'We will keep going': Vermont Theatre Company marks 30 years


BRATTLEBORO -- Over the course of three decades, Vermont Theatre Company has amassed some big numbers -- 147 plays, 76 dinner murder-mysteries and 25 seasons of Shakespeare in the Park.

But a much bigger number may tell an even more important story about the organization: There have been more than 3,500 people involved in those productions, bearing a wide variety of titles such as actor, director, stage manager, house manager, set designer, costumer, photographer and publicist.

That is indicative of an open-door policy applying to anyone who's interested in participating, and it may be a key to the organization's longevity: The near-constant influx of new blood, members say, has helped keep Vermont Theatre Company alive and thriving.

"I can't remember a cast where we didn't have at least one person who was new," said Brenda Seitz, who has been with the company almost since the beginning. "That's what I like about it -- it's truly a community theater."

Vermont Theatre Company actually began in Burlington. When founder Ray Jenness moved to Brattleboro in 1982, he carried the concept with him.

He and supporters including Bob Kramsky, Susan Ford and Betty Greenhoe worked to re-establish the company here, and the first Brattleboro production -- "Arsenic and Old Lace" -- came in fall of 1984 in the West Village Meeting House.

"They were relatively simple, and simple sets," Kramsky recalled of the company's early productions. "There wasn't any elaborate lighting or anything."

Kramsky's professional titles remain the same now as they were then: He is a teacher at Brattleboro Union High School and also runs the theater department there. But he has held a variety of titles within Vermont Theatre Company including director, actor, trustee and, currently, treasurer.

The organization has evolved as well, primarily using Dummerston's Evening Star Grange and Brattleboro's Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery for performances these days. The troupe also has performed in Charlestown, N.H.; Wilmington; and Turners Falls, Mass.

Additionally, there have been special shows for children in schools and in the Greenhoe Theater at Landmark College in Putney.

"We have the flexibility to do different plays in different venues," Seitz said, noting that Hooker-Dunham might host an avant-garde play while the grange is more suitable for a performance with a broader audience.

Two other types of Vermont Theatre Company performances have gained particular popularity: Shakespeare in the Park and dinner murder-mysteries.

Launched in 1990, Shakespeare in the Park happens each June at Brattleboro's Living Memorial Park and has attracted more than 8,000 spectators over the years.

"I was the person who sort of came up with the Shakespeare in the Park concept" (for the local company), Kramsky said. "Having lived in New York City, and having seen it there, I thought it would work here."

The shows initially were free but now carry a $5 admission charge, "which covers just the basics that we need," said Jessica Gelter, Vermont Theatre Company president.

The murder mysteries are performed for hire and serve as a fund-raiser for the organization. "We've gone throughout New England performing them, and it's great fun," Kramsky said.

The lack of a brick-and-mortar home has both positives and negatives. On the down side, Kramsky noted, "people don't associate Vermont Theatre Company with a space."

But it's also a big plus that a community theater organization does not have to find money to pay a mortgage or fix a leaky roof.

"One of the keys to Vermont Theatre Company's sustainability is the model that we use," Gelter said. "We don't own much of anything. Everything is done by volunteer work and shared resources."

The company also shares the theater experience by encouraging everyone to get involved. For instance, there is no pre-casting.

"It really allows community members to be involved -- there's no gauntlet you have to go through to be involved," Gelter said. "Our policy of open casting is important. We allow anyone to try out for a part, and our directors do not pre-cast."

The company also encourages new directors, and Gelter noted that the themes of openness and inclusiveness extend to the organization's leadership: When she transitions out of the president's role, she expects that it will go to another young person.

"I like that Vermont Theatre Company is open to fresh faces, fresh ideas -- giving an opportunity to young people," Gelter said.

Seitz did her first Vermont Theatre Company show in 1985 and has worked mostly behind the scenes over the years.

"I'm known as the organized person," she said with a laugh, "so everybody wants me as their stage manager."

It's often not easy to find time for such work: Seitz is an administrator at a local school, and she often finds herself exhausted at the end of the day. But when it comes time for rehearsal, she says, "all of the sudden, I'm not tired anymore."

That type of enthusiasm and energy will be key if Vermont Theatre Company is to survive for another 30 years. The organization already has a full schedule for the 2014-15 season including "The Servant of Two Masters," "A Christmas Carol," "Shakespeare in Hollywood," "I Never Sang For My Father" and "Romeo and Juliet."

"We're still going. There are challenges every year," Kramsky said. "As long as there are people who really love doing theater and are involved in the company, we will keep going."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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