Southern Vermont’s preeminent cultural institutions reinvent themselves for the upcoming summer season

Summer is a wonderful time to be in Southern Vermont. As visitors and locals come together to reconnect and celebrate, the trees stand tall on the mountains in verdurous glory while flowers radiantly bloom in the valleys below. Throughout the fields and hillsides surrounding Southern Vermont’s most charming towns, the cultural scene is blooming in equally vibrant ways.

This year, many of Southern Vermont’s cultural institutions are bringing their performances outdoors. We, at Stratton Magazine, had the privilege of speaking with the owners, directors, and executive staff of some of Vermont’s most beloved cultural organizations, who provided crucial details regarding their summer plans. By going out of their way to create environments that are conducive to safe, engaging, and memorable performances, they are creating new experiences that promise to enchant their audiences.

Southern Vermont Arts Center
Courtesy Erin Kaufman, Manager of Education and Programs.

What outdoor events do you have planned for this summer?

Southern Vermont Arts Center is pleased to welcome both the Manchester Music Festival (MMF) and the Dorset Theatre Festival (DTF) to its campus this summer. DTF will be presenting their performances on an outdoor stage on the Arkell Lawn. This will allow for the maximum outdoor capacity allowable at the time. MMF will offer both indoor and outdoor seating for their concerts. Those seated indoors will experience the concerts, as before, with social distancing in place. Those choosing to sit on the Arkell Lawn will be able to listen to the audio of the performances at a reduced ticket price. SVAC has plans to offer several of its own performances including a Blues Showcase in August. Camps and classes will emphasize the outdoors. Camp instructors are famously flexible, and we are gratefully hearing that their plans include designing gliders for outdoor experimenting and learning to juggle outside. We are adding new stories to our collection of story walks for families to enjoy–on the trails and in the Stroup Family Sculpture Park. Stay tuned for a photo contest in the Sculpture Park, as well!

What are some of the logistical hurdles that you have had to overcome to plan the outdoor performances?

Ticketed events are tricky outdoors. Common sense says that if you’re sitting in a field, you should not have to pay what you would for a theater seat. At the same time, performers still need to make ends meet. It can be hard to find a balance. But everyone has been wonderful about give-and-take.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing, and who is advising you on the guidelines?

SVAC will follow the State of Vermont’s Vermont Forward plan and the universal guidance as it develops, for all events, both indoors and out.

What is your backup plan if it rains?

Luckily for us, the sides of the Arkell Pavilion theater can open wide, so that groups meeting “inside” there are essentially outdoors under a tent. Events scheduled for the wide-open spaces just have to be postponed when Mother Nature does not cooperate.

What are you most looking forward to this summer season?

SVAC looks forward to partnering with artists and other community organizations to provide a safe space for plays, performances and concerts to go on! It’s incredibly rewarding when guests tell us that community experiences mean even more than usual. We have been hearing that a lot this year. SVAC also looks forward to welcoming guests to its newly renovated curATE café. The patio will be a wonderful spot to enjoy lunch or dinner in a beautiful outdoor setting.

Dorset Theatre Festival
Courtesy Ryan Koss, Director of Marketing and Development.

What outdoor events do you have planned this summer?

We are excited to welcome our audiences back safely to our open-air performance series at the Southern Vermont Arts Center. This summer will include Festival Main Stage productions under the stars throughout July and August with special performances, talks, and all of the
fabulous amenities of SVAC.

The outdoor season will begin with the hilarious blast-from-the-1980s comedy Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang, whom the New Yorker called “one of the funniest men in the world.” Directed by the Festival’s resident artist, Jade King Carroll and featuring performances by
Dan Butler (Frasier), who starred in the Festival’s 2019 hit Slow Food, and five-time Festival performer and 2020 Drama Desk Award-winner Mary Bacon. July 9 – 31.

Next will be the world premiere of Queen of the Night, written by travis tate, a queer, Black playwright, poet, and performer from Austin, Texas. In Queen of the Night, Father and son set out on a camping trip in an attempt to survive the woods – and one another – braving the bears and reckoning with the wilderness of their past. Despite low cell signal and high emotions, the two try to connect in this honest and poetic comedy about family. August 10 – September 4.

In addition to the Main Stage productions, the Festival will host a two-week development residency of Scarecrow by Heidi Armbruster (Mrs. Christie, 2019). This one-woman show explores a New York City actress who lands herself on her family’s dairy farm to grieve herself back to life. A look at loss and survival. Resilience and renewal. And Hallmark movies. A rip-roaringly hilarious and unbelievably touching journey of roller coasters, kittens, and COWS! Directed by Dina Janis. Matinee readings, beginning July 21.

