Editorial: Northern Stage Theater Hits Its Marks

Wednesday, October 07, 2015
Theater people are famously optimistic — think Annie — but White River Junction’s Northern Stage seems to have justified the sunny outlook. It’s hard to imagine a more promising development for the village than the opening this week of Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts, whose fundraising success has come as something of a revelation. Staff writer Nicola Smith reported in the Sunday Valley News that the theater company has already passed its subscription goal for the new season. Its capital campaign thus far has raised $8.5 million in pledges and grants. The project was completed within a year and a little under budget. Bravo to all that.

There’s much to like in the details. The industrial look of the new building is fitting, since it’s parked close to the old Miller Auto dealership, where big-finned Cadillacs once rolled out the doors. The 240 seats are slightly fewer than at the Briggs Opera House, Northern Stage’s former home, but there’s more legroom and improved sight lines. No seat is more than 38 feet from the stage, affording an intimacy lost in large palaces. With better lighting and acoustics, the theatergoing experience should be enhanced.

We applaud Northern Stage’s decision not to jack up ticket prices, which are as low as $15 for students and $20 for adults, rising from there to a top price of $55. “We’re not going to build a fancy new theater and gouge people,’’ said Eric Bunge, the company’s managing director. While Broadway prices suit investment bankers and tourists on the jaunt of a lifetime, Northern Stage offers a reasonable alternative close to home with a commitment to quality: Our reviewers have called out the company for a few duds in nearly two decades, but most plays have been enthusiastically recommended.

Nationally, nonprofit theaters have seen their fortunes rise and fall, much like Northern Stage itself, which had financial troubles as recently as several years ago. From 1990 to 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts has reported, nonprofit theaters enjoyed a kind of golden age, doubling in number. But the Great Recession of 2008 hit the arts community hard, and subscription rates nationally still have not returned to 2009 levels, according to the Theatre Communications Group’s 2014 annual report.

Locally, Northern Stage has demonstrated that there remains a wealthy donor base willing to back quality local theater. Subscription sales suggest that there’s broader support as well. For the theater company, the challenge will be ensuring financial stability through popular shows — you might call it comfort theater — while also offering productions that aim for the best that live theater can bring: moving experiences and the search for truth. And, if the future is to be as robust, it will have to find ways to connect with younger people, who seem drawn to a very different kind of entertainment. High schools and college audiences are a natural place to make that connection, given the active school theater scene here.

But from the vantage of the present, the outlook for Northern Stage looks bright. May that be a long-running proposition.

Valley News

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