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May 6, 2016

THE NORMAN CONQUESTS: Collaborating to Inspire and Create


In a first-ever collaboration by three professional Vermont theaters, Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy The Norman Conquests will be produced this spring and summer by Northern Stage (producing Living Together April-May), Dorset Theater Festival (producing Table Manners June-July), and Weston Playhouse (producing Round and Round the Garden in July). This is a very “unique collaboration,” said Northern Stage Artistic Director Carol Dunne, and the experience is “one you will not have anywhere else.”

The decision to partner, Dunne said, goes above and beyond economics to “inspire passionate new theatre lovers. It is such a unique collaboration, almost like giving our audiences a Downton Abbey experience. You get to know the characters at Northern Stage, and then you see how they behave differently at Dorset Theater Festival, and finally see how all of their scenes connect at Weston Playhouse. We believe that knowing theatre helps one to love theatre. Knowing these three plays intimately, by traveling to all three theaters, gives our audiences a fresh opportunity to fall in love with this prolific and wildly respected British playwright! Alan Ayckbourn is one of Britain’s most beloved comic playwrights, and in my opinion his work is not produced enough in the states,” Dunne said. “Audiences will be treated to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a delightful project for us all.”

Choosing The Norman Conquests trilogy was fitting for the three theaters even though they are markedly different from one another. All three stage classic, contemporary, and new plays, so The Norman Conquests fit well in the artistic ethos of each company. Northern Stage produces September through May, while Dorset Theatre Festival and Weston Playhouse produce in the summer, so an April-July timeline of plays worked perfectly.

“The wonderful twist with The Norman Conquests,” says Dunne, “is that each of the three plays happens at exactly the same time in three different rooms of a home outside of London. Ayckbourn is such a brilliant writer that if you were to line the three plays up in three adjacent theaters, the actors could perform all three by running from theater to theater! It’s a masterful construct.”

Will today’s audience relate to or find meaning in this production that takes place in the early 1970s? Northern Stage Director Peter Hackett absolutely thinks so. “The characters in the play are relatively young (late 20s, early 30s). Samuel Beckett said that there is nothing funnier than unhappiness and Ayckbourn’s play is about just that. That is a universal theme that can be appreciated by people of all ages. It’s human.”

While each play will be directed and produced by the theaters’ own directors and production staff, much else (including cast and costumes) will be shared.

“The three companies have had to work together on everything from casting one group of wonderful actors to designing a show that works well in three wildly different theaters,” Dunne said. “When we first approached the collaboration, we were worried about running into uncomfortable situations where compromises would have to be struck or artistic vision might be challenged. Happily, all three companies quickly found a shorthand with each other, built on mutual respect, which allowed us to trust the best idea in the room. We had an incredible casting and design process, and now, the project is wonderfully in play.”

As for directing Living Together, Hackett said he has approached the text and characters as honestly as possible. “Although the play is a dark comedy, and the characters exhibit some pretty extravagant behavior, they never see the humor of the situation that they are in. The characters are serious about their unhappiness and that’s what makes it funny. I assume that Evan (Yionoulis – Table Manners Director at Dorset) and Michael (Berresse – Round and Round the Garden Director at Weston), both experienced directors, will have their own ways of approaching the stories. That’s what will make seeing all three plays so exciting!”

For many businesses in today’s economy it is not enough to be fiscally conservative to stay afloat. Arts organizations must be consistently resourceful if they are to thrive. “I am a firm believer that the arts in a community thrive when artists and institutions collaborate,” Hackett said. “I know this is central to Carol’s [Dunne] vision for Northern Stage. What a unique opportunity for theater audiences to see these three amazing plays with the same cast at three of Vermont’s leading theater companies! It is a unique collaboration that is an exciting spring/summer event.”

For Hackett, the most challenging part of this enterprising process — and one of the most rewarding — has been collaborating on casting and design with two other directors. But he admits, “It has been exhilarating!”
Looking forward and using the Norman Conquests as a springboard, Dunne envisions other plays being done in similar fashion. “I think the idea of choosing one playwright and producing that playwright’s work among the three theaters would be exciting,” Dunne said. “We are also talking about mounting a new works festival together. All three of our theaters are passionately committed to the development of new work and (already) host our own individual new play festivals. How exciting would it be to host the festival together?”

Have there been any lessons or ‘aha’ moments in this? For Dunne, yes. “The biggest aha moment was in casting, when we all agreed on the company we hoped to hire,” Dunne said. “I realized that in this day of online meetings, Google shared documents and conference calls, great art happens when passionate, talented people get together in a room with little more than their imaginations and a strong vision.”

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Feature Photo: Richard Gallagher, David Mason, and Jenni Putney. All photos by Rob Strong. For related articles, click here.

More about Northern Stage:
Northern Stage is a regional non-profit professional theater that seeks to change lives, one story at a time. Based in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, Northern Stage brings national and area talent together on an intimate stage in diverse classic, contemporary, and new plays and musicals. Northern Stage has offered over 100 productions in its 18-year history, and annual attendance is now over 25,000.

To purchase a copy of The Norman Conquests, click here.