09162020 Carol Dunne Lowe Down

Carol Dunne, pictured at the Barrette Center for the Arts, is producing artistic director of Northern Stage, which is planning the first Equity professional theater in the United States since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since its Sept. 12 publication.

When The New York Times revealed Aug. 25 that Actors Equity Association was allowing three theater companies — including Vermont’s Northern Stage — to produce the first indoor professional theater since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White River Junction theater company’s producing artistic director, Carol Dunne, immediately called playwright and star Stephanie Everett.

“We have to tell you it’s not all signed, it’s not done, but you’re probably going to be the first LORT (League of Resident Theatres) live indoor in-person in the country.”

“I’m in the office now,” Dunne said. “Just to know that we’re opening the doors to human beings is such an exciting feeling. We have a company meeting at 11 on Zoom, but we are talking about the work we are doing as opposed to the work we’re not doing. It feels so good.”

“It’s Fine, I’m Fine” is a one-woman show written and performed by Everett, who wrote the play as part of her Dartmouth Experiential Term (E-Term) at Northern Stage. The play follows Everett as she comes to grips with a new normal after four career-ending concussions as a varsity soccer player at Dartmouth. Funny, heartbreaking and human, “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” advocates for compassion in the face of all of our invisible struggles.” Northern Stage's production will run live on stage at the Barrette Center for the Arts Oct. 7-25.

This play will be the part of Northern Stage’s Tiny Necessary Theater season this fall, three theater pieces offering hope and inspiration towards a better tomorrow. All are planned definitely for streaming, however they will be performed live if that becomes possible.

Greg Keller’s “Dutch Masters,” streaming Oct. 8-21, follows two young men — one Black, one white — and examines race, class and responsibility in a world wracked with divisions. “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” streams Oct. 22-Nov. 29, and “The Naked Librarian” and “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco,” two shows by, by Marisa Smith and Anton Chekhov, will stream Nov. 5-29. In addition, “It’s a Wonderful Life” will be presented as a radio show for the holidays.

Rehearsals began Tuesday for the streaming version of “Dutch Masters.” The actors came from New York and are rehearsing online before being filmed in-person.

“We feel that we can create a more dynamic online experience by filming the actors here. That’s a big thing,” Dunne said. “That’s SAG (Screen Actors Guild), not Equity, so all the health and safety measures are in accordance with SAG.

“There will be live in-person rehearsals just after the quarantine period for the actors,” Dunne said. “They will rehearse live together, yet the director will be on a Zoom screen. ‘Dutch Masters’ is going to be serialized, so it’s going to be three film streams.”

“It’s Fine, I’m Fine” is currently going through script revisions.

“Steph will come up here at the end of September and quarantine, and we will go into rehearsals for that piece,” Dunne said.

A double bill with Smith's four-monologue “The Naked Librarian” and Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp in Chekhov’s “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco,” streams Nov. 5-TBA.

“We are still working to get Marisa’s monologues,” Dunne said. The two plays reflect on “people bearing up under some of life’s ridiculousness.”

The Chekhov piece came about because of Northern Stage’s spring Play Date, a Zoomed discussion, about Chekhov.

“Our audiences were really delighted,” Dunne said. “Most of our audiences have never felt good about Chekhov. They thought it was that strange, boring, serious theater, but were delighted with our Play Date of ‘The Seagull.’”

Northern Stage is seeking to present all these shows live on stage, as well as streamed, but is waiting for approval from Equity.

The last piece is “It’s a Wonderful Life” the radio play.

“We bought the rights the moment the shutdown happened,” Dunne said. “We are going to produce it only as a radio play, not to be Zoomed, but to be listened to. We want a family sitting around a fire together listening to it. If there is any live performance, it will be staged as a radio play. We will bring people in to watch it live if it’s possible.”

As live audience size will be very limited by Vermont COVID-19 regulations, Northern Stage must find other means to pay for these shows.

“A lot of what we’re doing this year is completely being supported by grants and our audiences. Nothing is going to make money, but we have that support, so we are surviving because of that,” Dunne said.

“I think the saddest thing is that we have had to furlough most of our staff. We are a skeleton crew, all working with pay cuts, but we can get through the season,” she said. “We did house furloughed staff for months without charge, and that was a beautiful gift that Northern Stage was able to give.”

Northern Stage now has the financial ability to pay for its current plans, and is bringing a few more staff members back.

“We’re going to get through the year,” Dunne said. “And we’re looking up and out to what the future’s going to be. I’m sure there’s going to be a campaign in the future to address endowment and the things that will help the next time something like this happens, that helps shore us up for the future.

“We’ve learned a lot from this.”

Jim Lowe is theater critic and arts editor of The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.

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