Northern Stage Raises Curtain on New $9 Million Theater Proposal

Sunday, May 11, 2014
White River Junction — Another prominent parcel in downtown White River Junction has taken the spotlight.

The professional theater company Northern Stage has announced plans to construct a $9 million, 250-seat theater next to the company’s administrative offices on Gates Street, the former site of Miller Auto.

“It puts a smile on my heart to have us be this close to a dream that we have had for so long,” Janet Miller Haines, chairwoman of the Northern Stage board of directors, said Thursday. “And to have experienced the support — psychological, financial and artistic — that we have … has been so invigorating.”

If the nonprofit gains approval for the project from the Hartford Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, it hopes to start construction on the 17,500-square-foot building in September, with plans to open in the fall of 2015, just in time for Northern Stage’s 19th production season.

The project partners are scheduled to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on May 28, and the Planning Commission on June 2.

Thus far, Northern Stage’s fundraising campaign for the new theater has generated $4.8 million, or 53 percent, of the project’s total cost. Northern Stage officials hope to cover 100 percent of the cost with donated money.

“The momentum around this project has been powerful,” Carol Dunne, the company’s artistic director, said in a news release announcing the project. “Northern Stage will grow from a professional theater with regional impact to a regional theater with national impact.”

Others, too, expressed high hopes for the project, which is the third renovation or construction proposal to surface in White River Junction this spring.

Matt Bucy, a selectman from Hartford Village, recently handed in plans for a $2.5 million renovation to the American Legion building on South Main Street, and Hanover resident Bill Bittinger, one of four partners in Railroad Row LLC, announced plans to construct a $3.5 million, four-story building next to the Polka Dot diner on the corner of Bridge and Main streets.

“Downtown White River has really started to burst with excitement and growth, and I think it is just tremendous for the community — not just White River Junction, but the town of Hartford,” Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said Thursday. “I see the Northern Stage project as being a catalyst for a renaissance in new development in downtown White River, which is probably the most important step of any.”

The project is expected to enhance Northern Stage’s production capabilities and create a “premier theater destination” for the arts, according to Northern Stage design plans filed with the town.

Since its inception in 1997, Northern Stage has staged productions in the 245-seat Briggs Opera House theater located in the Gates-Briggs Building in downtown White River Junction.

“A new home for Northern Stage will transform our patrons’ experience and allow us all to appreciate the art in a completely new and exciting way,” Cyn Barrette, a member of the board of directors who doubles as co-chairwoman of the fundraising campaign, said in the news release.

The architecture and design plans, which were put together by Middlebury, Vt.-based Bread Loaf Corp. and Theatre Projects Consultants, which has offices in South Norwalk, Conn., Los Angeles, London and China, call for a theater with 250 seats, all with unobstructed views of the stage from no farther away than 38 feet.

The nonprofit hired Bread Loaf, a design-build firm also working on the renovation of the Hartford municipal building, as the construction management company for the project, Irene Green, director of sales and marketing for Northern Stage, said Friday.

Plans call for the former Miller Auto garage building on the Gates Street parcel to be dismantled before erecting the brand-new structure in its place.

If approved, the colorful, modern exterior of the new theater will greet guests to productions from September to May, and a front drop-off area and easily accessible box office will provide a smooth transition from the time patrons arrive until the show lets out. Guests will enter through a main entrance on the first floor and have immediate access to seating, with the option of accessing mezzanine seating by staircase or elevator. The building will be accessible to those with handicaps and will have rehearsal and classroom space for actors and students on the first floor, as well as ample space backstage. A state-of-the-art sound system will be installed, and hearing assist capabilities will be available.

Northern Stage officials said David Briggs, who is chairman of the Hartford Development Corp. and whose family owns the Gates-Briggs Building, has been “very supportive” of the move and the growth of the company. Messages left for Briggs weren’t returned last week.

In 2010, Northern Stage officials proposed building a new $22.5 million, 320-seat theater at the Gates Street site, but the project plans were scaled back when a new administration took over and recalculated the theater’s needs, Green said.

Northern Stage’s plans to build its own theater extend back to before the economic downturn in 2008.

“The company has long envisioned a new theater venue for our audiences and artists to convene,” Miller Haines said. “I could not be more excited about helping to make this dream come alive.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at or 603-727-3248.

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