PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — If you find yourself in this quaint town, you’re sure to hear that Thornton Wilder modeled his fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners after Peterborough. Wilder wrote much of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town” while he was in residence at the MacDowell Colony here. The play — about a town, like every other, where both nothing and everything happens — famously reminds us to “realize life” while we live it, “every, every minute.”
Wilder was awarded the inaugural MacDowell Medal in 1960, a little over 50 years after the composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian, established their dream of an artists’ retreat. This year’s Medal recipient is David Lynch, the filmmaker who has made us realize the utter surreality of small-town life in America — every, every minute of it.
The colony’s annual Medal Day, which is free and open to the public, will be Aug. 13. Lynch won’t be on hand to personally accept the medal, but his work will be celebrated.
The award ceremony, to be hosted this year by the novelist and MacDowell chairman Michael Chabon, precedes an afternoon of picnicking and open studios, with current fellows sharing the art they’ve been working on. Toni Morrison was last year’s honoree; other recipients have included Edward Albee, Sonny Rollins, and Merce Cunningham, to pick a few names from an illustrious list.
The MacDowell Colony is intended as a sanctuary for creative work of all kinds — writing, visual art, music composition, architectural design. Guests are welcome to visit the main building and library, as long as they call ahead. Almost two decades ago, in an effort to share more of the fellows’ work and thinking with the community, the colony established MacDowell Downtown, a series of presentations that takes place on the first Friday of each month from March through November at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture.
This summer’s MacDowell Downtown artists include New Hampshire native Jackie Goss, who makes science films, and Pacho Velez, whose archival documentary “The Reagan Show” explores the 40th president and former actor’s “role of a lifetime.” The August event will pay tribute to Lynch, the director of “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” and co-creator of the “Twin Peaks” television series.
Since the series launched, resident artists at MacDowell have been eager to present their work to the Downtown audiences, says resident director David Macy. “They really like the Q&A afterward. People ask thoughtful questions, and the artists come away jazzed that they had that conversation.”
One playwright told Macy that he’d arrived at a problematic point in his work when he made his presentation: “Putting it out there and getting feedback was priceless, he said.”
MacDowell Downtown was inspired by a long-standing tradition at the colony, in which the artists, after holing up with their work all day, get together in the library after dinner to share their insights.
They’re not obligated to do that, Macy says, “but almost everybody does.” The MacDowell Downtown series is simply a matter of exporting that spirit of collaboration into the host community.
For day-trippers, Peterborough has plenty of charms to pair with attendance at a MacDowell event. The Peterborough Town Library maintains a collection of books, film, music, and more produced by past MacDowell fellows. The Mariposa Museum of World Cultures, located in a restored Baptist church, features folk art and clothing and, outside, a Zen garden, and a “walkway of peace.”
This summer the Peterborough Players, founded in 1933, are producing “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Producers.” The Peterborough Folk Music Society promotes coffeehouse-style shows year-round.
For feeding hungry minds, there’s the Toadstool Bookshop in Depot Square. For growling stomachs, Peterborough has several options. The locals frequent Harlow’s Pub for the classic American bar food and the Peterborough Diner for the classic breakfast menu.
Or, on a nice summer day, the creekside patio at Nature’s Green Grocer is a serene place to sit back and enjoy Their Town.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames