Upper Valley performing arts venues seeing more of the outdoors this summer

  • Clif Rogers, audio and video engineer, and Ryan Klink, director of sales and marketing, set up a camera Friday for a time lapse of an outdoor stage to be built at Northern Stage in White River Junction on Friday. James M. Patterson / Valley News

  • John Winter, assistant technical director for Northern Stage, right, and carpentry apprentice Natalie Jurkowski, left, build masking flats in the company’s White River Junction set shop on Friday. The flats will be used in the construction of an outdoor stage being built to allow live performances under pandemic precautions this summer. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Northern Stage Associate Artistic Director Jess Chayes celebrates Friday’s reopening of theaters in New York City with actor Moira Stone and playwright Brenda Withers during a rehearsal of the play “The Lodger” via Zoom at the company’s White River Junction theater Friday. The play was adapted by Withers to be performed on Zoom. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Northern Stage plans to produce three plays this summer at a new outdoor theater, seen in a rendering, which it started building last week at the company’s Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. Courtesy rendering

Valley News
Published: 4/5/2021 7:22:07 PM

Over the past several years, the performing arts have begun to move outside for the Upper Valley’s brief summer.

While Woodstock’s Pentangle Council on the Arts has held an outdoor concert series for 48 summers, other organizations, such as Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts and Opera North, have made the seasonal migration from theater to verdure, green room to green space, only in the past several years.

This summer, though, plays and concerts will proceed under tents and in the open air pretty much everywhere in the Upper Valley as companies plan to entertain a population whose immunity to the novel coronavirus is growing, but is by no means a sure thing. Outdoor venues are allowing arts organizations to slowly transition from virtual performances to welcoming audiences back.

“As we’re all moving toward it, this outdoor space is very interesting to us,” Carol Dunne, artistic director of Northern Stage, said of the company’s plans.

The White River Junction theater company is building what it’s calling the Courtyard Theater, tucked behind the Barrette Center for the Arts on Gates Street. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged, opens June 9, and will be followed by a production of Million Dollar Quartet, which was to have been the final show in the 2019-20 season but was suspended by the onset of the pandemic.

The Courtyard Theater also will host a Summer Shakespeare Intensive, a five-week program for students ages 12-18 that culminates with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“This summer, this space is about nothing but joy,” Dunne said.

Designed to seat up to 250, this summer’s seating limit in the outdoor theater will be around 120. The company hasn’t scheduled any indoor productions for the fall, because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, so the company’s traditional Christmas season musical isn’t happening, but a short run of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, put on by the company’s youth theater program, is in the works.

Dunne said she expects the outdoor productions to continue beyond this year, which would add another summer performing arts option to a region trying to make itself into a summer arts destination.

More than anyone, Evans Haile, Opera North’s executive director, has made an explicit goal of turning the Upper Valley into a seasonal magnet for arts lovers. Until the past few years, Opera North used to stage its summer productions almost entirely indoors, at Lebanon Opera House. But with the company’s partnership with the National Park Service, and its residency at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, it has an outdoor venue at its disposal.

The past couple of summers, Opera North has staged productions under a circus tent, and plans to resume its work outdoors this year with three productions running from July 16 to Aug. 1. Havana Nights will mix circus performers with the company’s corps of up-and-coming opera singers in four performances directed by Mark Lonergan of the Big Apple Circus.

Extraordinary Women, opera songs from operas by Purcell, Handel, Monteverdi and Gluck, will be performed just once, on July 26. And the season closes with a production of La Boheme, re-imagined by Thetford-based director Helena Binder.

“We are so fortunate that we have Blow-Me-Down Farm,” Haile said in an interview.

Last summer, Opera North was able to hold a small slate of performances at the 38-acre farm, which overlooks the Connecticut River along Route 12A and is part of the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. The company’s staff created seating pods for attendees, circles painted on the ground meant to keep people together, and apart.

“I think we showed by doing what we did last summer that we have a commitment” to Upper Valley audiences, Haile said. “I think people want to get out and do things,” he added. But “they want to be sure they’ll be safe.”

How seating will work will depend on state regulations. “Certainly, we’re hoping that by July, things will have opened up a little more,” Haile said.

Another summer theater, the New London Barn Playhouse, is taking a page out of Opera North’s book by moving its productions into a tent. The 89-year-old company will hold five concert-style productions from June 29 through Sept. 5, in a tent pitched on Colby-Sawyer College’s Ivey Field.

The difficult reality performing arts venues face is that a big percentage of their revenue is derived from ticket sales. When they say, “the show must go on,” they mean it in every sense of the phrase.

“So many of us can’t afford to lose another season of revenue,” said Abby Peel, the Barn Playhouse’s marketing director.

In a way, the upcoming summer will bring the venerable company back to its roots, when it performed only musicals. The shows include a Broadway revue, a production devoted to the songwriting duo Rodgers and Hammerstein and another devoted to Kander and Ebb, and a season-ending production of Always ... Patsy Cline.

But the concerts are new, Peel said, as is performing outdoors. “It’s nothing we’ve ever done,” she said. It’s the safest way to go about producing a season, she said.

While the show goes on outside, the Barn Playhouse’s major renovation and expansion will continue, Peel said. Operating outside the barn itself means the project can continue without having to work around performances.

Likewise, Opera North has continued with renovations to Blow-Me-Down Farm, Haile said. Also like the Barn Playhouse, Opera North celebrates a milestone birthday next year, the company’s 40th, and is laying the groundwork.

“It has been baby steps, but we have been determined to keep moving forward,” Haile said.

As the organizer of perhaps the longest-running outdoor arts event in the area, Pentangle’s summer concert series, Alita Wilson also is moving forward.

Pentangle’s most reliable source of income, its film series in Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre, is still dark, so the organization has been relying on federal and state funds and the generosity of patrons to keep going. The summer concerts, which this year will feature a wide range of artists, including Interplay Jazz and Myra Flynn, are free, though donations are gratefully accepted. Wilson said she hopes to hold the eight concerts, which haven’t been announced yet, in Woodstock’s new East End Park.

Also in the works for late August is a community celebration recognizing the work of the Woodstock Area Relief Fund, and September will feature a series of outdoor film screenings.

Among these options, the Hopkins Center has planned a spring slate of virtual options, part of its ongoing “Hop@Home” series, but events will move outdoors for the summer. ArtisTree Community Arts Center is planning outdoor concerts, as well.

Lebanon Opera House has been dark since the start of the pandemic, but Executive Director Joe Clifford is planning a music and arts festival for downtown Lebanon for Aug. 13-15, featuring live music, outdoor dining and displays of public and student art. Clifford said he plans to start rolling out details as early as this week.

While the pace of coronavirus vaccinations picks up and people consider being entertained outside their living rooms, Wilson sounded a familiar note of caution, about New England’s unpredictable weather.

“We were blessed last summer, because it was really dry,” she said.

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



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