Northern Stage’s Dunne Playing a Role in the Community

  • Carol Dunne, producing artistic director, laughs during a table read for Ayad Akhtar’s 'Disgraced' at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 14, 2018. Dunne said she likes working at Northern Stage because of the impact the company can have on the surrounding community. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs – Carly Geraci

  • Carol Dunne, producing artistic director, speaks while leading a weekly staff meeting at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 14, 2018. Dunne was the former artistic director at New London Barn Playhouse in New London, N.H., and started at Northern Stage in 2013. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Carly Geraci

  • Carol Dunne, senior lecturer in Dartmouth College’s theater department, leads a vocal warm up as Annemieke McLane, an accompanist, plays the piano during Dunne's acting for musical theater class at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 20, 2018. In 2008, Dunne first introduced the class to the college due to her love for musical theater. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Carol Dunne, left, sends an email while her husband Peter Hackett, right, both of Etna, N.H., works on the computer before Dunne leaves for the day at their home in Etna on Feb. 21, 2018. In addition to juggling her roles as producing artistic director at Northern Stage and senior lecturer in Dartmouth College’s theater department, Dunne likes to cherish the moments she has at home with her husband, two kids and dogs which includes Abbey who is resting near Dunne. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Carly Geraci

  • Terry Samwick, assistant director, left, and Carol Dunne, producing artistic director, listen to Amar Srivastava, who will act as the main character 'Amir Kapoor' in Ayad Akhtar’s 'Disgraced,' during a six-hour table read at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 14, 2018. 'Disgraced' highlights the struggles of Amir, who is a first-generation Pakistani-American and was raised in the Muslim faith. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Carly Geraci

  • From left to right, Carol Dunne, producing artistic director, talks with Olivia Swayze, of Tunbridge, Vt., and Samantha Key, of White River Junction, Vt., while on a break during a six-hour table read at Northern Stage in White River Junction, on Feb. 14, 2018. Swayze acts as Shirley Knapp in 'Only Yesterday' by Bob Stevens, where she is a fan girl who got stuck in a vent while attempting to sneak into a hotel room occupied by the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2018 12:35:05 AM
Modified: 2/25/2018 12:35:06 AM

White River Junction — At 10:25 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Carol Dunne was running late for a roughly six-hour table read with the cast of Disgraced, the play she’s directing at Northern Stage, where she’s producing artistic director.

“Hi, poopsie!” she called out to staff as she sailed through the corridors of the Barrette Center for the Arts, the White River Junction building that houses Northern Stage, and into the kitchenette to grab tea. “Hi, goober! … OK, here we go.”

As she set her steaming mug on the table, strains of music from the student matinee of Only Yesterday, which Dunne had also directed, was filtering into the room from the speakers in the hall.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, there was a weekly staff meeting Dunne had just ducked out of, which was tackling what she’d gleefully described as “hell week — events every night.” Meanwhile, at least one of the three dogs she’d just wrangled into her office would probably have to pee soon. Meanwhile, text messages were piling up on her phone.

It was a fairly representative moment in the life of Carol Dunne these days. The former artistic director of the once-foundering New London Barn Playhouse, Dunne is also a senior lecturer in Dartmouth College’s theater department, a mother of two and directs several plays each season. In other words, she thrives on caffeine.

“I do a lot of multi-tasking. I know that’s not necessarily supposed to be the best thing,” she said during a recent interview in her office, and sighed. “But it all needs to be done.”

Northern Stage’s education and outreach programs, its relationship with Dartmouth, the annual New Works Now Festival — “It all feeds our company,” she said.

A ‘Huge’ BoostFor Northern Stage

The company will also be fed by the combined $500,000 in grants Dunne has garnered from the Pussycat Foundation, a philanthropic organization that honors the memory of Cosmopolitan founding editor, Helen Gurley Brown, who loved theater. (She was known for using “pussycat” as a term of endearment.)

Half of the $500,000 came from the foundation’s “genius grant” that recognizes a pioneering artistic spirit; the rest, from a national cohort initiative Dunne has recently spearheaded, the BOLD Women’s Leadership Circle. It distributes $1.25 million provided by the Pussycat Foundation evenly among five women-led regional theaters, including her own, and creates policies to bolster women in the company.

The most important piece for Dunne is that the program creates a formal mentorship program.

“Most people who have seen her in action may not know this about her, but she has such a love of those she teaches, and such a generosity of spirit with them,” said her husband, Dartmouth theater professor and Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities, Peter Hackett. “Teaching, mentoring, gives her energy. It revitalizes her. It’s really, really delightful for her.”

She’s especially passionate about nurturing women who are early in their careers, and these types of mentorships are where she shines brightest, Hackett said.

But even from a purely financial perspective, the grants from the Pussycat Foundation are substantial for Northern Stage, which has an operating budget of around $2 million, Dunne said. “Absolutely huge for us.”

