Curtain Rises on Barrette Center

Sunday, October 04, 2015
White River Junction — Two weeks before Thornton Wilder’s classic drama Our Town was set to open the Northern Stage season at the brand-new Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, the company’s managing director, Eric Bunge, got news he very much wanted to hear: The subscription rate for the 2015-2016 season had exceeded expectations.

The theater was two days away from a grand opening of sorts. A select group of donors — $5,000 and up — would be coming to see the new theater, some for the first time. Bunge roamed the backstage halls helping a small crew put up signs for the bathrooms, rehearsal room, green room and other offices. The names of significant donors were going to be affixed to various parts of the building — the Schleicher rehearsal studio, the Roesch Family lobby.

Bunge had come to Northern Stage in 2013 at the invitation of the company’s artistic director, Carol Dunne. He had overseen the construction of a new theater when he was at the Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro, Minn., from 1988 to 2010.

Building a theater from scratch is an expensive, r isky proposition; it’s not something that happens every day. Indeed, a new, custom-built theater has not opened in the Upper Valley since the Hopkins Center in 1962.

“It’s a very unusual situation to have a facility of that nature being built today anywhere in the New England area,” said Lori Hirshfield, director of the department of Planning and Development in Hartford, which worked with Northern Stage as the planning for the theater took shape.

The Barrette Center for the Arts, a steel gray, industrial-looking, 17,500-square-foot building abuts, but is structurally independent of, the former Miller auto building on Gates Street, which now houses Northern Stage’s offices. The new theater has presence, but it’s not dramatically obtrusive or out of character with the town: It fits in snugly with the rest of the street, but anchors it as well.

“It integrates that section of downtown into the rest of downtown — that’s a tremendous asset,” Hirshfield said.

Since February 2014, the kickoff of Northern Stage’s capital campaign, the company has received $8.5 million in pledges and grants to build the theater. Most of the total cost of the theater, estimated at about $7,375,000, has been paid for through collections of the pledges, Bunge said. Such a large percentage of the pledges made already have been received that the company was able to take out a much smaller bridge loan — about $750,000 — than originally was projected, Bunge said. That financing came from a patron who requested anonymity — and it will be repaid at an interest rate of 3 percent, Bunge added.

Now that the theater is completed, staff and board members are at pains to point out that not only have they largely achieved their fundraising goals, but also that the theater was built within a year’s time, and came in slightly under budget.

So when Bunge heard from both the company’s marketing and sales director Irene Green and box office manager Allison Brown that Northern Stage has reached more than 1,500 subscribers, surpassing its goal of 1,325 subscribers for the season, he was elated.

That Northern Stage, now in its 19th season, passed this milestone in a climate in which many regional theaters have seen their subscription bases diminish is a testament to the community’s interest in the new theater, Bunge said.

While American theaters have seen a rebound since the economic crisis of 2008, and their subscription rates have increased from 2010, subscription rate still have not returned to 2009 levels, according to the Theatre Communications Group’s 2014 annual report on not-for-profit theaters.

Without that predictable revenue stream, Bunge said, “every single show starts at a deficit.”

But that won’t be the case for Northern Stage. “It means that every production starts ahead,” Bunge said.

The price of subscription and single tickets is not being raised, Bunge said. Single tickets range from as low as $15 for students up to a top price of $55 for a center section seat. Subscription rates range between $125 and $400.

“When you start getting past $55, you begin to price yourself out of this area,” Bunge said. “We’re not going to build a fancy new theater and gouge people for ticket prices.”

In the Barrette Center lobby, Brown is perched in a chair in the box office, right off the entrance on Maple Street. She’s talking on the phone to a customer interested in buying tickets for Our Town .

“When would you like to come?” said Brown. There’s a pause. “That is actually sold out,” she tells the customer. Opening-night tickets have been snapped up. Another pause. “Yeah!” Brown says, responding to what must be the customer’s excitement at the news. “I can add your name to the wait list, if you want.”

The customer wants aisle seats, which are unavailable on the date requested. Not to worry, Brown tells the customer. “With the new space there’s a lot more legroom.”

True. There is 4 inches more leg room between rows than was available at the Briggs Opera House, which both Northern Stage — founded by Brooke Ciardelli in 1997 — and its predecessor, River City Arts, called home for more than 20 years.

With 240 seats — five fewer seats than at the Briggs Opera House — the theater retains the intimacy of the opera house, but the height differential between rows is 18 inches, in contrast to the 7-inch differential at the Briggs, which improves the sight lines. No seats are more than 38 feet from the stage.

The stage is what is called a modified thrust. It’s not a proscenium, nor is it completely theater in the round: The stage projects into the audience and is surrounded on three sides, in a fan shape, by the audience.

That’s not the only improvement incorporated into the theater’s design by Bread Loaf Corp. and Theatre Projects Consultants, a Middlebury, Vt., architectural firm experienced in public building projects, which drew up the plans and oversaw the construction.

State-of-the-art means a larger rehearsal studio, expanded dressing rooms, handicapped-accessible seating, and a green room, a receiving door through which sets and equipment can be moved.

