Art Notes: After losing primary venues, JAG Productions persists

Director Henry Gottfried, left, works with actor Tyrone Davis, Jr., during a rehearsal of

Director Henry Gottfried, left, works with actor Tyrone Davis, Jr., during a rehearsal of "The Lesson," a play Davis wrote and will perform at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, N.H., on April 20 and 21, 2024. It is part of a series of JAG Underground performances. (Courtesy JAG Productions) Courtesy JAG Productions

JAG Productions founder Jarvis Antonio Green watches a rehearsal of Tyrone Davis, Jr.'s

JAG Productions founder Jarvis Antonio Green watches a rehearsal of Tyrone Davis, Jr.'s "The Lesson," to be performed by Davis at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, N.H., on April 20 and 21, 2024. It is part of a series of JAG Underground performances. (Courtesy JAG Productions) Courtesy JAG Productions

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2024 5:31 PM

For much of its history, JAG Productions, the small, White River Junction theater company that specializes in telling stories from deep inside the black, queer, American experience, has had to be nimble. Company founder Jarvis Antonio Green has produced plays in a variety of venues and at a variety of scales, from solo shows to ensemble musicals.

JAG Underground, a series of three shows that begins this weekend, is in the same mold. Green is pulling the season together at three different venues, and with a range of themes and registers.

“It gives us an opportunity to be a little bit more messy; a little bit more courageous,” Green said in an interview.

The season of one-person shows is a necessity. A year ago, JAG lost the two primary venues it had been using, Briggs Opera House, and the lawn at King Arthur Baking Company’s Norwich retail outpost. At the time, the company was growing and poised to grow further and Green was even thinking about the prospect of a permanent home for JAG.

Losing those venues “made it very hard for me to imagine what the future could be like,” Green said.

For the time being, Green decided the company needed to get back to its core work of presenting theater to Upper Valley audiences.

In search of small-scale shows Green didn’t have to dig too deeply. He reached out to people he knows or follows on social media and pretty handily put together a season of theater unlike anything else appearing on Upper Valley stages.

Saturday evening at 7 and Sunday afternoon at 5 at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, Tyrone Davis Jr., performs “The Lesson,” his solo show dramatizing the fraught nature of sex education. Green recommends the show for viewers high school age and up. Davis has been involved with JAG from its early days, as part of the cast of the company’s 2016 production of “Choir Boy.”

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The following show, “Why Have I Never Heard of You?” is a cabaret performance by Alex Joseph Grayson, a young actor and singer with a growing list of Broadway credits who created his solo show after hearing its titular question in more than a few auditions. Green directs, and performances are scheduled for May 18 and 19 at Sawtooth Kitchen in Hanover.

And the season-ender, “Sondheimia,” brings a New York theater star to the Upper Valley. Larry Owens won a Lucille Lortel Award and a Drama Desk Award for his performance in the Off Broadway musical “A Strange Loop.” For “Sondheimia,” he sings Sondheim songs for 75 minutes, without narration. Green called it a “tour de force.” The show is slated for June 14 and 15 in White River Junction’s Briggs Opera House. Owens, who also has a long list of screen credits, including the hit show “Abbott Elementary,” needed a bigger venue, Green said.

This will mark JAG’s first show in the Briggs since last April’s production of “Every Brilliant Thing.”

The Briggs Opera House was rented to Shaker Bridge Theatre, which takes up almost half of the Briggs’ schedule. Shaker Bridge’s season is over by the time “Sondheimia” arrives.

This season, it has been a challenge for theater companies to sandwich shows in between Shaker Bridge’s dates. Perry Allison, co-founder of We the People Theatre, said in a recent interview that the company’s production of “Something Rotten,” required a sprint to get off the ground.

