Theater Founder Out After 16 Years at Northern Stage
Director Brooke Ciardelli talks to Mollie Brown, playing Annie, during rehearsal for the play in November 2011.
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Brooke Ciardelli during an interview in October 2005.
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White River Junction — Northern Stage, the Upper Valley’s largest professional theater company, has parted ways with founder and artistic director Brooke Ciardelli, the company announced yesterday.
Ciardelli’s departure, which she and company officials said was by mutual agreement, ends her 16-year tenure at the helm of the highly-regarded regional theater that has won awards and attracted Broadway talent to its productions over the years. Her exit became effective yesterday, after the closing of the company’s most recent production, Sleuth.
The company’s board and Ciardelli “have agreed that the current production will be her last with the company,” they said in a joint statement completed Friday and released yesterday.
“An artistic journey and path is never linear and never smooth, and if it were, you probably wouldn’t be creating great art,” Ciardelli said in an interview yesterday.
The announcement marks a turning point for Ciardelli and the company she founded in the Briggs Opera House in 1997. After launching a theater revival in the Upper Valley, the founder now will devote herself to more international collaborations and other ambitious projects. Northern Stage will concentrate on building a more solid foundation for the nonprofit theater company, including expanding its education programs and strengthening fundraising and marketing efforts.
Neither party was eager to address the reasons behind Ciardelli’s departure. “There’s a lot that I’m not at liberty to say today,” Ciardelli said.
Earlier this year, Northern Stage hired Russell Maitland as its first executive director, a position that reports directly to and acts on behalf of the board of trustees. He joined three months ago with a mandate to steady the company’s finances, board Chairman Stuart Johnson, of Strafford, said yesterday.
“One of the major components, looking to the future, is what we might call financial stability,” Johnson said yesterday.
“Sustainability is where it’s at,” said Janet Miller Haines, also a board member. “I think,” she added, “ that bringing Russ in has focused that effort a little more than it perhaps was before.”
In certain respects, Ciardelli “was a little bit ahead of us,” Haines said. Northern Stage needs to broaden its base of support, both from donors and ticket-buyers, before it’s able to support plans as grand as those Ciardelli envisioned for the company, Haines said.
Northern Stage is one of only four professional theaters of its stature in the country located in such small communities, where the population base is around 80,000 people. Maitland’s task is to bring more people into the tent, in part by bringing more parents, ages 25 to 50, through the door with their children.
“The base is very small because the education program has been cut back,” he said yesterday. The majority of Northern Stage’s audience is over 55 years old, he noted.
Under Ciardelli, the theater company had its ups and downs, both financially and in leadership. In 2002, four board members stepped down during a cash crunch and Managing Director Jim Alberghini left soon after. Cost cutting in 2010 forced the company to cut the position of award-winning education director Jody Davidson, followed two months later by the departure of Perry Allison, another managing director. Allison’s tenure lasted less than a year.
It was a challenge for the small organization, which Ciardelli started with a $6,000 budget, to contain her ambition. Under Ciardelli, Northern Stage has taken productions to Harare, Zimbabwe, and Edinburgh, Scotland, and co-directed a production of MacBeth with Castle Theatre Co., that toured England. She has signed on to direct in London and Vienna in February.
“There’s no shortage of ideas,” Ciardelli said. Wherever those ideas take her, Ciardelli said she plans to stay in the Upper Valley and work as a stage director, both locally and farther afield. She’s also writing, she said.
In the immediate future, Northern Stage is searching for someone to direct the scheduled production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which opens Feb. 6.
Ciardelli is still at work on an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge that replaces the Italian-American characters with Muslim-Americans. She was granted permission by the playwright’s estate to adapt it, a coup for her and for Northern Stage. She said she’s negotiating with the board to stay on for that production. It’s unclear what happens with the April production if those talks break down. Other theaters have expressed interest in the adaptation, Ciardelli said.
Northern Stage’s board will hold a retreat in January, when it will consider what the company’s leadership will look like in the future, Maitland and Johnson said.
Ciardelli’s impact on theater in the Upper Valley is hard to calculate. Two other theater companies tried and failed to energize Briggs Opera House before she took her shot. Northern Stage now owns the former Miller Auto building on Gates Street, which it uses for rehearsal, storage, shop and classroom space. Professional theater has become a signature entertainment in the Upper Valley, with a second company, Shaker Bridge, in Enfield, producing new and challenging plays.
Catherine Doherty, Northern Stage’s producing director, said her nine-year partnership with Ciardelli has been the most significant artistic collaboration of her life.
“I’m a better producer, I’m a better director, I’m a better actor because of Brooke,” Doherty, of Norwich, said yesterday. “I am hoping that Brooke and I can continue to collaborate in the future.”
Kim Sullivan was eight or nine when she saw The Wind in the Willows at Northern Stage. Her life was transformed, she said yesterday.
“I was so mesmerized and captivated,” she said. She asked her mother, “how did they do that? I want to do that.” She earned a role in Annie the next year, the first of several Northern Stage credits. Now 25, Sullivan is Northern Stage’s company manager, working up contracts and helping the actors and other talent settle in.
“I think everyone here is going to work very hard to preserve what she started,” she said.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3219.