The ceiling in the new Byrne Theater is 44 feet high, versus the 11-foot-high ceiling in the Briggs Opera House. The top row of seats, Bunge said, is higher by about 5 feet than the top row was at the opera house. And the rake, or the slope of the stage, is almost three times higher than that of the Briggs.

Then there are amenities that you would take for granted in any office, but which were not centralized at the Briggs: a kitchen, office space, a coat room, bathrooms. The theater now boasts superior acoustics and lighting, as well as an art gallery, a small cafe space inside, an outside courtyard.

The intention was to keep the aesthetic of the theater’s design close to the off-beat, railroad-town feel of White River itself, said Cyn Barrette, a board member who, together with her husband, Ray Barrette, were honored for their contributions to the company with the name of the building.

“We’ve gone through so much discussion about how to have our own theater,” Barrette said.

That discussion began in 2007, when Brooke Ciardelli was artistic director. Possible locations were tossed around: Hanover, Norwich, Lebanon. But the board, and management, kept coming back to White River Junction, which Barrette calls the “Brooklyn of the Upper Valley.”

“It’s still a little bit funky. There’s a lot of art going on in this little town,” she said

When Dunne came on board in 2012, it was with the understanding that she would help oversee a campaign to build a new theater. The company’s finances were shaky and it “had outgrown its facilities,” she said. “The only way to move forward was to have a new home.”

Board members emphasize that the theater will pay dividends, not only in White River Junction itself, but also throughout the region.

“It is really a gift not just to the Upper Valley, but beyond,” said Linda Roesch, a campaign co-chair with her husband, Rick Roesch.

The hope, Bunge wrote in an email, is that annual attendance will “increase by at least 10 percent and perhaps by as much as 25 percent during the first five years in the new building.”

Of course, it’s premature to project how the new theater might affect the economic climate of White River Junction. But it seems likely that its presence will enhance what is already there in terms of dining and retail, and increase foot traffic through the town. Judging from past experience in Minnesota, Bunge said, the next five years will see “exciting things happening in and around the White River Junction town center.”

The company, Hirshfield said, has “made a big contribution to the revitalization of downtown. ... When they decided to make their new home here, we knew it would be a continuing contributing factor.”

The hope, Dunne said, is that the Barrette Center for the Arts will be just that: not only the home of Northern Stage, but a place where, maybe, audiences could come in the summer to see Shakespeare, or hear readings. The AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon will collaborate with Northern Stage in mounting small exhibitions.

Sutton Crawford, who plays Emily Webb in Our Town , is a Northern Stage veteran, having appeared in lead roles, including Shakespeare’s Juliet, in three other productions. The company, she said, is her “home away from home.”

She had seen the plans for the new theater but walking into the actual building took her breath away. “It’s just so beautiful, this realization of something that is meant to be,” she said.

The fact of the theater, the fact that it now exists, Bunge said, “produces an emotional effect that I didn’t really anticipate. It’s organic space, it’s steel, concrete and wood. And that starts, for me, the process of being open to stories.”

Stories begin in the rehearsal room, a large, airy space with hardwood floors. Dunne is taking the actors through an early scene in Our Town , which is set in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners. Christian Kohn, in the role of local doctor Frank Gibbs, is reacting to the sight of an imaginary horse led by David Anzuelo, who plays Howie Newsome, the milkman.

Kohn is supposed to pat the horse’s neck but his sense of a horse’s build and height is off: He aims somewhere around Anzuelo’s shoulder, which would mean that the horse is either My Little Pony; that Gibbs is patting the horse’s shoulder, just above the foreleg; or that the horse is the size of a large dog.

The assembled actors burst out laughing, as does Dunne, who gets up from her seat and, inserting herself between Kohn and Anzuelo, pretends to be a horse, using her hands to mimic its twitching ears. Kohn finally nails the gesture.

The actors are careful to say that they liked acting in the Briggs Opera House, and the closeness of the audience to the stage. The distinction here is one of degree.

From the rehearsal studio to the dressing rooms to the stage itself, there are both subtle and overt differences.

Jamie Horton, who plays Charles Webb, the editor of the Grover’s Corners newspaper, is a professor of drama at Dartmouth College. He also is a Northern Stage board member who spent more than 20 years as an actor and director at the Denver Center Theatre Company in Colorado. From an actor’s perspective, he said, the new theater’s excellent acoustics and warm sound, its expanded lighting, and the spaciousness of the backstage areas all serve to make the space “actor friendly.”

A few days later at the party, Dunne embraced the donors who came up to congratulate her. There was an air of palpable satisfaction, almost giddiness. Board Chairwoman Janet Miller Haines said that when she came around the corner of the theater that afternoon and saw small groups of people congregating in the courtyard and dropoff area for the first time, she started to cry.

“To have it actualized in the first year is really incredible,” she said.

The opening of the new theater is a “once- or twice-in-a-lifetime event,” Horton said.

“Slipping through a door like this for an organization is enormously thrilling,” Horton added. “It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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