In certain respects, losing Theatre on the Hill, named for the gentle rise on King Arthur Baking’s lawn on which JAG placed its stage, was a bigger blow to the small, nonprofit theater company. Productions there in 2021 and ’22 were accommodations to the coronavirus pandemic, but they became JAG’s biggest source of ticket revenue and brought in more than 300 new donors, Green said. The financial boost helped the company in 2022 hire Jason Schumacher as managing director and Tamara Waraschinski as director of development. Both have moved on.

The loss of the Norwich venue, in particular, caused a funding crisis for JAG, which held an emergency fundraising drive last fall and raised $15,000 in donations to produce the JAG Underground shows.

The reason King Arthur shut down Theatre on the Hill is an unusual one for theater: It was too successful.

I left a voice message for Suzanne McDowell, King Arthur’s vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, and received in response an emailed statement from Carey Underwood, the company’s director of mission partnerships and programs: “King Arthur Baking Company was thrilled to host JAG Productions’ Theatre on the Hill for two seasons in 2021 and 2022. It was an unprecedented time that necessitated creative thinking and partnership to bring our community together. We were happy to be able to support Theatre on the Hill for these two years, and continue to be a proud sponsor of JAG’s work. However, due to staffing and infrastructure constraints, we were just not able to continue hosting an event of this scale.”

I emailed a follow-up question about the extent to which King Arthur had tried to work with JAG to manage the successful program their partnership had created, but received no reply.

Green still hopes JAG can find a home in the Upper Valley, but that goal seems more distant now.

“It was hard to actually come back from that and be just as fierce and splashy,” he said. “You took us to the mountaintop and that’s what people saw us as capable of doing, and we haven’t been able to get there again.”

At a certain point, Green decided he couldn’t spend more time thinking about the systems that make JAG’s work possible and pivoted to figuring out how to fulfill the company’s mission in the meantime. Putting together JAG Underground has been a bit of a balm.

“When you’re a company the size of us, knowing that I’m going to be touching every aspect of making this happen,” Green said, there’s “a connection to every aspect of who we are as people.”

“I want to be colleagues with someone who is willing to reveal themselves,” he added. “That’s what makes it feel so easy right now.”

For tickets to the shows in JAG Underground and more information, go to jagproductionsvt.com.

Speaking of endings

Monday brought word that Bookstock, the literary festival that has enlivened a weekend in Woodstock for the past 14 years, has been canceled. I haven’t yet had a chance to dig into it, but the reasons seem straightforward. In a news release, festival founder Peter Rousmaniere wrote that the vision for the festival was unclear, with some of the organizations behind it wanting a large festival that brought in many visitors and others wanting a more modest event. “Over the years,” Rousmaniere said in the release, “the participating organizations varied, and some have moved on. This development is understandable. But this makes the festival not viable.”

More theater

This weekend and next, starting Thursday night, Parish Players produces “Proxy,” a new play by Hanover resident Kenneth Burchard, a retired physician. “Proxy” dramatizes the medical condition Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, in which a caregiver, often a parent, induces the appearance of illness in a ward, often a child. The production is directed by longtime Upper Valley director Hetty Thomae and performances run through April 27. For tickets ($15-25) go to parishplayers.org, call 802-785-4344 or email reservations@parishplayers.org.

Next week brings Northern Stage’s New Works Now festival of fresh theater, including a new production of “The Great Gatsby,” and the two plays that were finalists for Dartmouth College’s Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Playwriting. The Neukom (pronounced nuke-em) awards are for literary works that incorporate science. For more information, go to northernstage.org.

Block party in Hanover?

Hanover, perhaps the stuffiest college town in America, tries to shed some of that image with a Hopkins Center sponsored block party on Allen Street, Saturday evening from 6 to 9 or so. The musicians, DJ Sonicc Blush, Boomscat and Kokayi, sound like danceable fun, and promise a mix of R&B, soul, hip-hop and Washington D.C. go-go.

Best of all, the show, a headliner for the Hop’s “New Music Festival,” is free, as is the rest of the festival.

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