Weston Playhouse juggling tradition and transition

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WESTON — Steve Stettler was 21 when he first arrived at the Weston Playhouse in 1973 for a small part in a summer production of "Our Town." So imagine the full-circle feeling as the once-fledging actor, now 65, is directing the same show on the same stage as he prepares to retire after a lifetime working at Vermont's oldest professional theater company.

"Obviously a lot has changed," Stettler says, "and yet so much hasn't."

The "Our Town" of 45 years ago featured local favorite Sam Lloyd Sr., who commuted from his home across the street in this picture-postcard town of 564. The new production opening this week stars the late Lloyd's brother — although Christopher Lloyd is flying in from the West Coast and such credits as "Taxi" and "Back to the Future."

Weston back then was a white-pillared playhouse offering a summer bill of Broadway titles. That's still true, although with last fall's debut of a $6.3 million second stage at the nearby Walker Farm, the company has grown into a year-round drama, education and development center with a $2.6 million annual budget.

The tradition and transition are set to continue as Stettler and fellow directors Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort get ready to hand over the reins to a new leader after 30 years of shared management.

"We're not getting any younger," Stettler says. "This seems the perfect time to pass the torch to the next generation."

When Stettler and Fort arrived in 1973 (Ewen joined them three years later) the company ran under the same for-profit summer-stock model since its start in 1937. That changed when the three assumed leadership in 1988 and turned the operation into a nonprofit Equity theater.

The trio has steered Weston through the turbulent arrival of the internet, 2008's "Great Recession" and 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, which flooded a $700,000 renovation of the playhouse's dressing rooms, prop shop and orchestra pit harboring a baby grand piano.

The three ultimately landed on higher ground with last fall's opening of an 8,000-square-foot supplemental facility on nearby Route 100, paid for through a $13.5 million capital campaign for not only the new building but also for a $1.5 million "Fund for the American Theatre," $1 million in improvements to the main playhouse and $500,000 for an education endowment for students and interns.

Weston this month named Susanna Gellert, associate producer and director of the Studio at New York's Theatre for a New Audience, as its new artistic leader. Gellert, a frequent Vermont visitor for the past seven years, will join the company this summer and take over this fall.

"Weston is one of the oldest theaters in the country, and the recent opening of Walker Farm now makes it home to one of the country's newest stages as well," she says. "To lead Weston into the next phase of its journey — with its commitment to artistic excellence, thoughtful innovation, and the development of new artists and ideas — is a dream come true."

But first, the current management trio will enjoy one last season. Fort is directing this month's "Anne of Green Gables" and "West Side Story," opening July 12. Ewen will present "Fun Home" starting July 5. And Stettler will premiere "Our Town" this Thursday with a cast that includes not only Sam Lloyd Sr.'s brother and widow, Barbara, but also children of acting alumni.

"There's no one in this production who isn't associated with us or the area," Stettler says.

Bittersweet? A bit.

"There are precious few theaters in the country that have been run this long by a single regime," Stettler says. "But it's hard to split my attention between my managerial duties and those of director. I'm savoring every moment of everything I'm doing — but not regretting the fact it's the last time I'll be doing it."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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