What consumes most of her time, though, are the nitty-gritty elements of orchestrating such hugeness.

“She has a tremendous passion for what she’s doing. She has a belief in theater changing lives, and it does. Of theater being a force of good in the community and the world,” said Marisa Smith, who co-runs a major play-publishing company. Dunne has staged and developed several of her plays. But “first of all, she’s very smart. … And she has the thing you have to have to be successful, which is focus.”

Most mornings, she’s up at 6:30 to help shuffle her kids, 13 and 17, off to school. After dropping off her youngest before 8, she tries to hit the gym, “for stress relief more than anything,” she said.

If it’s a Tuesday or Thursday she’s off to Dartmouth, where she’s a senior lecturer in the theater department; otherwise, she might spend that time in meetings, or writing blurbs and press releases, or helping with costume design, or grading papers, or in rehearsal. At some point she runs home to Etna to make dinner. If there’s a show or event that night, which there often is, she runs back out again.

“She actually does have the same level of energy when she gets home,” Hackett said, laughing. “I try to encourage her to relax.”

On the rare nights they’re both at home together, they love to curl up on the couch with the dogs and watch British mystery series, “all of them,” Hackett said. They’ve also watched every episode of Homeland together.

In larger theater companies, artistic directors aren’t always so involved. “They tend to get trotted out for specific asks,” Dunne said. Though a smaller theater company like Northern Stage usually necessitates multiple hats on each head, Dunne acknowledged that lately, her hat count is “high, even for me.”

But the money she’s garnered for the company is heartening to her, especially because arts funding in the United States has dwindled considerably in the past two decades. The vast majority of funding sources are private, and the funds they deliver are usually small.

“So now it’s like, you can’t afford failure,” she said.

A ControversialProduction

But not being able to afford failure doesn’t stop her from finding ways to afford taking risks — as with Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced.

“The set is too expensive,” Dunne told her staff in Wednesday morning’s meeting. The story centers on a dinner party in the Upper East Side apartment of a young, well-to-do couple who Dunne envisions as having hip, rather expensive taste in furniture. “Ugh.”

It came up that an acquaintance of several Northern Stagers was downsizing, and looking to sell some possessions for pennies on the dollar.

“That’s great. That’s great. That kind of contemporary look is just what we’re looking for,” she said, scratching a line off her list. This would save money in the budget to buy the rug Dunne wanted, “which is really the centerpiece of the whole thing,” she said excitedly. “Oh, it’s really cute. Colorful, funky, cute.”

But the risk of Disgraced lies more than just in the cost of its set. It’s one of the most widely produced plays in the United States, and one of the most controversial.

Its main character, Amir Kapoor, is a first-generation Pakistani-American, and was raised in the Muslim faith. He — in part because he is determined to “make it” and be named law firm partner over his black colleague and dinner guest, Jory — has distanced himself from, and even speaks harshly of, his cultural and religious roots.

While many critics have praised Disgraced for its smart writing and nuanced characters, it’s also been called racist, including by some Muslim-Americans who feel that Amir’s views and actions — especially in the play’s disturbing climax — affirm negative stereotypes about Islam, and Muslim men in particular.

Dunne has been in contact with one Muslim-American activist who feels strongly that putting on the play causes more harm than good.

“Of course, I heartily disagree,” Dunne said. The way she reads it, Disgraced is not a critique of race or religion, but of “how perceptions ruin this one Muslim-American’s life.” She’s invited the activist to give a talk-back after the performance to help unpack some of these issues, and to write a few paragraphs for the playbill that might help non-Muslim audience members contextualize what they are about to see.

And so when Dunne started the table read with a question that seemed straightforward — “How are you guys feeling about the script?” — she was asking something to which there was no easy answer.

She produced a copy of Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, and passed it over to Amar Srivastava, the actor playing Amir.

“I think you might find, for your character, some interesting stuff in here,” Dunne told him.

She also laid out some maps of Sunni and Shia populations, and some print-outs on the history of Pakistan.

“I told you guys, I obsessed last night,” Dunne said, rolling her eyes at herself.

The table read felt, at times, less like a rehearsal and more like a close-reading exercise in a university seminar.

Every few lines, either at the request of Dunne or one of the cast, the group would stop to discuss the dialogue — both the said and unsaid.

Dunne encouraged her actors to grapple and probe, to disagree, to create nuance where there was ambiguity, starting with the characters’ unspoken backstories.

“Are we ready for background? Yay, let’s hear background!” she clapped, then got down to business. Emily, Amir’s white artist wife who is inspired by Islamic art history, seemed to come from money, but just how much, exactly?

“There’s something about (Emily), her being a rich white woman making this big statement, that really bugs me,” she said. “Just on a personal level.”

How much raw talent does Emily have? What are the tensions between her artistic vision and her place in the world, and how much of this place is defined by her background?

