This article covers professional summer theater in Vermont. It should be noted that there are innumerable community theaters that do extraordinary work, from circus arts to plays to puppetry, that we cannot cover here. You are encouraged to check them out at /www.vtliving.com/theatres.
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company
You would not guess that during Weston’s summer months, among the centuries-old fine homes, farm houses and wild-flower fields, resides soul-baring plays and music numbers that shake the walls. Unless, that is, you are at the town Common where the grand white edifice with its Greek Revival columns and broad, gently rising stairway looks out over the town green. Weston Playhouse is so identified with its unique and beautifully-proportioned edifice that a stylized version is the theater’s logo.
Each summer actors from Broadway and Hollywood are brought to the verdant hills of south-central Vermont to bring theater to the Green Mountain state that can rival any found in New York. At a much more affordable price. To say nothing of the lack of noise, pollution, and traffic jams.
Weston Playhouse Theatre was founded by Harlan Grant in 1937, making it the oldest professional theater in Vermont. Walter Boughton took the reins in 1972, and in 1988 to the current triumverate of producer-Directors Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort, and Steve Stettler. Stettler, Resident Producer-Director, is the only one to be at Weston year-round.
Sitting in his office, a large room in an old farmhouse lined with posters of past productions, Stettler’s enthusiasm and energy is like being hit full-on by a small tornado. Since Ewen, Fort, and Stettler took over, each with dual backgrounds in education and professional theater, and each with a particular theatrical focus (between them they cover music, directing, acting, design) the theater’s growth and success, has outpaced even their own goals. That may in part be due to what Stettler cites as their decision to “rededicate” Weston to its Vermont audience.
That decision has translated into more challenging plays, plays for children, programs in the schools, and other events aimed at enhancing the theater-going experience. These programs are Weston’s way of showing their appreciation for the community’s generous support, but they also feed into a core belief among the three producer-directors. Explains Stettler, “We often say ‘theater needs to be enrichment, not just entertainment.’ The experience an audience has sitting in their seats for 2 or 2 ½ hours is a fraction of the benefit they ought to derive from theater.” In addition to the afore mentioned programs, there are now Director Talks before some performances, and “Talk-Back” afterwards, when audiences get to ask questions of the director and cast.
While Weston is deepening their theater-community nexus, they are also getting attention nationally for the quality of their work. Last summer’s “Light in the Piazza” got rave reviews in Variety and the Wall Street Journal and was favorably reviewed online on Playbill.com. Says Stettler, “We’ve moved beyond regional to national significance.” “Nevertheless”, he adds, “it is just acknowledging the strength of the work we are doing here for our Vermont audiences.”
These days Weston Playhouse is “a happy three-ring circus”, as Stettler puts it. On a given weekend it’s possible to see up to four productions. There is the Main Stage, the Cabaret, the “Other Stages” production, and staged readings. “We want it to be like a theater festival, with a variety of offerings”, he says.
Looking toward the future, Weston Playhouse’s board recently purchased Walker Farm, and will build on it a 150-seat black-box theater that will be flexible enough to accommodate educational programs, alternative fare that needs a more intimate setting, or plays for children, a growing consideration for many regional theater companies.
Productions in this smaller theater will also provide space for Weston’s New Works program, a need that has gone begging in today’s theater world. Broadway is too expensive for producers to take a chance on untried playwrights, asserts Stettler, and even New Haven and Boston, once the venerable route of trying out new work, is no longer feasible. Regarding this new direction Stettler says, “It is something we’ve always wanted for Weston – to make a contribution to new work.” After thinking a moment he adds, “What we have that’s unique, that we can maximize for the good of the art and good of our audience is a beautiful rural retreat. And Vermont has a tradition of artists – especially writers – coming here and doing their best work.” With that in understanding, retreats and an annual award for a new musical and a new dramatic play have been initiated.
Dorset Theatre Company
Dorset Theater resides in a classically beautiful Vermont town. A small general store faces the stately Dorset Inn, with its marvelous porch from which one may watch the world go by at a civilized pace. If you continue from the center of town and follow the signs you will find yourself in the hollow surrounded by pines where Dorset Playhouse is nestled. It is deceptively rustic. The theater company still occupies one of the two original pre-Civil War barns that were moved to the spot in the 20’s, now fully renovated and made into a modern, comfortable theater.
