The Kindness of Strangers
State of the Arts
If there were local Tony Awards, the Vermont Stage Company would surely nominate the star of The Anonymous Donor. This one-act was staged last week at an unusual venue: the Chittenden Bank. Its simple plot goes something like this: A stranger walks in, writes out a $17,000 check, and pays off VSC's loan. The banker is sworn to silence. The theater company's business manager discovers the zero balance online, calls the bank to inquire, and is told, "Someone loves Vermont Stage very much." Emotional drama ensues: bewilderment, joy, relief. Elsewhere around town, the stranger wears a secret smile.
The best thing about this "play" is that it's true. "It just blew me away," says VSC's baffled but grateful Artistic Director Mark Nash. "We have no clue who it was . . . We were in deep trouble three months ago and no one came through with that kind of cash."
Though Nash claims it "wasn't common knowledge that we had this $17,000 debt," friends and followers of the company have known it was struggling for months. A fundraising drive last October "got us out of a real bind," Nash says candidly. He thought VSC would be all right through the winter, but ticket sales continued to slump -- a problem shared by other local thespians -- and the company was forced to pass the hat again. In March Nash announced that VSC needed to raise $35,000 by the end of the fiscal year (June 20) in order to go forward. Donors rose to the occasion once again, coming just a few thousand dollars shy of that goal.
Meanwhile, VSC slashed its already spare overhead; Nash and business manager Corinn Bergeron are now the only full-time employees. "It's about a $45,000 difference, between fundraising, major discipline and financial gifts," Nash reveals. "We're the strongest we've been in our 12-year history."
He has another reason for optimism: Subscription sales for next season are already double the number expected by this point. Perhaps it helps that the opener, on October 12, is Larry Shue's popular comedy, The Foreigner. (See http://www.vtstage.org for the full schedule.)
"All the hard work and you never know if you're making a difference, and then something like this happens and it's a real affirmation," Nash says, referring to last week's generous donation. "We've reached a critical mass of people who want to keep us around."
Positive thinking seems to be the zeitgeist in Vermont's performing community: New companies keep popping up -- and several are devoted to the centuries-old but ever-popular William Shakespeare. Vergennes' Augenblick Theatre is going the "reduced" Shakespeare route, at least in its first season. In North Hero, the Vermont Shakespeare Company launched just last month with A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now, Charlotte-based actor Kathryn Blume is following her own Bard bliss with the brand-new Queen City Shakespeare. The name is a subtle double-entendre: In a reversal of the 17th-century norm of male-only productions, QCS is composed solely of women: Blume, 37, and Burlington actors Haley Rice, 25, and Susan Palmer, 30. The three performed together in Vermont Stage Company's spring production of Quilters, and got to talking about how much they loved Shakespeare but lacked opportunities to do it.
Blume, who frequently performs with Vermont Stage (and is married to director Mark Nash), believes in taking matters into her own hands. Her Lysistrata Project was performed internationally as the U.S. was invading Iraq; she followed that success with her one-woman show, The Accidental Activist. The politically passionate Blume continues to cultivate her "artist-as-activist" persona -- the Lysistrata theme recurs in another solo show she's developing, in which "the First Lady starts a sex boycott to effect environmental change."
In the meantime, Queen City Shakespeare is rehearsing As You Like It, which Blume hopes will debut at First Night. She expects to take the company into schools as well as tour professionally. "It will be just the three of us, performing multiple roles," Blume says. "But there may be puppets or coat racks, you never know."