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Northern Stage Director Says It’s Time to Build a Theater

Carol Dunne, the new artistic director at Northern Stage, poses on the stage at Northern Stage's Theater in White River Junction, Vt.,  on Dec. 10, 2013. 
Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Carol Dunne, the new artistic director at Northern Stage, poses on the stage at Northern Stage's Theater in White River Junction, Vt., on Dec. 10, 2013. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

Before performances of Twelve Angry Men, the first production of Northern Stage’s season, Carol Dunne stood up and introduced herself to audiences: “I’m Carol Dunne, and I’m your new artistic director.”

She gave a brief account of herself, including teaching in the Dartmouth College Theater Department and her five years at the helm of the New London Barn Playhouse. She urged patrons to donate to the nonprofit theater company. “We need more people to give, even on the teensiest level,” she said.

Now, a couple of months later, Dunne, 48, has settled into the company’s White River Junction offices and has more to say about the company’s future. Under Dunne’s leadership, Northern Stage is now part of a web of collaboration among her employers : Dartmouth, the Barn and Northern Stage. She has started some innovative programs, including a set of staged readings next month of new plays developed in the Upper Valley.

But her biggest initiative is something the theater company has long discussed: “We’re hoping to build a theater here,” Dunne said.

“Here” is the former Miller Auto building, which the company purchased in 2008. In 2010, Northern Stage proposed to tear down the former car dealership and build a new theater complex at a cost of $22.5 million. That plan, which included a 320-seat theater, rehearsal space and other facilities, is off the table, and the preliminary plan now calls for a modest 250-to-275-seat theater to be built inside the sprawling complex.

The new theater is in the “early planning stages,” Dunne said, but she expects to have a cost estimate by next month and to launch a fundraising campaign to pay for it. The new theater would be on the ground floor, which would make it easier to access than the Briggs Opera House, the upstairs theater in which Northern Stage has produced plays since 1997. Dunne said she’d like the project to include a cafe and a gallery as contributions to White River Junction’s growing arts community.

“That access for the audience is what’s going to build the future” for Northern Stage, Dunne said.

When Dunne’s hiring was announced in March, so too was that of Eric Bunge as the theater company’s managing director. Bunge has a background in theater management and construction and helped Dunne stabilize the finances of the New London Barn Playhouse after she became artistic director there in 2008. He was a cofounder of Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, Minn., and oversaw construction of a new theater for the company.

“With him as my managing director, we’d be foolish not to try” to build a new theater, Dunne said.

Although her background in theater runs deep into her youth, building a theater wasn’t exactly what Dunne had in mind when she and husband Peter Hackett moved here nine years ago. Hackett was leaving Cleveland Play House after 10 years as artistic director to return to Dartmouth.

Dunne had majored in English at Princeton University and had been a singer and musical theater performer in high school. “As a kid, it became my identity,” she said.

She moved to New York after college, determined to act on Broadway. She wound up acting in touring shows, “performing to empty houses in Altoona, Pa., and Avalon, N.J.” Worse, she hated living in New York.

Under those conditions, “I realized I was never going to be a Broadway actress,” Dunne said. So she went to graduate school in acting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in hopes of finding success in regional theater. After grad school she moved back to New York, but kept getting hired in Milwaukee, where she later met Hackett. He took the reins at Cleveland Play House not long after they were married. The move set a new course for Dunne, too.

“It’s because of Cleveland that I learned to direct plays,” she said. She acted as a professional at the Play House and the Great Lakes Theater Festival, and directed at small community theaters.

She was in her early 30s and had worked for directors where she felt she had a better grasp of the material. “I felt like I was always somebody else’s instrument,” she said. She also taught acting at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory.

When Dunne and Hackett decided to come to Hanover, they had two young children in tow and Dunne figured her professional life would slow down.

Initially hired to teach one course a term, Dunne developed Dartmouth’s first class in acting for musical theater, Hackett said. And she had gone to high school in Darien, Conn., with Brooke Ciardelli, Northern Stage’s founder, who quickly brought Dunne in to play prominent roles. She first appeared in Private Lives in 2005 and had a leading role in Cats in 2006.

Hackett called her attention to the opening at the New London Barn Playhouse, New Hampshire’s oldest continuously operating summer stock company. She has added some serious theater to the company’s standard slate of musicals, and financial stability to the company.

Taking the Northern Stage job created a host of new possibilities. In addition to finding high-quality theater at Northern Stage, Dunne discovered a deep bond between the company and the community, something she hadn’t experienced in Cleveland.

“It’s because of Brooke that I fell in love with Northern Stage, because of the close connection with the audience and supporters,” Dunne said.

Ciardelli and Northern Stage abruptly parted ways not long after the start of the last season. Dunne stepped in to direct The Importance of Being Earnest, then was asked to lead the company. “It took my breath away, because I didn’t expect it,” she said.

After some deliberation, she accepted, picked the shows for this season, then went back to work at the Barn Playhouse for the summer.

Collaboration between Dartmouth, the Barn Playhouse and Northern Stage has already begun. Dartmouth acting professors Jamie Horton and Christian Kohn had key roles in Twelve Angry Men, and the production included recent Dartmouth graduates.

The current production, White Christmas, features six former “Barnies,” as the Barn Playhouse’s performers are known, all from Dunne’s tenure. It’s also graced by a dozen of the Barn’s lights, new ones that Northern Stage didn’t have to purchase. Since they have complementary schedules, the Barn and Northern Stage also share a company manager, and Milena Zuccotti, a longtime Northern Stage employee, is now managing director at the Barn.

In truth, the partnerships extend beyond the Upper Valley. Malcolm Morrison, who directed Twelve Angry Men, led the theater program at Wisconsin-Milwaukee while Dunne was a student.

More partnerships are on the way. In January, three playwrights with Upper Valley ties will have staged readings of their work in White River Junction. Mad Love, by Hanover native Marisa Smith Kraus, will be performed Jan. 17, The Reluctant Lesbian, by recent Dartmouth graduate Kate Mulley, will be performed Jan. 18, and Orwell, by Dartmouth grad and professor Joe Sutton, will be performed on Jan. 18.

The program, “New Works Now,” is meant to turn Northern Stage into an incubator for new plays that could premiere in White River Junction. “The hope is to do workshops of new plays every January,” Dunne said.

The to-do list at Northern Stage is long. In past years, the company regularly overspent its annual budget of a bit over $2 million, according to federal tax documents. It needs to expand both its audience and its donor base. Northern Stage currently draws around 70 percent of its revenue from ticket sales and around 30 percent from donations and grants. “If we were 60-40, we’d be in a much better financial position,” Dunne said.

“I feel like it’s my job to find a successful financial model for this company,” she added. That could include a change in ticket pricing to make an evening of theater more affordable.

All that, on top of trying to build a new theater. If all goes well, Dunne said, she hopes fundraising could start this spring and the company could build a theater in the Miller building within two years.

The 2008 recession made it difficult getting a theater construction plan off the ground and town officials expressed skepticism at the expense and scale of the 2010 proposal. But the need to build a new theater has been clear, Dunne said.

“Not having our own theater I think sends the wrong signal about the maturity of the company,” she said. “There are so many people here now aligned to make this happen, it’s carpe diem time.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.