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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Kreis: New Theater, New Word

Bread Loaf Corporation
Planned Northern Stage theatre complex in White River Junction

I learned a new word recently, and now I’m gonna roll it out for you: Vomitory. I picked it up while talking to the folks at Northern Stage, the nonprofit professional theatre company in White River Junction. So I knew right away that it had nothing to do with reverse peristalsis. Vomitories are a feature of ancient Roman amphitheatres, Fenway Park, and car dealerships – or, at least, the former car dealership where Northern Stage is constructing its new theatre.

Those of you on the other side of Vermont’s continental divide may need a bit of context: White River Junction, once a dilapidated railway crossroads, is now an increasingly vibrant cultural hub. The Center for Cartoon Studies is here. So is the Tip-Top Building, a former bread factory that’s now a hothouse of artists and other creative types.

So, given the ascendancy of White River Junction, it’s fitting that the local theatre company will be moving out of its present space on the second floor of the rambling old Hotel Coolidge so it can turn an old dealership into a performance complex. The Northern Stage offices already occupy the old showroom and garage, and next door it plans to construct a new nine-million-dollar theater as created by the design-build firm Breadloaf of Middlebury.

Theater design can be edgy - like the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, designed by the famous contemporary French architect Jean Nouvel. The Guthrie is an innovative collection of gleaming black boxes, cylinders and a 178-foot cantilever that reaches out across the Mississippi River.

Well, the new Northern Stage theater will look nothing like that, and the reason is simple. Adjusted for inflation, White River Junction’s regional theater is spending six percent of what its counterpart in Minneapolis did.

So, we’re getting a pretty straightforward box. Fans of historic architecture will be happy to know that it’s to be clad in what will someday be regarded as the classic material of our era: corrugated metal. It will fit well into the industrial vibe of White River Junction, it has a luscious texture and it allows Northern Stage to focus its modest budget where it will really count – on the inside.

The modified thrust design Northern Stage has adopted means the action reaches into the audience but nobody has to sit at a 90-degree angle from the actors, as they do now. Two vomitories – there’s that great word - take you from the lobby into the theatre. As Red Sox fans know, architecturally speaking their effect is to achieve a dramatic transition from the real world to a more fantastic one.

Vermont’s public sphere doesn’t get much in the way of upgrades these days. So hooray for Northern Stage, and here’s hoping that folks from all over Vermont come to White River Junction to check it out next year – vomitories and all.

Donald Kreis is an attorney from Norwich who specializes in cooperatives and their development. He is also a Senior Energy Law Fellow at Vermont Law School, teaching in the distance learning program. He has worked as a utility regulator in Vermont and New Hampshire and, in his spare time, writes and thinks about architecture.
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