Editorial: Exiting the Stage; Northern Stage Loses Its Founder
The reasons for Brooke Ciardelli’s abrupt exit from Northern Stage, the highly regarded theater company she founded in White River Junction in 1997, are a matter of some speculation. To the extent those reasons have a bearing on the future of a company that plays a significant role in the Upper Valley’s artistic and cultural life, they are important to consider. But for the moment, let’s not speculate. Rather, let’s give a long and hearty round of applause to Ciardelli for what she accomplished during an impressive run over more than 15 years.
First, she managed to produce and often direct consistently good professional theater in an unlikely venue — a cramped stage at the historic Briggs Opera House. Others before her had tried and failed. She succeeded, in part because she saw creative opportunity, not crushing limitation, in that characterful setting.
Second, she nurtured the company through good times and bad, unafraid to take artistic or, we should add, financial risks. She increased both the number and variety of plays staged in a given year and experimented with adaptations as well as new and little-known scripts. She also collaborated with other regional, national and international groups and exported productions to Europe and Africa. Over the years, she expanded facilities for staff and traveling professional actors. What began as a modest undertaking with a $6,000 budget became an award-winning $2.1 million nonprofit enterprise selling more than 30,000 tickets a year. Northern Stage is now the largest theater company in the region, with a reputation far beyond.
Third, Ciardelli understood that professional theater, in order to thrive in a relatively sparsely populated region, demands broad community involvement, not just ticket-paying patrons. To that end, Northern Stage integrated into its mission educational programs, workshops, lectures and summer camps, important components for attracting local support. These programs now need to be bolstered and sustained.
Finally, Ciardelli’s dedication to, and ambition for, Northern Stage had a powerful impact on White River Junction. The success of the theater company helped to attract the Center for Cartoon Studies, Tupelo Music Hall, restaurants and commerce, all of which now contribute to the creative economy that has reawakened the village. A feasibility study completed for Northern Stage five years ago, in connection with expansion plans, estimated the theater company’s economic impact to be $450,000 annually.
Ciardelli’s departure from Northern Stage late last month was by mutual agreement, she and members of the board told the Valley News. While the precise reasons for the seemingly precipitate decision aren’t entirely clear, you can bet they had something to do with ego and money. Ciardelli was not a small thinker, and her plans for the company may have been out of sync — not for the first time — with financial realities and the prudence such realities demand. In 2008, Northern Stage purchased the former Miller Auto building with hopes to build a bigger, more elaborate theater facility — a venture requiring the company to raise some $22.5 million. That’s an enormous sum, and the Great Recession stalled whatever momentum there was for that project and other initiatives. A managing director, brought in to shepherd a major capital campaign, resigned in 2010, the same year the company, under financial pressure, let go its education director.
Ciardelli “was a little bit ahead of us,” commented one board member after her departure was announced. Indeed, the founder of Northern Stage may have exhibited — as Shakespeare put it — “a vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other.” Let this fall be not a tragedy — for Ciardelli, who may be back to direct an upcoming production; for the company, which must tailor its goals to its budget while broadening its base of support; or for local theatergoers, who have come to expect high-caliber productions. The play’s the thing, but only if the Upper Valley community also assumes a leading role.