The Festival’s newest artistic program can be enjoyed outside or on-the-go. The 2021 comeback season will begin with StageFree Audio Plays, a new series written for a totally aural experience. The Festival has commissioned award-winning writers Theresa Rebeck and Chisa Hutchinson as the inaugural playwrights in the series. The first podcast, Redeemed by Chisa Hutchinson, will debut just before the beginning of the Festival’s live outdoor season at the Southern Vermont Arts Center. The second audio play of the series, Theresa Rebeck’s Nightwatch, a fictional true-crime podcast, will debut later in 2021. StageFree Audio Plays will be available for free on all major podcast platforms.

What are some of the logistical hurdles that you have had to overcome to plan the outdoor performances?

We are braving a whole new world this season, literally creating a theater from the ground up.

The main hurdle we had to clear in order to produce anything at all was the new investment in COVID-19 safety, including PPE, weekly COVID-19 testing for staff and artists, and more rental housing and vehicles than during a normal season, to allow for social distancing among the staff and artists.

Housing our summer staff and artists is one of the Festival’s largest annual expenses, and finding housing at all has been difficult this year in Vermont’s booming real estate market.

We will still be present at our longtime home at the Dorset Playhouse and continue to honor our lease with the Dorset Players, using the space as our creative hub for rehearsals and scenery construction. But this means creating a theater infrastructure from scratch.

The Vermont landscape will be the theater’s backdrop this year, and the stage will be a truly open-air experience for both the audience and the artists. Audiences will find other things noticeably different this year including a touchless and paperless box office, a digital playbill, social distancing, and required face masks.

We are excited and hope our audiences are excited to join us on this adventure.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing, and who is advising you on the guidelines?

In order to bring audiences together for live performances, Dorset Theatre Festival will be following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the VT Department of Health, but in many cases, we must also adhere to more strict guidelines set by professional artists’ unions.

Safety will be the priority for our artists and staff – and for the audience. We are working with Actors’ Equity Association and other artist unions to develop a safety plan that will need to be approved before rehearsals can begin. All staff and artists will have been vaccinated by the time they arrive in Dorset.

Even though state guidelines may allow for lighter restrictions, in order for us to continue honoring our mission of bringing professional theatre to our community, including employing union artists, we must make the appropriate investments and accommodations for their safety requirements.

We will monitor all restrictions and guidance from these groups as they become available and will continue to develop and evolve our safety protocols as the season progresses.

What is your backup plan if it rains?

Although performing outside will be a new experience for the Dorset Theatre Festival, many people, especially in Vermont, are familiar with the experience of attending an outdoor concert or performance. We will be in contact with all ticket holders about any changes to a performance due to weather. We expect there will be minor holds and delays before or during a performance, or performances that need to be cancelled and rescheduled throughout the summer.

Currently we have plans to offer on-demand streaming versions of both main stage plays that will be available as an option for patrons who are unable to reschedule if they miss a performance due to weather conditions.

We will have specific box office policies and instructions available for how ticket holders can reschedule a cancelled performance for a future date, gain access to the on-demand version, or exchange their ticket for gift card credit for a future production.

What are you most looking forward to this summer season?

Dorset Theatre Festival has long thought of ourselves as a kitchen table for the community – a place where people come to laugh together, celebrate together, and learn together. In a dark time for live theatre, we are grateful to have an opportunity to evolve and continue honoring our mission and bringing theatre that matters to Southern Vermont. We believe in community, and if we can do so safely, there is an immediate need to bring everyone together again this summer.

Manchester Music Festival
Courtesy Betsy Bleakie, Executive Director.

What outdoor events do you have planned for this summer?

Prefer an outdoor, open-air setting? Beginning July 8, Manchester Music Festival invites you to join us for a casual, audio-only experience of the Thursday matinee and evening concerts outside on the Arkell Lawn at SVAC. Patrons of all ages are encouraged to bring their own chair or blanket. Relax and enjoy an alfresco picnic spread in a dedicated spatially-distanced “concert pod” while listening to the sweet sounds of beautiful music. Music on the Arkell Lawn tickets are $10 per person; kids under 18 years of age are free.

What are some of the logistical hurdles that you have had to overcome to plan the outdoor performances?

None really. Our initial plan was to have large circles in the grass, distanced, that can accommodate up to 4 adults. Now, with the DTF outdoor stage on the Lawn at SVAC, we will piggy-back on their seating arrangements.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing, and who is advising you on the guidelines?

With the newly-relaxed guidelines on the necessity of masks outdoors, and the fact that we will still be distancing groups from one another, we will allow groups to self-select their level of safety. We will not be requiring masks outdoors (although we will for the indoor concerts.)

What is your backup plan if it rains?

No backup per se. The music from inside, on stage will still be piped outdoors regardless…if there’s just a drizzle and people want to tough it out, they certainly can. If there is a downpour, obviously people will not gather. All our concerts will be live-streamed, so people can watch in the (dry) comfort of their own homes.

What are you most looking forward to this summer season?

Seeing one another again and sharing the joy of live music!

