By Tyler Stemerman
From Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost to Grace Potter, Phish and Twiddle, Vermont has long been a home to artists - and a place of inspiration for the creation of iconic works of art, literature, theater, and music. The incredible success of the musical Hadestown on Broadway this season begs the question: What other exciting new works are being developed in Vermont? VERMONT Magazine reached out to some of the creative leaders and innovative arts organizations in Vermont that are dedicated to creating new works and asked, “Why is Vermont such a great place to create new works — and what new works are in development?”
Almost everyone noted Vermont’s natural beauty and enthusiastic audiences as two fundamental components to the state’s success in developing new artists and creating new works. Jess Chayes, Associate Artistic Director of Northern Stage in White River Junction, explained, “The combination of pastoral beauty and engaged audiences creates a fertile environment for new work to grow.” Bruce Bouchard, Executive Director of Paramount Theatre in Rutland, believes the escape from big cities like New York, removes, “the distractions (technology, noise, & clutter).” The “pure, clean air; moving water, and beautiful nature . . . can contribute invaluable focus.” Dorset Theatre Festival’s team noted, “Vermont has more libraries per capita than any other state in the country People here love to read.” This means that the audience is extremely interested in “new work —and the ideas and issues of our times.”
“Inclusivity” was another common theme. Vicky Tebbets of Highland Center for The Arts in Greensboro explained, “Vermont’s seasons are dramatic, and our communities are strong — producing an art culture that is vibrant and enduring. As a lively hub for performance and visual arts in the Northeast Kingdom, when artists showcase new work, participating in art becomes accessible to everyone, and we all benefit.” Steve MacQueen, Artistic Director of The Flynn Center in Burlington, expanded, “Vermont is a great place to develop new works, because we have curious, open-minded audiences who enjoy both the creative process and the finished piece. When audiences see work at different stages, there’s a sense of ownership, a sense in taking part in the direction and life of the art.” Hallie Flower, Executive Director of New
England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, VT echoed that comment, “It really feels like art matters to Vermonters.” Several producers noted the impressive projects that started in Vermont and are now recognized nationally and internationally.
Since 2009, Dorset Theatre Festival (DTF) has developed 7 World Premieres, over 15 Regional Premieres, and at any given time, have close to 100 new plays in development through their writing retreats and acclaimed Pipeline Series. Broadway playwright Theresa Rebeck (who lives in Dorset) regularly premieres her works at DTF. In 2017, Tim and Tyne Daly starred in the world-premiere of Downstairs by Rebeck before it headed to NYC. Rebeck’s newest work, Dig, premiered at DTF this summer, as did Heidi Armbruster’s Mrs. Christie. The fact that Heidi developed this play as part of DTF’s Women Artists Writing Group represents a true milestone for the company. Both plays are already getting attention from theaters across the country, all interested in giving them their next productions.Eric Peterson of Old Castle Theatre in Bennington shared, “Vermont attracts great talent. Oldcastle has developed numerous new plays during its 48 year history, often with themes connected to the New England region, such as
Civil Union about the Vermont law which preceded same sex marriage laws in the US. This season Oldcastle is presenting David Budbill’s extraordinary Vermont play Jude Vine for the fifth time. The play which was partly developed by Oldcastle has been produced all over the country. In June 2019, we presented a workshop for a new musical by the lyricist, Amanda Yesnowitz, winner of both the Jonathan Larson and Edward Kleban Awards for “Most Promising Lyricist”. Our plan is to workshop the musical as Amanda and composer, Emmy® Winner Doug Katsaros, continue to develop it.
Vermont audiences are equally excited about new works of music.
The Flynn Center’s Artistic Director, Steve MacQueen said, “We are presenting the first-ever year-long artist-in-residence this year with Daniel Bernard Roumain. The residence focuses on the growing diversity in our region and culminates in May with an original performance with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
Matthew LaRocca, The VSO’s Creatoive Project Chair, agreed, “Vermonters are hungry for new works. They are not content with the same old tried and true music. Our audiences are open to new ideas, concepts and sounds ... and even if they don’t like what they hear, they aren’t driven away. When we expand outside the concert hall to spaces like ArtsRiot or Higher Ground (which are usually reserved for rock bands), it feels like a natural move. It’s comfortable for both our musicians and the audience. Vermont believes in creators and the evolution of art forms and supports them like few other states do.”
