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Northern Stage Poised to Make Big Impact in their New Home

Since 1997 when the Northern Stage theatre company decided to settle into a permanent home in the quiet Vermont village of White River Junction, the former railroad hub has enjoyed many economic and cultural benefits that accompanied the group's arrival. Now, with the opening of Northern Stage's new home -- the Barrette Center for the Arts -- and the venue's first public performance on October 10, the community's resurgence, and the theatre company's cache are set to take another giant leap forward. The 17,000-sq.-ft. facility was a collaboration between Theatre Projects, Bread Loaf, and Akustiks.

For the last 18 years, the Northern Stage has made its home in the Briggs Opera House, a converted movie palace with low ceilings, aging infrastructure, and very little in terms of amenities and comfort. Even in their less-than-perfect home, the company thrived, staging six shows a year -- more than 100 productions to date -- earning numerous awards, and attracting an average of 24,000 attendees every year including theatre legends like Patrick Stewart, who participated in a reading of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Arthur Miller, who attended a reading of his penultimate play, Resurrection Blues.

Now, after only two years of design and construction, the new $9 million facility is set to open its doors, not only providing Northern Stage with greater creative versatility, but also numerous amenities like an art gallery, café, and outdoor courtyard, enriching the experiences of performers and audiences alike.

Built beside the group's administrative offices, the centerpiece of the new arts center is the Jack & Dorothy Byrne Theater, an intimate, 240-seat thrust stage with steep seating rake, wide seats and aisles, clear sightlines, and no seat further than 32' from the stage, creating an environment that lends itself to dynamic and impactful theatre.

"The center was designed and built specifically for our patrons, our community, and the way Northern Stage tells stories," Eric Bunge, Northern Stage managing director said. "The performer/audience relationship has been attended to with every detail. This is a place designed for live human beings to share stories."

Theatre Projects provided programming, concept design, and theatre design and planning for the Barrett Center for the Arts, which features a robust infrastructure including a panelized tension-wire grid, distributed performance lighting system with 192 dimmable circuits powered by two ETC Sensor racks, and all-LED house lighting. While the new stage lighting system is a combination of incandescent and LED fixtures, Theatre Projects designed the system so Northern Stage can easily transition to an all-LED stage lighting system in the future just by swapping out modules in the dimmer racks.

"Theatre Projects has been instrumental in the final outcome," Bunge said. "They listened and responded with creative and cost-effective solutions and we never felt as if we were handed an off-the-shelf or boiler plate answer or design. From beginning to end, Northern Stage has felt as if Theatre Projects has been a true and full partner in custom designing, building, and commissioning a great new center for the performing arts."

Bread Loaf, a design/build architect, served as architect, engineer, and contractor, allowing the client to communicate directly and efficiently, relaying their vision without barriers. Another factor in the project's impressive pace was the use of a pre-engineered building developed by Butler Manufacturing Company. The pre-engineered structural shell allowed the client to minimize design and construction costs, focusing attention instead on creating a dynamic, versatile theatre, and a comfortable, welcoming environment.

Although cost-effective, the pre-engineered building posed some unique theatre design challenges. "Whereas typically we work from the inside out, this structure had preset confines that we couldn't change," Aaron Wong, theatre designer, said. "It takes an extra bit of creativity. We designed a thrust stage and were able to elevate the audience to optimize sightlines, and we carved out space underneath the seating where we put the coat check, and concessions. In the end, Northern Stage came away with an outstanding venue."

A spacious lobby features exposed ventilation, creating a "factory" theme that runs through the building and is reflected in the metal exterior. Support spaces include a large rehearsal room and classroom, dressing rooms, loading dock, and costume shop.

"We worked with Northern Stage to get things right, and carve out the theatre they needed that works for everything they want to do," Andrew Hagan, Theatre Projects' project manager, said. "They used their money very intelligently and did a great job of maximizing their available square footage in the building. They made a lot of smart choices about where to put funds to get the most bang for their buck, while still providing a very attractive building for their staff, audiences, and the community. There's literally not one bad seat in the house."

While the economic impact of a mid-sized theatre can often go unnoticed, according to Hagan, the residual economic benefits of the Barrett Center are already evident, despite the fact that the building hasn't yet opened. "The impact to the town has been tremendous," Hagan said. "There's been road construction, bridge repairs, and infrastructure improvements. Restaurants pop up to serve the construction workers and subcontractors, and bars and hotels follow. In a town that small, you can see the impact immediately. Of course, it helps that the whole town is very excited about the new theatre."

From their inconspicuous former home on the second floor of an opera house, Northern Stage, has reveled in their newfound visibility, and they hope to use their new home as more than just repertory theatre, but also to show films, host events, and to continue their ongoing collaborations with the White River Junction community and surrounding arts groups. The company has previously offered professional theatre training, outreach programs, a summer theatre camp for kids, and partnered with theatre students from nearby Dartmouth College.

With their flexible and striking new facility and their newly visible presence in downtown, Northern Stage is ready to enthrall audiences and draw scores of visitors to town, all in a theatre they can proudly call their very own.


(6 October 2015)

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