Again, no easy answers.

Glass CeilingIn the Theater World

As for Dunne’s own background, she grew up in Connecticut, and also on the stage — first as a singer.

“My voice was very mature,” she recalled during her lunch break that day, as she made her way over to the kitchenette freezer to find a frozen burrito. “While other little girls were singing like, well, little girls,” Dunne was singing more in the style of Judy Garland, her voice big and brassy and cabaret-style.

She was also raised Catholic. Her father was first-generation Irish-American, who grew up poor and was treated unkindly by the woman he thought was his mother; she often made him sleep on the floor in the hallway, Dunne said with a shudder. It wasn’t until adulthood, when he came across his birth certificate, that he learned that his biological mother had died giving birth to him and his twin brother, and that the woman who raised him was in fact his stepmother.

“It’s a sad story,” Dunne said, shaking her head. Eventually her father went onto college on the GI Bill, and became a lawyer, “out of idealism. … Of course, then he went into corporate law,” she said with a chuckle. So did Disgraced’s Amir.

Though she knows better than to draw too many parallels between her experience and Amir’s, she does empathize with the difficulty of leaving the tradition one was raised in. Dunne eventually “rejected” the piety that was so bound up with her family’s Irish identity.

“For an Irish immigrant, Catholicism, the Catholic Church, it’s everything,” she said. “I don’t miss it … but I do know what it’s like to miss some of the comfort of having that tradition.” She became Episcopalian in the early 2000s, a decision that once might have surprised her.

But by this time, she had surprised herself in a number of ways, professional as well as personal. Dunne’s affinity for singing had grown to include acting, and indeed, all types of theater roles. After graduating from Princeton in 1987, she acted professionally in New York while working as a paralegal, but she never expected to direct. She didn’t do so until her 30s, with Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. She’s now in her early 50s.

She moved to the Upper Valley when Hackett was hired by the college in 2004. “I was trailing a spouse with no job,” she said. “We had a 1-month-old and a 3-year-old.” She asked Hackett’s dean if she’d consider Dunne for an Acting I course, and the rest was history. TO TEACH?

When she took the helm at New London Barn Playhouse, in 2008, “it was in crisis,” she said. From the nearly nonexistent staff, to the $500,000 deficit, to the crumbling facilities, the theater was “literally falling apart.” Though she’s too modest to say so, she probably saved the beloved theater company from running aground.

She was well-versed by then in the creative aspects of bringing her artistic visions alive onstage, but raising the money to stage those visions? Tracking finances with spreadsheets, hiring and overseeing a whole staff, working with unions?

“I knew I wanted to run a theater,” she said. “But I didn’t think I’d be able to make the hours work with being a mother and a wife. It’s miraculous it’s worked out.”

No less miraculous because of what Dunne called the “glass ceiling” for women in theater leadership. A recent study from the Wellesley Centers for Women found that women have never held more than 27 percent of leadership positions in regional theaters in the United States, and that this gender disparity cannot be explained by a lack of qualified female candidates.

Dunne herself had been turned down by potential male mentors; one even told her flat-out that he’d prefer to work with a man. Still, through a combination of Google and trial and error, she breathed life back into the Barn.

In her five years there, she realized she has a passion not only for producing theater with social impact, but also for outreach and mentoring. When she was called to Northern Stage, then in a similarly dire financial situation, she spearheaded a fundraising campaign to build the Barrette Center, and expanded the company’s reach into schools and the community.

She had a vision for what Northern Stage could become and what it could do, but this opportunity was not something many people might see, said Northern Stage’s managing director, Eric Bunge, who has worked closely with Dunne in revitalizing the theater company.

He’s known Dunne since 1986, when Hackett directed a play at the Minnesota theater Bunge founded that revitalized his own small town.

The ability to see that potential “all depends on where we’ve come from, the background you have,” he said. In part because of her experience at the Barn, “she’s the type of person who finds a way to get their eyes up a little bit, look into the future and go ‘wow.’ ”

He counts Dunne — and the rest of the Northern Stage team — as among “the scarcity of people who are crazy enough to work in the arts in a rural community.” After all, why would an artistic visionary come to New Hampshire or Vermont when there are already vibrant, thriving theater scenes in any number of major cities?

“I just think it takes a certain kind of person, or just someone who has a different kind of passion for the arts and what it can do in a community,” he said.

Now, with BOLD Circle, Northern Stage and four other regional theaters across the United States have committed to supporting women in the performing arts. Someday soon, Dunne wants to work on creating a national database of women theater leaders. Eventually, she’d like to see the number of BOLD Circle cohort members expand from five to 10.

“This is about changing the face of American regional theater,” she said, emphatically. She got up to get a bone-shaped biscuit for Abbey. “Sorry. I’m screaming a lot today. Lots of caffeine.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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