Raise the curtain and cue the drum roll: Northern Stage is opening its brand new theater in White River Junction with a performance of Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town.
It’s not every day that a new theater opens in a small town — too often, they go dark. But this brand new $7.4 million state-of-the-art facility suggests that White River Junction has become a magnet for generous art lovers in the Upper Valley.
Artistic Director Carol Dunne loves showing off the 240-seat theater with high ceilings and steeply raked rows. It’s designed for productions in the round as well as more traditional front-facing shows. After a $6 million, seven-month fundraising blitz, Dunne wanted to mount a production about small town life that in a sense thanks the local community for its generosity.
“It was fast times and it was stressful," Dunne said. "So [with] Our Town, I wanted to do a great American classic. I wanted to do a play that reflects our community and I wanted to modernize it."
The stage set is stark, as usual for this play written in 1938 — revolutionary for its time. Audience members will sit all around the stage, some on park benches. Actors will wear modern dress and use up-to-date gestures. Live music will come from an upright piano and cello perched on scaffolding. At some points children in the play will practice up there for their music lessons. That’s also the spot where one of the characters, a gay man who kills himself, will watch the rest of the play unfold.
“And in our play we have him up in the choir loft, watching a young man play a cello in the scene, unable to speak to him and go near to him,” Dunne said.
Updating classics, Dunne says, is one way to keep audiences coming through the door — and when they do, they can mingle in a spacious lobby, look at art, and sip wine and beer. Tour groups have already been getting sneak previews of the space, including, on this day, a group of local realtors. Amy Redpath, of Coldwell Banker Redpath, says all new home buyers get tickets to a show in their welcome packages.
“You’re giving a town a place to go, culture. It just increases values for homes and people wanting to be in that area,” Redpath said. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Northern Stage.
As real estate, the glass and steel theater with its entrance patio and many-windowed façade brings new life to a back street of White River Junction. Dunne is also proud of the inviting green room, a rehearsal space, backstage areas and a sunny classroom. That’s where she says students – digital natives – will come to put down their cell phones and learn what live theater is all about.
“And as Tom Stoppard said in the play The Real Thing, 'Love is knowing and being known.’ Our job is to help people know this art form and then they’ll love it,” Dunne said.
She hopes Upper Valley drama lovers will see the Barrette Art center as an affordable alternative to New York theater which, Dunne says, has become overly commercial.
“Our work absolutely rivals that and you are so much closer. You go see a Broadway show and you are in the 3,000th seat. There is a move towards intimate and Northern Stage kept that when we built this new theater,” she said.
That capital investment, she hopes, will pay off at the box office and help to whittle away a $400,000 operating deficit.