A project nearly two years in the planning comes to full fruition later this month as Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy, The Norman Conquests, concludes a unique three-theatre collaboration in Vermont. An idea proposed by Dorset Theatre Festival Artistic Director Dina Janis to Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s Steve Stettler was soon embraced by Northern Stage’s Carol Dunne, and the three companies were off and running.
“We already shared artists, audiences, and a similar aesthetic,” commented Stettler, “and we wanted to find a way to partner on a common project. The Norman Conquests was a perfect choice, because we all admire Ayckbourn’s writing, and the trilogy follows the interlocking lives and loves of six characters who come together in an English country house on one summer weekend.” Northern Stage produced Living Together, set in the living room, in April/May. Dorset just closed Table Manners, set in the dining room, and Weston will open Round and Round the Garden, set in the garden, on July 21.
“Our original vision was to have the same cast and creative team,” said Stettler, “but when directors’schedules made that impossible, we chose three directors. Peter Hackett directed Living Together, Evan Yionoulis directed Table Manners, and Michael Berresse is directing Round and Round the Garden. The actors who auditioned for the project appeared before a daunting table of 3 artistic directors, 3 directors, and a casting director. “The artistic directors were prepared to go off and decide how to impose a common vision,” confessed Stettler, “but by the end of the first day, we were all happily of one mind.”
“Perhaps the most obvious challenge (in mounting the third of three interrelated plays using the same cast and three different directors) is protecting the process of discovery,” contributed director Berresse. “Because the plays tell one large story over the course of the same weekend, the actors bring an uncommon level of history to this third installment, from character choices and relationship dynamics to the rhythm of the language itself. And because we share costumes and certain prop and sound elements across all three productions, there is an additional aesthetic continuity that is both an asset and a challenge when entering a new process.”
The directors and artistic directors agree that the sometimes complicated collaboration has proven to be a rich and rewarding experience. The bonding of the cast (Caitlin Clouthier, Richard Gallagher, Ashton Heyl, Mark Light-Orr, David Mason, and Jenni Putney) and creative team (designers David Arsenault, Charles Schoonmaker, Stuart Duke, Jane Shaw, and stage manager Danielle Zandri) has yielded very strong work. And clever cross-marketing (including a limo, complete with prosecco and Vermont cheeses, which ushered patrons from Dorset to Weston to Northern Stage’s White River Junction) has introduced new audiences to each theatre while building more excitement for each production than would have been the case for an individual play.
“It has been a great privilege and education to share creative thoughts and expose personal priorities with these other wonderful directors and artistic directors,” adds Berresse. “I firmly believe this format is a remarkable opportunity for audiences and artists alike to experience first-hand how personal and collaborative the theatre can be.” “The entire experience has been a win-win,” says Weston’s Stettler. “Each theatre has discovered new artists, new ways of working, and new audiences. And we’ve garnered greater attention in the press and among regional funders.” The artistic directors are already discussing future collaborations, including the possibility of a joint New Works Festival. “But for now, we all look forward to being together in Weston to toast The Norman Conquests in its third and final incarnation.”
The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, winner of Actors’ Equity Association’s Rosetta LeNoire Award and the New England Theatre Conference’s Moss Hart Award, is celebrating its 80th anniversary season. Dedicated to “celebrating the classics and nurturing the new,” Weston is preparing to break ground on a new, flexible second stage that will allow it to expand its production season and provide a year-round home for community activities and national programs for incubation, innovation, and inspiration. For more about the company, Round and Round the Garden, and The Norman Conquests partnership, visit www.westonplayhouse.org.
Feature Photo: Norman Conquests‘ cast in Table Manners at Dorset Theatre Festival. Credit: Taylor Crichton. For related articles, click here.
To purchase a copy of The Norman Conquests, click here.