The Waterville Valley Board of Selectmen and the town itself have fully embraced TUTS, said Decoteau, as did his son.
“He was just a natural performer. He loved to do it and he just really enjoyed his time on stage and being able to act and perform in front of people; that was definitely part of his thing.”
“My wife and I are honored by her (Devlin-Young’s) recognition and all of the theater company’s recognition of Marc Paul’s service and of the service of our other men and women in uniform,” Decoteau said. “We definitely feel that it’s a fitting thing.”