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Art Notes: Northern Stage’s outdoor space has a future

  • Assistant stage managers Maya Novit, left, and Kendall Barbera prepare for that nights' show at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. A rain shower had left water on the theater company's outdoor theater. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • A former empty lot behind Northern Stage is now The Courtyard Theater and was a little damp after a rain shower on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ryan Klink, director of sales and marketing at Northern Stage, readies The Courtyard Theater for an evening performance on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. Rain showers had left the seats wet. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Jennifer Hauck

  • The Courtyard Theater is tucked behind Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt. The theater has allowed for outdoor performances this summer. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2021 9:30:54 PM
Modified: 8/18/2021 9:31:00 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Back in March, not everyone associated with Northern Stage thought it was possible to turn a dusty quadrangle behind its building into an outdoor theater.

The lot, part gravel and part pavement, was home to waste receptacles and a couple of trucks and wore a coat of grayed snow.

“I was kind of like, ‘I don’t see it. I’m sorry, but I don’t see it,’ ” Ryan Klink, who was then only six months into his job as the nonprofit theater company’s director of sales and marketing.

But other people saw clearly that a stage and seats would fit between the wing that houses Northern Stage’s scene shop and the company’s new theater.

The Courtyard Theater came into being in June and since has served as a kind of lifeline for theater-goers.

Nearly every Upper Valley theater company has moved outside for the summer. Even when restrictions on indoor gatherings eased, the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has made flexibility essential. Some of those outdoor accommodations are likely to outlive the pandemic.

Northern Stage hasn’t set up its season for 2022-23, but barring any surprises, the Courtyard will reopen next summer.

“I think that there’s a future for the Courtyard beyond this year,” Irene Green, the company’s managing director, said Tuesday.

This summer, Northern Stage has produced three shows outdoors: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by students in the company’s Summer Shakespeare Intensive program, and Million Dollar Quartet, a musical, which is in production through Sept. 12.

Each production has faced different restrictions on seating and social distancing. In June, around 70 patrons could sit in pods according to a seating chart that the company drew up anew each night, Klink said.

By July, the audience could sit in rows, but spaced apart. The current seating is more traditional, with rows of green plastic chairs side by side and a capacity of 235 people.

Green called the outdoor theater a “found space,” citing Eric Bunge, Northern Stage’s director of strategic planning.

While the Courtyard has allowed Northern Stage to produce plays in the short term, in the longer term it will furnish opportunities for summer expansion. Arts leaders in the Upper Valley have been looking for ways to make the area more of a summer arts destination, and the Courtyard fits that mold.

“I do think that drawing audiences from farther afield is definitely in the 10-year plan,” Green said.

She added that the Courtyard could be used by other arts organizations and as a venue for civic events, such as graduations. And Northern Stage could opt to program inside its main theater at the same time, Green said.

The outdoorsy-ness of the space is its draw. Behind the theater is a patch of woods, though the Barrette Center for the Arts is surrounded by a still small, but increasingly busy, cityscape.

As Klink and I looked at the theater on Tuesday, a few drops of rain fell, with more in the forecast. Across the way, a massive diesel generator on the roof of a nearby building roared to life and let out a big cloud of black smoke. A small plane flew overhead.

In addition to providing a summer venue, the theater is a link to the grit that drew artists to White River Junction 30 years ago. Adapting to the pandemic has brought back some of the spirit of improvisation that’s been lost amid the huge investments in arts, restaurant and housing development in the former railroad village.

How it develops bears watching.

“I think we’ll know a lot more when we officially wrap up this summer season,” Klink said.

“We do want to hear from our partners,” Green said. How the Courtyard Theater affected neighbors and the downtown will factor into how it’s used later on.

Until then, the shows go on, for the most part. A few dates have been canceled by weather, and some performances have included brief rain delays or started later in the evening to avoid the worst of the heat.

But audiences have been grateful for the chance to see a show and be part of the crowd again, Green and Klink said. The company will likely decide by December what will happen next summer.

“I think it’s safe to say we’ll be doing something in the Courtyard,” Klink said.

Million Dollar Quartet is in production through Sept. 12 in Northern Stage’s Courtyard Theater. For tickets go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

A frequent visitor returns

Richard Thompson is no stranger to Lebanon Opera House, and his return to touring brings him back on Aug. 25 for a solo acoustic show.

“There’s nothing quite the same as performing in front of people,” the London-born singer and guitarist said in his gentle Scottish brogue in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

Thompson, who first came to public notice as the songwriter and guitarist for the Fairport Convention in the 1960s, spent the pandemic writing and recording new material, producing two EPs. The next album is written, he said.

He also went through the editing process on a memoir, Beeswing, that documents his early career from 1967 to 1975.

“The best thing about that particular time period … things are happening for the first time,” he said of those formative years.

His Lebanon show will reach back to those days, all the way up to his most recent work. He has fond feelings for the opera house.

“It’s lovely,” he said. “It’s a nice old room, and the audience is usually great. It’s a beautiful part of the world.”

Richard Thompson performs at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 25 at Lebanon Opera House. For tickets ($55-75), go to lebanonoperahouse.org or call 603-448-0400.

A painter of note

Of the many art shows I’ve seen in the Upper Valley, a few stand out. AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon exhibited paintings by Craftsbury, Vt., artist Paul Gruhler back in January 2010, and I felt as if my eyes had been seized by their lapels and shaken awake.

In last week’s edition of SevenDays, the Burlington-based alt-weekly, Amy Lilly wrote a succinct profile of Gruhler, who’s nearing 80 and has been working his entire career on flat geometric shapes that play colors off one another. At their best, his paintings hum with tension bounded by line, form and color.

While it was a treat to read about him, it also will be a treat to go see some of his work. The Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro, Vt., is hosting “Harmonics: 60 Years of Life in Art,” through Aug. 29, and shows will open on Sept. 17 at the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier and the gallery at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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