In addition to the collaborative residency with the Flynn, the VSO will premiere a stunning number of new works in the 2019-2020 season. In collaboration with the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, the VSO premiered a new film by director Jeremy Lee MacKenzie with its score composed by Matthew Evan Taylor. The premiere of the film featured a live orchestra. Also on the VSO’s docket: The world premiere of a double concerto for violin and cello called Pas de Deux by Chris Brubeck, performed by Jamie Laredo and Sharon Robinson; The world premiere of a new piece by Matthew Evan Taylor; A collaboration with Kat Wright and Higher Ground; and a VSO performance of new works by Vermont high schoolers Jaron Rochon (at the VSO Holiday Brass Concerts) and Katharina Mueller (at the annual VSO Farmer’s Night performance at the Statehouse).
The genres may differ, but new works of music seem to be a common thread.
Spruce Peak Arts in Stowe, produces The Spruce Peak Folk Festival - a wonderland of traditional and cutting-edge Americana, bluegrass, and folk music - every summer. The Spruce Peak Chamber Music Society is committed to bringing Vermont audiences the finest performances of an extraordinary repertoire and to creating transformative education programs that delight the community.
Evan Premo, founder of Scrag Mountain Music, explained, “Inspiration is everywhere in Vermont! All you need to do is step outside and smell the air.” The chamber music series, based in Marshfield, offers “pay what you can” performances and community engagement programs throughout Vermont. For about 3 years now, Premo has been working on a song cycle using the words of 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi, which speaks of the importance of open-hearted human connection and the beauty of life, love, and nature.
The Weston-Ghostlight New Musical Award is going into its 14th year in 2020. It has helped to nurture a number of exciting projects including, most recently, Alice Bliss, a new musical by Jenny Giering, Adam Gwon, and Karen Hartmann and based on the book by Laura Harrington. Weston’s upcoming New Play Festival will feature a new play by Erik Brogger, called Native Authors.
Northern Stage in White River Junction develops over a dozen new works each year, through their New Works Now series and their Youth Ensemble Studio. This season, for the first time, they are producing 2 world premieres: Jordan by Brenda Withers, an examination of how a cyberhacking incident unravels a woman’s life, as well as Citrus by Celeste Jennings, a choreopoem that charts the struggles and resilience of black women in America. In addition, the Northern Stage-nurtured play Only Yesterday by Bob Stevens will premiere Off-Broadway.
Hallie Flower of NEYT says, "Vermont is a great place to develop work not just because the region is rich in a landscape and a pace of living conducive to creative work. The community of artists who choose Vermont as a home base is larger than one might imagine making for a very rich creative environment. There are plenty of interesting collaborators and audiences that are willing to engage new material. Audiences here are supportive and responsive. It really feels like art matters to Vermonters. On any given night in the Brattleboro region, there will be people gathered all over to enjoy multiple options of music, theatre, and visual art events. 2. The new work we do here is all student generated. Presently, our students are writing material for our Summer Melodrama Festivals through our summer writing class. In the winter, we held a weeklong intensive in Viewpoint Composition during which participants created original theatre events using experimental theatre techniques that we then shared with invited audiences.
There is also the New Music On The Point, a contemporary chamber music festival that encourages collaboration between performers and composers each June. Every year, over thirty new musical compositions by faculty and participants from around the world are premiered. Jenny Beck had this to say, "We program works that specifically interact with the natural environment of beautiful Vermont. In 2018, we premiered “The Lake” by Croatian-American composer Juraj Kojs, written specifically for our lakeside campus on Lake Dunmore. This involved over 40 performers. It included frog sounds and original texts emanating from the lake itself. In 2019, we performed John Luther Adams’ “Sila: The Breath of the World” in the courtyard of Shelburne Farms, overlooking Lake Champlain. In the words of the composer: "Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness. It’s our awareness of the world around us, and the world’s awareness of us.” The JACK Quartet on Lake Dunmore Douglas Anderson, Artistic Director of Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, is currently developing a new musical by two young women from Addison County (Vanessa Dunleavy and Miranda Jones). It’s a funny, touching, semi-autobiographical two-hander that follows the 2 girls from high school through the tough choices and bitter realities that exist in the world of professional theater. The world premiere is scheduled for November 2019. An irony: one of their best friends in high school was... Anais Mitchell of Hadestown fame.