July 16, 2009
By Tim Simard
The Burlington waterfront has become home to the Champlain Valley’s newest theater company this summer.
Observer photo by Marianne Apfelbaum
Director Maryna Harrison (from left), Artisitic Director Kohler McKenzie and actors Gregory Perri and Aaron Ballard, members of the Red Stage Theatre Company, goof off during an interview with the Observer.
The Red Stage Theatre Company, formed by a group of performers from all over the country, is setting up shop in the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. For many involved, this is the first foray into the world of small theater companies, and the members of Red Stage hope to bring a new vision to theater in Burlington.
Rather than perform for the sake of performing, Maryna Harrison, who will direct the groups’ two productions, said they chose plays that carry a message.
“Early on, we knew we wanted to produce plays that ask big questions,” Harrison said. “We want to give people a theatrical experience.”
Starting this month, Red Stage will perform the Archibald Mac-Leish play “J.B.” — which features Williston resident Zachary Varrachionne — and, in August, a newer play by Adam Bock called “Five Flights.” The shows will be presented in the performing arts center’s Black Box theatre.
In a city known for its diverse arts scene, the group looks forward to this season’s performances and hopes to make Red Stage a long-term summer tradition in Vermont.
“We want to make Burlington our home,” said Artistic Director Kohler McKenzie, a Burlington native.
Red Stage Theatre grew out of a friendship between acting students. It started earlier this year when a group of graduate students, working on their masters’ of fine arts in acting at Rutgers University, decided to form their own organization. McKenzie convinced the troupe of 12 actors and directors that Burlington was the perfect location. Once the actors relocated to Vermont for the summer, they knew they made the right choice.
“I know Burlington and I’d boasted to everyone that it is a very artistic community,” McKenzie said.
He said the members of Red Stage have varied backgrounds, but share the same passion for theater. McKenzie said he didn’t discover his love of performing until he attended school at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Studying political science and theater, McKenzie decided to pursue his art when looking into graduate school.
“For me, I found theater to have the power and ability to make strong social statements,” McKenzie said.
Once at Rutgers, McKenzie knew he wanted to start a theater company. It was there that he met Harrison, who had 10 years of experience acting and directing plays in New York City. Harrison, who has also performed with the Moscow Art Theater in Russia, said she prefers directing plays rather than performing them because she feels she’s more creative behind the stage, so to speak.
“I love acting, theoretically, but I don’t like doing it,” Harrison said with a laugh.
But for Red Stage actor Aaron Ballard, performing is one of her earliest loves. A native of South Carolina, Ballard said she wanted to take her acting to the next level when she enrolled as a graduate student at Rutgers. For her, acting is like becoming a storyteller for an audience.
“In a way, we communicate what it is to be human,” Ballard said.
Actor Gregory Perri also appreciates that connection between audience and performer. Hailing from New York, Perri said being part of Red Stage is the perfect next step in his theatrical growth.
“You’re part of a group, part of something that is larger than oneself,” Perri said.
The Red Stage Theatre Company has been busy rehearsing for “J.B.” in preparation of the play’s two-week run in July. “J.B.,” which takes its story from the biblical Book of Job, follows wealthy banker J.B. as he loses everything and tries to find understanding in his suffering.
Written by MacLeish in the late 1950s, the dramatic verse play won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 1959.
“We were moved by the play’s questions it asked about humanity and human suffering,” Harrison said.
After the July 19 performance, the company will hold a special panel discussion with local theologians to discuss the show’s themes of religion and morality.
Starting in mid-August, Red Stage will switch dramatic gears and perform “Five Flights,” a touching comedy. Written by up-and-coming playwright Bock, “Five Flights” shows the humorous ups and downs of a family and its eccentric friends dealing with a recent death.
“It’s really sweet and funny, without being sappy,” Harrison said.
Red Stage also started a series called “Shakespeare Goes Green,” which strings together scenes written by the Bard dealing with the interconnectedness of nature and people. Performances are accompanied musically by the actors’ Recycled Trash Band. Red Stage is hoping to perform “Shakespeare Goes Green” at a handful of events this summer.
Harrison said as Red Stage gains traction in the Burlington area, the troupe hopes to offer camps and clinics for middle school and high school students interested in theater.
“That’s something for the future we’re looking to grow,” Harrison said.
For now, the members of the Red Stage Theatre Company are focusing on the upcoming season and have high hopes that Vermonters will be drawn to their enthusiasm for theater.
“It’s only through the love and dedication of the people in this company that this is happening,” Harrison said.
• “J.B.” – July 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 at 8 p.m.; July 19, 26 at 2 p.m.
• “Five Flights” – Aug. 21, 22, 27, 28, 29 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 23, 30 at 2 p.m.
Shows cost $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance at www.redstagetheatre.org. All performances are at the Black Box at Main Street Landing, 60 Lake St., Burlington. For more information, visit www.redstagetheatre.org.