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Actors and directors relieved to return to live performances at Upper Valley theaters

  • Actors Nuri Hazzard, left, and John Kroft, both of New York City, rehearse a scene from Dutch Masters at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. They were speaking to the director and fight choreographer for the play who were not in the space but were on a video conferencing call in front of them. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Actor Nuri Hazzard, of New York City, watches a scene from Dutch Masters at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As one of the first shows to be staged in front of an audience during the pandemic, Stephanie Everett's "It's Fine, I'm Fine" is to be at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., in its 240-seat theatre. Only 44 people, wearing masks and socially distanced, will be seated to see the play performed by Everett. (Kata Sasvari photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2020 9:48:40 PM
Modified: 9/25/2020 9:48:29 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — During the COVID-19 pandemic, Carol Dunne has tried to make theater the way many other things — education, commerce, democracy — are being made: on Zoom or some other web conference platform.

But having actors work together remotely was clunky, with none of the chemistry of live performance, said Dunne, artistic director at Northern Stage.

So it was with great relief and pleasure that Dunne started directing rehearsals recently with two actors for a production of Dutch Masters, a new play by Greg Keller.

“If they’re in the room together, the beauty of the interaction will happen,” she said.

There is nothing like live theater, and while it hasn’t been entirely absent from Upper Valley stages during the pandemic, a wider return is imminent.

Dutch Masters is part of a fall theater season unlike any other, both at Northern Stage and at two other theater companies that are working on plays and projects that address our challenging times. Northern Stage’s “Tiny Necessary Theater” features four productions with small casts, only the first of which will be live: It’s Fine, I’m Fine, a one-woman show written by and starring recent Dartmouth College graduate Stephanie Everett, opens Oct. 7 and will mark the first time patrons have set foot in the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction since mid-March.

Another White River Junction theater company, JAG Productions, is also “in the room together,” but for a different purpose. Jarvis Antonio Green, JAG’s founder and producing artistic director, has convened a group of Black actors, writers, directors and filmmakers for a monthlong retreat in Waitsfield, Vt., where they are confronting a weighty question: “Can a play be created outside the power structures and without reference to whiteness, in a pure expression of Black Joy?”

And this weekend, BarnArts Center for the Arts is starting a tour around Vermont for a production of It Can’t Happen Here, an adaptation of the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel of the same title, which has roots in the company’s hometown of Barnard.

The return of live theater has some of the urgency of Tiny Necessary Theater’s initials. Theater has long been a socially engaged medium, and there is no shortage of explosive social issues to engage with just now.

For Green, this is a new type of engagement. Conceived in conversation with writer-director Stevie Walker-Webb, the Black Joy Project is intended to create a new play and a new creative process for Black artists to follow, as well as a documentary film about the retreat itself, which was made possible by a $100,000 grant from the New York-based Bay & Paul Foundations.

“This methodology says to center our identities, our dialects, our cultures, where we come from in our creative process,” Walker-Webb said in a news release about the project. “And it’s only in centering that we are able to create things that are radical and liberatory.”

In a phone interview, Green called the retreat “a beautiful balance of rigor and rest.” The 17 other participants went through a health screening, then boarded a chartered bus in New York for the trip to Waitsfield’s Knoll Farm, which describes itself as “a safe harbor where issues of class, race, power and privilege are seriously engaged.”

The artists on the retreat, which runs until Oct. 8, will bring a play back to the world, but that is just the first step in its development, some of which will likely take place in White River Junction. There might also be an intermediate step, perhaps in Africa, Green said. While the play will be performed for JAG’s Upper Valley audience, that’s not who it’s meant for.

“This play, it’s for Black folks, first and foremost,” Green said.

While Green’s work is focused on racial justice, BarnArts is looking at a related subject, American democracy. It Can’t Happen Here is Sinclair Lewis’ imagining of a populist demagogue coming to power in the U.S. during the 1930s. In his novel, Buzz Windrip, a populist Democrat, surprises everyone by defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt for his party’s nomination for president in 1936, then goes on to win the general election and starts to wreak havoc on his perceived enemies. A Vermont newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, opposes Windrip and is imprisoned.

The novel was written in Barnard, where Lewis lived with his wife, journalist Dorothy Thompson, who had interviewed Hitler in 1932, as he was consolidating power in Germany. Lewis received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 and was partly retired, Jim Schley, a Strafford resident with a role in the BarnArts production, said in a phone interview. Thompson’s account of her interview with Hitler, and the prominence of American figures such as Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh, demagogues all, spurred him to write It Can’t Happen Here.

BarnArts produced the play, which was adapted by California playwrights Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen in 2015, at Fable Farm in Barnard in 2018. That was a brief run, performed in part so Barnard filmmaker Teo Zagar could gather footage for a documentary, Without Fear or Favor: Dorothy Thompson’s Warnings to the West, which is now in post-production.

“There was just a feeling of wouldn’t it be great to take it more into Vermont,” said Linda Treash, executive director of BarnArts.

The statewide tour, which begins at Fable Farm on Saturday evening and in Woodstock’s new East End park on Sunday, will take place entirely outdoors, masks will be required, audience numbers will be limited, and BarnArts has created protocols for entering and exiting to maintain physical distancing.

“I think there’s a sense of outdoors is the answer,” Schley said, adding that performing in public parks and town greens suits the ethos of Lewis’ work.

“We’ve always done a lot of outdoor theater,” Treash said. That includes performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a children’s production of Shrek this summer. Performing outdoors in unpredictable autumn weather is new, though. “We’re prepared for the fact that we may have to cancel some shows,” Treash said.

It’s easier for a small community theater company to produce a show than it is for a theater like Northern Stage, which must get the approval of Actors’ Equity and other unions. Northern Stage is the first regional member of the union’s League of Resident Theaters to get permission to stage a show in its theater since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

Everett, who workshopped It’s Fine, I’m Fine at Northern Stage in 2018, drove straight from Washington, D.C., to an apartment in White River Junction, where she is in quarantine, Dunne said. The two New York-based actors in Dutch Masters are working in Northern Stage’s rehearsal space and follow protocols laid out by Actors’ Equity.

“I do not get within 6 feet of the actors,” Dunne said. They fill out health forms daily and are tested twice a week through a partnership with Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, which is a Northern Stage sponsor.

Even so, Dutch Masters is being recorded for on-demand viewing next month, and two Tiny Necessary Theater shows to follow, The Naked Librarian, by Hanover playwright Marisa Smith, and On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, by Anton Chekhov, a production featuring Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp, will stream as a comic double-feature in November.

It’s Fine, I’m Fine and Dutch Masters, however, are plays for our turbulent times.

Everett’s play is about her real-life experience of giving up playing soccer after too many concussions. It’s about loss, but also hope and regeneration.

Set in Do the Right Thing-era New York, Dutch Masters follows two young men, one white and one black, who meet on an uptown train, in an encounter that examines race and class. Northern Stage recommends the show for ages 14 and up.

Upper Valley theaters are fortunate to “have a curious audience that is willing to be challenged,” Dunne said. Around 500 people signed up for a workshop on white privilege this summer, she said.

“Our audience looked at themselves in a predominantly white region and said, ‘We’re not doing well enough,’ ” Dunne said, adding that it made her proud to live here.

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




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