The Theater Festival in its present form was founded in the 70’s by Jill Charles, with Charles Nassivera, two writers that resided in the area. They revised the classic summer stock formula – one week of rehearsal, one week of performing – to today’s regime, which allows twice the rehearsal time, and twice the performance run. Dorset Theater Festival puts on four plays during its summer season, each featuring a different director.
Wunderkind Carl Forsman took over the reins of the Festival in 2005, and with his considerable energy and vision has turned DTF into one of the most creatively alive and fiscally solid theater companies around.
Forsman acknowledges his challenges in hard economic times but is upbeat about the future for Dorset. “You know”, he said, “Getting people to a theater for the first time is a bit of black magic – it happens through some kind of alchemy!” And then he adds, “But what I can have some control over is their coming back. It’s up to us to do work that is so compelling and exciting that people can’t stay away!” Judging from the packed houses, he seems to be doing just that.
Forsman’s delight at being at the helm of DTF is evident: “I feel deeply connected to this state.” Dorset, he said, has always been “sacred ground”, having heard about it as a theater major at Middlebury College. Forsman also runs the New York City-based Keen Company, and brings some of his directors and actors to Dorset from that company.
Forsman’s special affinity is with early 20th Century American work and he points to “Our Town” as his artistic touchstone. “The humanism of this work speaks so continually and profoundly to our experience. I am always so moved by the strength of its spirit and the simplicity of its storytelling. High art doesn’t include the need to confound or confuse.”
Noting that DTF has brought two productions so far from his New York company, he looks forward to working “in the other direction – to develop and perform plays here and then eventually bring them to New York City.”
Oldcastle Theater Company
Oldcastle Theater Company was formed in New York City by five New York actors in 1972. It was a touring company and would regularly perform in Bennington where one of those founders, Eric Peterson, was raised. Eventually Peterson settled back into his home town and brought the theater company with him. After being located at Southern Vermont College between 1977 and 1993, Oldcastle moved to the roomy, modern Bennington Center for the Arts (which was designed by OTC trustee Bruce Laumeister) and has flourished there.
Oldcastle has reached out to area colleges, enabling the company to do shows with large casts that include a mix of equity actors (some live nearby) and students and professors.
Being the original developer and producing Judevine by David Budbill, is one of Oldcastle’s proud accomplishments. Judevine imagines Vermont as third-world country. It has been enormously popular throughout Vermont. Producing plays relevant to New England is an important aspect of Oldcastle, says Peterson. “We have done plays on civil unions, and about Ethan Allen, and are continuously on the look-out for new work ‘coming over the transom.’” They have readings of new works for an audience and decide from that process what to give a full production. According to Peterson, plays originating at Oldcastle, or developed by them have played in 30 states and 18 countries.
Lost Nation Theater
Lost Nation Theater was founded in Bristol, Vermont in 1977 and spent its fist six years as a touring company, producing only original material and taking it to New York and Montreal. In its next incarnation it lived over a pizza parlor in Bristol, and in 1989 made the move to Old City Hall in Montpelier, a space owned by the city and gifted to them.
Lost Nation has a strong year-round program, with educational and outreach programs filling up the winter months. During the April through October season, six plays are produced. Lost Nation Theater has been cited by the New York Drama League as “One of the best regional theaters in America.”
Knowing where Lost Nation Theater got its name says much about it. Kim Bent, the theater’s founder and co-Artistic Director, grew up in Braintree with his family’s farm overlooking the Braintree range. There was a spot in the range that was regarded by locals as special – a place hard to get to where one could dream and reflect. It was called by his fellow townspeople “Lost Nation.” As Bent traveled and realized those rural, remote and secret places exist throughout America, the name came to symbolize something that spoke deeply to him about frontier, breaking boundaries, doing challenging and courageous things – yet being grounded in place and community.
And in fact “Lost Nation” is more than willing to do challenging and creative things, early on exploring subjects such as AIDS and the Vietnam war. Says Producing Artistic Director Kathleen Keenan, “We give actors and directors a chance to do something different. We are in an intimate setting, a 150-seat theater with seating on three sides of the stage, but because of where we are the production values can be as good as a traditional proscenium theater.” And later, talking about actors and directors and other theater people who come for the first time, she says they are struck by the beauty, by the supportive community, and by the creative freedom they are given. “Everything is very collaborative; directors and actors have plenty of license to interpret…but we offer them our support and help also.” This winning combination has attracted actors and directors to join the Lost Nation “creative family” from as far away as California and Chicago, Washington and Boston. In fact some, according to Keenan, have chosen to stay. The “imported” talent is now local!
