Will Vermont theater ever make it to Broadway?

Photo by Rob Strong

Photo by Rob Strong

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

Northern Stage is currently presenting the world premiere production of Jack Neary’s very black comedy “Trick or Treat” at its Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. But where will the play go from there?

Nearly all of Vermont’s professional theater companies present premieres, but only three have formal programs for the development of new theater. Weston Playhouse, Dorset Theatre Festival and Northern Stage all see one of their major missions as the creation of new work — albeit with very different programs.

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company is the state’s oldest professional theater, and unlike any other, has presented premieres of full-scale musicals during its summer season. “Sain-Ex” (2011), about the author of “The Little Prince;” “Pregnancy Pact” (2012), concerning hormonal teens; and the record store fun “Analog and Vinyl” (2014) were all full-scale musicals. Last summer’s Vermont premieres, Dael Orlandersmith’s gritty “Forever” (non-musical) and the Kinosian-Blair “Murder for Two,” a two-person musical comedy, were both still in development, aiming for New York productions.

But Weston starts the process much earlier. Each spring, eight to 10 theater creators — writers and composers — are invited, expenses paid, for a week on the Weston campus to the Artist Retreat to work on their latest projects. Weston also presents workshop readings of plays-in-progress in New York and Weston.

And, each year, Weston offers its New Musical Award to promising new musicals, bringing together creators and performers to rehearse and record selections, resulting in a demo CD and concert in Weston. The winner for 2017, Zack Zadek’s “Deathless,” about family and death, will be showcased at Weston Playhouse at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4.

At the end of this summer, Weston will move to year-round theater development with the opening of its $13 million Center for the Arts at Walker Farm in Weston. The new facility will include a flexible contemporary studio theater, configurable to accommodate an audience of up to 150 people, as well as many other theater spaces. Along with its venerable Weston Playhouse, the new facility presents nearly endless possibilities for developing new theater.

Dorset Theatre Festival starts the playwright process even younger, and boasts premieres by the best-known playwrights. Ever since Dina Janis took over as artistic director some six years ago, Dorset has been actively developing new work with its New Play Development Program, taking plays from conception to production.

Dorset boasts Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck, not only as resident playwright, with premieres of her “The Novelist” and “The Way of the World” during its summer seasons, but as host of its weeklong springtime Writers Retreat. Each summer, the New Play Reading Series presents three new works in dramatic readings by professional actors and directors.

Unique to Dorset, the Jean E. Miller Young Playwrights Competition begins in fall and spring with Janis leading playwriting residencies in area junior and senior high schools. Top young playwrights are mentored by Bennington College theater students in creating their submissions. Winners are given staged readings at Dorset Playhouse in the fall. What a great way to start a theater career!

Northern Stage has been active in developing new work and cutting-edge theater since it was founded in 1997 by Brooke Wetzel Ciardelli. Notably, “The Shrew Tamer” was Ciardelli’s own updating of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Since Carol Dunne took over as artistic director in 2013, the year-round company has developed a more formal approach to creating new material. She launched the annual New Works Festival of professional dramatic readings of untested plays that runs each January.

Several of those readings have resulted in main-stage productions by the company, beginning with Dartmouth playwright Joe Orton’s “Orwell in America,” about an imagined United States tour by the author of “1984.” They were followed by Marisa Smith’s comedy “Mad Love,” and the current “Trick or Treat.”

Last fall, “Orwell in America” made it to New York City’s Off-Broadway for a run at the 59E59 Theaters. We’re almost there!

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