Southern Vermont theaters play up historic partnership

Dorset Theatre Festival, Weston Playhouse, Northern Stage

The Dorset Theatre Festival, Weston Playhouse and White River Junction’s Northern Stage are using a shared logo to illustrate their collaborative presentation of the play trilogy “The Norman Conquests.”

The Dorset Theatre Festival boasts such talent as Emmy-nominated actor Tim Daly and Broadway playwright Theresa Rebeck. White River Junction’s Northern Stage just opened a $9 million Center for the Arts. And the Weston Playhouse is marking its 80th anniversary as the state’s oldest professional thespian troupe.

But ask leaders at southern Vermont’s three most prominent theaters what’s topping their collective bills and they talk about something else.

“In the current economic climate,” says Steve Stettler, Weston’s producing artistic director, “survival and sustainability are the biggest issues.”

That’s why the nonprofit venues are partnering to present British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s acclaimed comic trilogy “The Norman Conquests” this spring and summer in a historic collaboration they hope will be a model for other Vermont businesses and organizations seeking to build creativity, customer bases and the bottom line.

Dorset artistic director Dina Janis recalls hearing one too many locals extol their leisure travels up to Chittenden County or down to the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

“We started talking about how we could get more attention to how rich the arts are in southern Vermont,” she says.

The region’s first response — a now annual “Hills Alive!” festival in which Dorset, Weston and several neighboring organizations coordinate their scheduling and marketing — has won notice from the New York Times, sparking the desire to try shared programming.

Janis thought of the 1975 Broadway trilogy “The Norman Conquests” — made up of the plays “Living Together,” “Table Manners” and “Round and Round the Garden” — and its three dovetailing accounts of a comic yet poignant country-house weekend.

“They are rarely done in their entirety like this,” she says, “so when they are, it’s a special event.”

Janis called Stettler at Weston. They, in turn, contacted Carol Dunne, artistic director at Northern Stage. After a year of planning, the three traveled to New York City this winter to select a six-member cast to perform the first play in White River Junction this month, the second in Dorset in June and the third in Weston in July.

“In the first hour of auditions, we thought either this is going to be really fun or a complete nightmare,” Janis recalls of the potential too-many-cooks moment. “But we ended up in such sync.”

The three theaters are far enough apart so not to compete for the same audiences. Instead, through their partnership, they’re aiming to “cross-pollinate” their customer bases.

“We hope this will lead to more people venturing out to discover work in other places,” Stettler says, “and we’d love to find other ways to collaborate and accomplish something that we couldn’t have done individually.”

“When you look at economic development now,” adds Janis, “it’s about creating partnerships.”

Northern Stage will kick off the series by presenting “Living Together” April 20 to May 8. Dorset will follow with “Table Manners” June 16 to July 2. Weston will conclude with “Round and Round the Garden” July 21 to 30.

The three theaters’ artistic directors will elaborate on their partnership during a free public conversation April 24 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. at Northern Stage.

“Alan Ayckbourn is one of Britain’s most beloved comic playwrights, and in my opinion his work is not produced enough in the states,” Dunne says. “Audiences will be treated to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a delightful project for us all.”

Kevin O'Connor

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