WESTON — On the main stage, local boy turned “Scrubs” television actor Sam Lloyd Jr. is headlining the musical “Guys and Dolls.” Behind the scenes, Vermonter Cass Morgan is funneling her extensive Broadway experience — from 1968’s “Hair” to last year’s “The Bridges of Madison County” — into a coming one-woman show, while four other actors rehearse “The Glass Menagerie” for an East Coast tour.
The historic white-pillared Weston Playhouse in this picture-postcard town of 566 has reached its annual summer peak. So why is Vermont’s oldest professional theater company, seemingly unwilling to simply stand still and savor the moment, instead talking so much about its future?
The nonprofit arts organization is marking its 79th warm-weather bill with a slate of Broadway titles and talent as well as David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times who’s set to speak Aug. 16 on “Curbing Chaos: Iran, The Islamic State and Other Challenges to American Power.”
But as the company expands its drama education and development programs, it also wants to stretch its calendar. That’s why it’s working to raise $10 million for a year-round second home to nurture new work in time for its 80th anniversary in 2017.
“We are poised at an exciting time in our history,” says producing artistic director Steve Stettler, noting the company has collected more than $7 million, or nearly three-quarters of its goal. “We’re pushing to raise another $2 million before the end of the year.”
As Stettler sees it, the state’s landscape and “freedom and unity” motto have long provided fertile ground for artists, be it poet Robert Frost at Bread Loaf, pianist Rudolf Serkin at Marlboro or playwright David Mamet at Atlantic Theater.
“You can go on and on with writers and musicians who come to Vermont,” he says, “and find it’s a place to do their best work.”
The company will continue to rely on the 300-seat playhouse for summer productions. But since the space is too expansive and expensive to operate in colder months, the nonprofit is developing a $6 million second home — set to feature a 140-seat studio theater — at the nearby former Walker Farm for year-round performances and play development by both local and visiting production teams.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
“We’re preserving an iconic Vermont farm for a new use,” Stettler says of the five-acre property on nearby Route 100. “We’ve watched agriculture in this state move from dairy to much more boutique items. We’re growing the arts.”
The capital campaign will pay not only for a new 6,900-square-foot building (designed by the Breadloaf Corp. of Middlebury to fit next to the old barn) but also to establish a $1.5 million “Fund for the American Theatre” for nationwide artists to incubate new work and to add $500,000 to its education endowment for students and interns.
Weston, home of the Vermont Country Store and spotty if not nonexistent cell service, may not seem to be a natural cultural hotspot. But its theater company has a long and storied history, from its founding in 1937 to its current formation as a nonprofit Equity company in 1988.
The Walker Farm plans first sprouted nearly a decade ago. Then came the one-two punch of the recent recession and 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, which flooded a $700,000 renovation of its dressing rooms, prop shop and orchestra pit harboring a baby grand piano.
“We were sitting relatively pretty when we announced the Walker Farm — we were looking at healthy annual growth and had a terrific five-year plan — and then, for us and for everybody, the world changed,” says Stettler, part of a longtime leadership trio with fellow directors Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort. “Things aren’t what they were, but have settled into what they could be again.”
The company is receiving help from a new managing director, Lesley Koenig, who worked as a stage director at the Metropolitan Opera at age 23 and went on to earn master’s degrees in business administration and education before taking management positions at the Met, San Francisco Ballet and Opera Boston.
It’s tapping the expertise of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, established by Michael Kaiser, the former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
And it’s teaming with other Green Mountain arts organizations, starting with this summer’s “Hills Alive!” southwestern Vermont arts festival (www.hillsalive.org) recently featured in the New York Times.
This fall, Weston’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” will launch a five-year American Masters series that, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, will head north to Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and south to Florida’s Gulfshore Playhouse.
Next year, the company will collaborate with the Dorset Theatre Festival and White River Junction’s Northern Stage to present British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy, “The Norman Conquests” at the three venues.
“It’s a win-win-win for all of us,” Stettler says, “because it makes it a bigger event.”
Back home, Weston is expanding its drama education and development offerings by introducing a three-week summer “Broadway Boot Camp” this month at Manchester’s Burr and Burton Academy.
To build its audience base, the company is offering a VTIX discount program for Vermonters, with every performance offering 25 main-stage tickets at $25 and 15 smaller-stage tickets at $15.
And it hopes to start construction at the Walker Farm next year — more information is available at www.westonplayhouse.org/tomorrow — to promote a mission summed up by its motto, “Celebrating the Classics, Nurturing the New.”
VTDigger is underwritten by:
“Next summer will be our 80th season and the summer of 2017 will be our 80th year,” Stettler says. “I feel our plans for the future are stronger, more focused and, frankly, more essential. We have the pieces in place. Now we need to draw more people here to see what we’ve got.”
Kevin O’Connor, a former staffer of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, is a Brattleboro-based writer. Email: [email protected]