Editorial: A Theater’s Second Act

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Back in 2010, when Northern Stage unveiled a plan to build a much larger, more elaborate theater on the site of the former Miller Auto Garage on Gates Street in White River Junction, we wondered if this plucky regional company was a little too ambitious. It embarked on a $22.5 million capital campaign for major expansion — a daunting amount of money to raise even for this arts-
minded community. Then the Great Recession entered stage left, altering the plot. Financial realities forced the company to retrench, and major players exited, including a managing director, an education director and, in December 2012, founder Brooke Ciardelli herself.

Today there’s less drama at Northern Stage, and we’re not referring to the productions, which have continued to draw applause despite the churn at the top. Now that there’s more administrative and financial stability, the company is once again looking to move from the atmospheric but inadequate stage at the Briggs Opera House to a dedicated venue on Gates Street. This time around, however, building plan, at $9 million, seems not only more plausible but promising for both the future of Northern Stage and for White River Junction, which has benefited from having a lively professional theater that generates some $690,000 annually in ticket sales.

As staff writer Jordan Cuddemi reported recently, current plans call for a 17,500-square-foot facility with 250 seats, about the same number as currently exist in the opera house, but arranged in a more open configuration. The new theater would have ground-floor access with a drop-off area; an elevator to a second-floor lobby; a rehearsal space and classroom for actors and students; state-of-art acoustics and other amenities. Though the scope of work has been scaled back significantly since 2010, the modifications do not appear to compromise the aim of expansion, which is to offer theatergoers a more accessible venue with ample room for creative expression — something the current theater, cramped and reached by a long, steep flight of stairs, does not offer.

So far, the fundraising campaign has generated $4.8 million, or 53 percent of the theater’s total cost. Artistic Director Carol Dunne says there is powerful momentum to complete the project, and officials expect private donations to cover the total cost of construction. That’s a testament to the community’s loyalty to a company that has grown since 1997 from a modest enterprise to a sophisticated, award-winning arts organization with a reputation that extends far beyond the Upper Valley.

If, as we hope, Hartford’s zoning board and planning commission approve the current building proposal at hearings scheduled for May 28 and June 2, Northern Stage expects to commence construction in September and open a year later. The project is one of several that suggest that White River’s “creative economy” is not merely notional. Hartford Selectman Matt Bucy, who has developed several nearby buildings, has a $2.5 million plan in the works to renovate the American Legion building on South Main Street for apartments and commercial space, while local developer Bill Bittinger, a managing partner of Railroad Row LLC, intends to construct a four-story mixed-use building next to the Polka Dot diner on the corner of Bridge and Main streets. These new building projects represent the kind of smart growth that’s likely to enhance a village where culture and commerce are coming together in pleasing combination.

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