Skinner Barn is a big, beautifully restored post-and-beam landmark in Waitsfield that is home to productions put on by the not-for-profit Commons Group. Its founder and the creative force behind Skinner Barn is Peter Boynton, who bought the 1890’s dairy barn twenty years ago. It’s named for the barn’s original owner, the family of Daniel Skinner.
Boynton’s associates in the New York theater world (he was a soap-opera star and Broadway actor) are the rich pool he draws from in bringing actors and directors to Waitsfield, people he has enjoyed working with in the past. Nick Corley, during the winter months artistic director of the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma, is a frequent director at Skinner Barn. Jono Mainelli is Music Drector.
There are usually two plays produced each season – one musical and one drama. Boynton says, in describing the special charms of Skinner, “It has a Judy Garland -Mickey Rooney ‘Let’s put on a play’ fresh quality.” In the summer there is a teen camp, for which the cast members are also teachers.
The Skinner Barn has been lauded by Seven Days, Burlington’s weekly paper, as “the best theater for musicals” in the state, noting in particular “It’s wonderfully warm acoustics.”
St. Michael’s Theater, billed as “Greater Burlington’s professional theater”, started out in an old wooden building on the St Michael’s College campus. The theater’s founder Henry Fairbanks opened the first production in the summer of 1947, with the mission to make use of space vacated during the summer months by bringing professional theater to Vermont. This remains St Michael Theater’s mission but there has been another since its inception, says Chuck Tobin, Producing Artistic Director: to use play production as an educational tool in an internship program. The program works in collaboration with St Michael’s and other colleges’ theater and art departments. This has proven a boon to all concerned. Says Tobin, “The students go back to their classes with new ideas.”
Tobin also chooses the season’s line-up — he enjoys finding just the right mix of music, comedy, and more serious fare.
The McCarthy Theater is the theater company’s home since 1975. It has been renovated and upgraded periodically since then to one of the finest and well-equipped theaters in the state. It has 366 seats, hydraulic lift for the orchestra pit, flying sets and full shops for crafting scenery. Actors, directors, designers, and choreographers come from New York City, primarily, but also from Los Angles, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Lynn Leimer is the reigning monarch of QNEK, resident theater company of the Haskell Opera House, located in Newport, in the Northeast Kingdom.. Those initials can stand for either “Queen of the Northeast Kingdom”, a nickname Leimer’s flatlander friends have given her, or “Quebec and the Northeast Kingdom.”
Leimer, a professional actor who worked in New York City and New Jersey before moving to Newport, has as her official title CEO and Artistic Director of QNEK.
The theater company started out by putting on performances at Lake Willoughby. Three years later they moved into the Haskell Opera House. And thus it happens that QNEK can bill themselves as Vermont’s only international theater, with the auditorium straddling Canada and the U.S.A. “We’re like Switzerland”, says Leimer, “the stage is in Canada and the audience is in Vermont, but we’re neutral territory!”
Calling the Haskell Opera House “a gem of a theater”, with its cherubs, gold leaf, sculpted woodwork, all original, Leimer points to its importance to the community in the rugged and hardscrabble terrain that is the Northeast Kingdom.
The season’s fare ranges from Tennessee Wiilliams to “madcap”, “But”, says Leimer, “People around here like to laugh and be entertained. Comedies are our most popular plays. Then comes musicals.” And, she says, while the season reflects those tastes, QNEK “pushes the envelope whenever possible”, such as being among the first theater companies in the nation to produce “Two Guys”, a play about 9/11. And each season they try something new. This summer that will be Cole Porter, with a production of “Anything Goes”, tap dance and all.
Despite the hard times Vermont theater seems to be thriving. Climbing subscriptions rates and private donations give credence to the perception that in a time when people must make do with less, they are more appreciative than ever of the gifts that art gives – particularly theater in which we can lose ourselves in others’ lives, can laugh and have our hearts lifted with song and dance – and of course, romance.
I found it to be axiomatic that professional theater companies dream of finding that play that quickens the pulse with its new vision of theater, or speaks a truth no one had thought to speak before. No longer the province of the big cities, Vermont theater companies are helping new work see the light of day.
How fortunate we are that here in Vermont we have such a marvelous concentration of artists, who work with great dedication to bring high quality theater to their audiences; and how fortunate are the theater companies to have supportive communities, and surroundings to work in that nourish the creative spirit!