For over a hundred years, KUA students have often produced a play just before Commencement. Many of the plays performed in the early and late years of the twentieth century were written by Shakespeare and were staged outdoors in the old Merrill Amphitheatre located on Chellis Road between Densmore Hall and Bishop Cottage. The Archives has numerous photographs of these early productions of Shakespeare outdoors.
Left and Right: Senior photographs of Elisabeth North of Shoreham, Vermont, and Jason Cook of Plymouth, New Hampshire, both class of 1902. Center: Elisabeth and Jasonas Rosalind and Orlando in their senior class play, As You Like It, in 1902.
Orlando, Rosalind, Celia and Jacques in a scene from As You Like It. The original owner of this photograph noted some words of dialogue on the front. Jacques: “What Stature is she of?” Orlando: “Just as high as my heart.”
Members of the class of 1904 performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Campus Woods, later called the Howard Emerson Merrill Amphitheatre in honor of a former teacher.
The Shakespearean tradition continued in 1923. The May 1923 issue of The Kimball Union Academy Bulletin reported that members of the senior class had chosen “the somewhat difficult task of presenting Macbeth.” After several weeks of rehearsals, the tragedy was presented on June 2 at “the little theatre in the Bird Sanctuary.…” This was the Meriden Bird Sanctuary, which is still located just down the hill from the stone church, with the entrance near the Town Hall.
Hazel Eastman Chellis of Meriden, New Hampshire, and Donald Kelley of Lawrence, Massachusetts, as Lady MacBeth and Macbeth.
The August Bulletin that year included a full report on the play, which pointed out that, “It is not often that Shakespearean tragedy is attempted by the pupils of a secondary school, and less often that the attempt meets with any degree of success.” The editor then quoted a review written in the Union Leader of Manchester, New Hampshire, that described “a successful presentation” by an enthusiastic English class that had been studying Macbeth and decided they would like to produce the play even though none of them had any dramatic experience. Their teacher, a Mr. Pirnie, was just as enthusiastic and was “willing to give his time” to the production. Parts were assigned before Christmas and the cast found an hour here or there to rehearse, whenever the gym was free from basketball practice.
It was felt by spring that the play would be a success, but the next question was, where to stage it? They could construct movable scenery for the gym but felt “the audience would be sitting below the level of the stage and could not enjoy the play as much.…” The beautiful woodland theater of the Bird Club was immediately suggested. This space was already well known for a play performed at The Meriden Bird Sanctuary’s dedication on September 13, 1913. “Sanctuary,” a “bird masque” by Plainfield playwright Percy MacKaye, had been commissioned for the dedication. President Woodrow Wilson’s family, who were visiting the area, attended and his two daughters performed, with Eleanor in the lead role and Margaret singing the opening song, “The Hermit Thrush.”
The Meriden Bird Club gave permission to the Shakespeare group and soon, “the enthusiasm of the seniors was so contagious that everyone was interested.” Miss Annie Duncan, owner of Duncan House, and a gentleman from town “took charge of costuming and lighting” while a faculty member arranged the electrical effects, which included a “fine thunder storm … ” The play had a far-reaching impact in little Meriden: “Quotations from Macbeth came into everyday use – about the building and on the baseball field. Even the village children imitated the witches.”
The class of 1923 presented Macbeth in the Meriden Bird Sanctuary.
The reporter had wondered if the play would live up to the enthusiasm beforehand, and concluded that it did. “Donald Kelley of Lawrence, Mass., who took the part of Macbeth, in voice, in expression and in pose showed the terrific determination and gradual sense of failure with which Shakespeare endowed the character. He was Macbeth. Hazel Eastman [Chellis], of Meriden, as Lady Macbeth with an expressive and well-modulated voice, spoke her lines clearly and forcefully.” The reporter also thought their teacher had done a fine job with the actors’ pronunciations which seemed fitting because, before coming to New Hampshire, he had been “a well known baritone soloist in Boston.”
During the last decade of the twentieth century, Math teacher Simon Harrold (1989-1998) brought back the tradition of Shakespeare outdoors when he produced and directed many of his plays in the Merrill Amphitheatre during Commencement Week. Continuing the tradition, former Communications Director Elizabeth Knox produced and directed a number of plays there during Commencement week until she retired in 2003.
Above: Shakespeare in the Merrill Amphitheatre in the late twentieth century. Below: With help from facilities staff, the Class of 2020 constructed a new backdrop and benches during the spring 2017 K-Term to allow the old amphitheater to be used as an Outdoor Classroom .