A decade of theater growth

Since 2010, four stages in southern Vermont evolve and thrive

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Four theater organizations. Four towns. Four missions. One very busy decade for all four have led to a continuity on the southern Vermont landscape, as well as an evolution at each theater.

Weston Playhouse, Weston

Vermont's oldest professional theater, founded in 1935, saw two milestones close out its most recent decade. In fall 2017, after years of fundraising, planning and construction, Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, the company's new second stage and performing and education campus, was built and open to the public.

Walker Farm is an impressive addition, both warm and lively, unpretentious yet cutting edge. With its opening, Weston has brought a renewed emphasis to community outreach with year-round performances and events and to the development of new works. Today, as opposed to just a decade ago, there are far more opportunities for writers working on plays and musicals to shepherd their works from page to stage.

Weston's second milestone at the close of the decade was a major transition in leadership. "The Three Guys," as they are known in the industry, Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort and Steve Stettler, led the company for 31 years, from a summer stock stage into a leading professional theater with a national reputation. Upon their retirement in 2018, Weston welcomed executive artistic director Susanna Gellert to southern Vermont.

"When I moved to Vermont in 2018, I was excited to lead a theater whose work is at the heart of its community's foundations," Gellert said. "Whether at Walker Farm or the Weston Playhouse, we talk with our audience at every performance. We learn about what audience members are thinking and feeling. We experience with them the moments that are exciting, or thought provoking or comforting; we hear their questions, thoughts and ideas."

Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington

Artistic Director Eric Peterson, also a 1972 co-founder of Oldcastle Theatre Company, likes to say that this past decade began for the venerable Bennington stage with a near-death experience.

In 2011, the management of the then-Bennington Center for the Arts informed Oldcastle that it would need to leave what had been its home since 1994. The next year was devoted to keeping the theater alive and in Bennington, despite offers from other communities. The best Bennington location available was 331 Main St., built in 1948 for the Knights of Columbus.

Oldcastle Theatre Company began fundraising and converting the structure, then owned by the Greenberg family, into an intimate, 120-seat flexible theater.

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In 2013, the theater began presenting other events. A grant from the Citizens for a Greater Bennington enabled the company to purchase equipment for showing films. Musical events were added. The Bennington Community Theater was established and began producing plays featuring local actors.

Now, the company finds itself in the midst of the largest downtown renewal project in the town's history. In 2019, the theater company purchased its building while all around it, construction crews remade South and Main streets. A capital campaign to replace the building's roof is in progress.

Also in 2019, the board of directors updated the name of the facility to Bennington Performing Arts Center/Home of Oldcastle Theatre Company.

"It's been a breathtakingly busy decade full of growth and accomplishments," Peterson said. "We're proud of the work, delighted to be a major contributor to Bennington's new downtown, and excited for a future that will surely bring more change while, we hope, continuing to see Oldcastle Theatre as an integral part of the artistic community of southern Vermont."

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Dorset Theatre Festival, Dorset

Once a haven for summer stock performing traditional works, at the start of the decade one could not ignore the waning audiences at Dorset Theatre Festival. Enter Dina Janis in 2010, a member of the Bennington College drama faculty chosen to lead the festival.

Arguably, Janis' hiring as the artistic director at the start of the decade has been the driving force in establishing Dorset's national reputation for creating bold, innovative and authentic theater.

In these past 10 years, the festival has redefined itself as a theater that presents thought-provoking plays that draw new audiences and new artists for the future of American theater.

"We like to say that we produce theater that matters," Janis said. "This kind of new work has allowed us to attract some of the top talent working today."

She names playwrights Theresa Rebeck, Lucy Thurber, Adam Rapp, Samuel Hunter, Michael Cristofer, Rajiv Josephs, Lauren Yee, Mona Mansour, Cusi Cram and Frank Harts and actors Treat Williams, Tim Daly, Tyne Daly, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Judd Hirsch, Alfre Woodard and a "Frasier" reunion pairing of Peri Gilpin and Dan Butler.

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This past decade has also seen the festival launch its celebrated Women Artists Writers Group, which presents frequently in New York City and boasts more than 90 plays developed in Dorset that have moved on to major productions across the country.

"We're honored to bring this kind of work to this amazing region, and the sense of momentum and community this has allowed us to build is palpable," Janis said.

New England Youth Theatre, Brattleboro

An educational institution that showcases its students' results to the public, New England Youth Theatre celebrated its 20th birthday in 2019. In the last decade, it has grown exponentially, not only in size, but also in programming. A theater community whose members habitually say that they are "of, by, and for" young people, it has gone from 30 young actors making theater in a small restaurant, to a bustling youth theater of more than 500 students and 50 theater faculty engaged in all aspects of theater making.

In 2015, founder Stephen Stearns stepped back and entrusted his beloved theater to the mentors and visiting artists who now make it their home. Hallie Flower became executive director, with over 26 years of experience in the arts and a passion for theater education.

"A creative common endeavor like theater in such a multi-generational setting with everyone learning from one another," Flowers said. "It is such an exceptional way to build community and empower our young people."

In accordance with building community, when Flowers came on board, she and her staff developed a strategic plan to provide students with accessible and affordable programming. As a result, financial aid is now available for every single program, and the tech and design track is free.

The busy decade continued: New England Youth Theatre also created Towns School Theatre, a tuition-free after-school program open to students grades four through six from participating elementary schools in the Brattleboro area.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. Reach him by email at tchalkias@aol.com or follow on Twitter @TellyHalkias.


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