Northern Stage: Self-sustaining regional theater in White River Junction

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An architectural rendering of the stage in use, as seen from the balcony.

By Katherine P. Cox

It was a good run – 18 years – at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, but it was time for Northern Stage to move on, said Eric Bunge, managing director of the regional theater. The old opera house presented severe limitations for professional productions, and two years ago the non-profit theater board members looked at their options. They opted to launch a capital campaign to build a new theater, brought in Eric Bunge from Minnesota, and embarked on a remarkable journey that resulted in raising almost $9 million in a short period of time from a supportive community that didn’t want to see the lights go down for good on their theater. Fittingly, “Our Town” opens in the new Barrette Center for the Arts, named for patrons Cyn and Ray Barrette, in October, exactly one year after breaking ground.

The new Northern Stage as it will look by night...

The new Northern Stage as it will look by night…

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…and by day.

“It was do this or think about wrapping things up,” Bunge said. “It was clear that they wanted to build a new theater.” Carol Dunne, artistic director, was instrumental in bringing Bunge on board in March 2013 to begin the process of developing a plan for a new space. Bunge, who had founded the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, Minnesota, in 1989, in turn brought Minnesota colleagues Irene Green, marketing director, and Amanda Rafuse, development director. The three had experience building a new theater and quickly got to work engaging the community on the new project. When talking about their mission, they sound more like community organizers than theater people. Their approach, said Green, was to try to eliminate perceived barriers to going to the theater and asking, “what can we do for the citizens? We’re dedicated to the well-being of the community and our patrons. We want to bring people together for a meaningful experience.”

Architect's rendering of the lobby area, looking toward the box office.

Architect’s rendering of the lobby area, looking toward the box office.

Accessibility is key, and to that end volunteer drivers have been enlisted to bring people who might not drive or have cars to the shows, such as college students or the elderly. Cost can be a barrier, as well, and creative ticket and membership pricing will help move Northern Stage from a patron-derived revenue source to a membership model, Green said. By making a night at the theater affordable, more people are likely to come, and then become sustaining members.

“We came in as a team and focused on community engagement, meeting and greeting people,” Rafuse said. “We removed barriers to participation and deepened peoples’ connection. We sat down with everyone and inspired their passion. We connected people to the work that was happening in the building. They want to be part of it. There’s a thirst for this in this community.”

That approach resulted in a capital campaign that raised nearly $9 million from private citizens. No municipal, state or federal funds were used. Timken Foundation of Canton awarded $200,000 to the campaign and Lake Sunapee Bank and Ledyard National Bank each contributed $25,000. “For this community to create a space like this is miraculous,” Dunne said.

The first step in creating a new space was hiring the Middelbury, Vt., construction firm, Bread Loaf Corp. in October of 2013. They were hired because, Bunge said, he felt that Jim Pulver, vice president of business development at Bread Loaf, would understand Northern Stage’s mission. “A lot of what Eric and Irene said about being part of the community we talked about in a marathon meeting,” Pulver said. “What did they want to create? We try to become part of the client’s organization and translate their goals into their building.” In November, the first conceptual design meeting took place. Guiding them, Bunge said, was “what do we want our patrons to experience?” Three months later Bunge presented a conceptual design and a proposed budget of around $7.5 million to the board. The board approved going forward with the conceptual design, and the design/development phase got underway. Last October, they broke ground on the 17,500 square-foot building and things moved quickly after that. “Projects go well because the people involved understand the process,” Pulver said. “Eric being at the table and his experience helped phenomenally. He understands the big picture: design, building, theater, finance. He’s been able to guide people.”

With a dramatic street presence on Gates Street, on the site of a former car dealership, the new Northern Stage theater, which adjoins the administration building and production studio (which has a prop shop, paint shop, costume shop and sets shop), takes regional theater to a whole new level. Corrugated metal siding on the exterior lends a striking, contemporary look that continues inside. Upon entering the lobby, the large gathering space has an open feel with exposed beams, piping, ductwork and electrical conduits that Bunge likens to a building’s natural artwork. “I want that artwork to be seen.” The lacquered-steel staircase has maple treads, matching the maple accents throughout the building, including the suspended maple slats hanging from the ceiling; wood clouds, Bunge calls them. Inside the 240-seat theater, the modified thrust stage – which means there’s no raised stage with a curtain – provides a unified, shared experience, Bunge said. The audience is fanned out around the stage, close to the action, the last row 32 feet from the stage area. “It’s a different kind of storytelling,” Bunge said. With advanced lighting, sound systems and wireless capabilities, “we can use the tools of storytelling in this space in ways we’ve never been able to do,” Bunge said. Ceilings soaring over 30 feet tall means “Mary Poppins is going to fly!” said Carole Dunne. (Mary Poppins will run during the holiday season, from Nov. 18 to Jan. 3).

Behind the stage and a corridor behind it, a 1,600 square-foot rehearsal space allows actors and directors to map out the floor plan of the stage for rehearsal. In the green room, there’s a lounge and kitchen and four additional dressing rooms to accommodate up to 24 artistic and production staff. A wardrobe and laundry room, a shower room and a stage manager’s office make Northern Stage a dream space for theatrical productions. “We’re more than a little proud,” Bunge admitted. “Building a theater from the ground up doesn’t happen anymore.”

“It’s not the norm in theater to have space like this,” Dunne said, and she’s excited about developing new work and programming that’s risky. “Audiences are excited about artistic risk. Risk keeps theater alive. This new space lets us be unpredictable. It’s our obligation to surprise.”

“By telling good stories really well,” Bunge said, and offering high-quality programming that draws in all sectors of the community – young kids, college students, the elderly – Northern Stage will be a self-sustaining regional theater that could drive broader economic development in White River Junction.

More than a place to see top-notch performances, the new theater “is a place to convene; a gathering space,” Rafuse said.” After the show, “we hope the conversation continues out into the lobby and beyond.”

Mainstage performance schedule, 2015-16

"Our Town" is the first performance scheduled in the new Northern Stage facilities.

“Our Town” is the first performance scheduled in the new Northern Stage facilities.

Our Town (October 7-31). By Thornton Wilder. Experience the wonders of the new space with Wilder’s moving and exquisitely crafted examination of everyday life. Our Town is the inaugural production in the Byrne Theater. Artistic Director Carol Dunne presents a fresh and contemporary staging of the iconic play about a young couple who fall in love, marry and live out their lives in a small New England town.

Mary Poppins (November 18-January 3). By Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman and Julian Fellows, co-created by Cameron Macintosh. The beloved Disney classic has been reimagined for the stage and will light up the holidays at Northern Stage.

Mad Love (January 7-Febrary 13). A world premiere by Marisa Smith. An historical look at romance in the age of hookups and cell phones.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (February 24–March 12). Adapted by Tim Kelly, based on the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Three actors play 16 characters in the endlessly funny madcap adventure.

The Mountaintop (March 23-April 9). By Katori Hall. A stormy night in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Lorraine Motel in 1968 brings us Martin Luther King, Jr. exhausted after having delivered one of the most memorable speeches. A surprise visit brings unwelcome news and forces King to confront his legacy, his destiny, and his humanity.

Living Together (April 20-May 8) By Alan Ayckbourn. An hysterical and often-poignant romp through one day in the lives of some excruciatingly unhappy thirty somethings in England.

For more information, visit northernstage.org.

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