Weston Playhouse
Courtesy Susanna Gellert, Executive Artistic Director.

What outdoor events do you have planned this summer?

We are moving our summer performances entirely outdoors for the upcoming season. Our two subscription plays, An Iliad and Ring of Fire, are both going to be outside under a tent. We’re also doing a tour through Vermont of the musical Seussical, which will be performed by our Young Company, actors who are currently in college or have recently graduated. Throughout the summer, we will be hosting additional events. We’ll be kicking off the summer season with musical performances, such as Kat Wright, Upstate and a wonderful one-man band called, The Suitcase Junket. As the summer goes on, we’re hoping to add more musical events and other shows, but that remains to be determined. Stay tuned!

What were some of the logistical hurdles that you had to overcome to plan the performances?

There were a number of things that needed to be considered. First was simply the question of whether to perform inside or outside. We had originally hoped that we would be able to perform in our theatres, but as time went on and we worked with our actors’ union, we realized that outside was the best option for everyone involved. Once we made that decision, all sorts of questions arose. Should we perform in the open air or under a tent? What happens if there’s inclement weather? Ultimately, we decided that the weather here is variable enough that a tent makes good sense. What’s really interesting – and what we’re working on right now – is how making theater under a canopy changes everything about how we design the shows. It’s a very different process to design for a tent than it is to design it for a theatre. We had to rethink the shows from “soup to nuts” and think about every aspect of the theatrical performance, the audience experience, and how to conceive it.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing, and who is advising you on the guidelines?

We have three main organizations that we’re looking to for guidance. We turn to the CDC and Vermont Department of Health in terms of recommendations and local safety mandates. The actors’ union also plays a critical role on how we look at the health and safety of our artists and staff. In addition, we’re talking with Dr. Trey Dobson at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and Dr. Roger Fox at Mountain Valley Medical for input and advice. We have also been doing a lot of talking with our audience about what everyone is ready for. At this point, we are planning to maintain social distancing with our audience members. Audience members will arrive with their groups, which range from one to six people. They will sit together, but there will be space between the groups. We are also asking everyone to remain masked, which is
actually a requirement of the union. We also think it’s the best way of making sure that everyone remains safe.

What is the backup plan in case it rains?

Shows will go on rain or shine, unless there is an unanticipated situation, such as extreme lightning. We will be letting people know of such cancellations in advance, if we can. There may be some moments where we have to momentarily hold the show because of the sound of pounding rain, so that will possibly become a part of the experience. Other than that, we are planning on proceeding as planned. We are optimistic that we will be able to move forward with our season – come rain or shine.

What are you looking forward to most this summer season?

Weston comes alive in the summer with all of the staff members, artists, and actors, and I am incredibly excited to see everyone return. I’m also excited to see our audience again. We are going to have some incredible shows for them.

Bennington Museum
Courtesy Alexina Jones, Director of Advancement.

What are some of the logistical hurdles that you have had to overcome to plan the outdoor performances?

All of our plans hinged on public gathering guidelines. We did not want to offer contracts to musicians until we were sure that the events could safely happen. But, other than waiting and keeping our fingers crossed, the process itself was fairly easy. Artists were eager to perform live music again and to be paid for their work, and everyone understands the need to be flexible during this time.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing?

Bennington Museum follows the standard Universal guidelines put forward by the State of Vermont, in addition to the outdoor capacity guidance which was increased to 300 individuals as of May 1st. Bennington Museum is maintaining a mask mandate when in the courtyard or building, distance markers for lines for summer food service in the courtyard will be implemented, and temperatures are checked for all staff and visitors upon entry.

What is your backup plan if it rains?

If there is a 60% chance of rain by 2pm on the concert Fridays, we will cancel the event and post the cancellation to our social media sites. We will do our best to reschedule that same weekend on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon if the space is available.

What are you most looking forward to this summer season?

The North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show will be returning to Bennington Museum once more on June 19. The following is a quote from our Curator, Jamie Franklin, about the North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show:
“Between the village of North Bennington and the museum’s grounds there will be over 65 outdoor sculptures by some of the best artists working in Vermont and the larger northeast region. That’s a density of high-quality public artwork, accessible and free to the public all summer and through the fall from dawn to dusk. That is hard to beat! I am excited to see museum guests continue to explore the museum’s 10-acre property – from our Courtyard, with live music and food every Friday night, and the George Aiken Wildflower Trails, with its native planting, to our upper meadow with beautiful expansive views, and the intimate Jennings Brook trail, with its classic forest setting with a lovely babbling brook – simultaneously discovering the beauty and power of our region’s landscape and artistic community.”

In addition to the outdoor sculpture show and the live performances, people come for the food and music in the courtyard and then take a walk on the trails to check out the amazing creations these regional artists have installed. I love seeing families, who perhaps have never even been to the Museum before, take advantage of everything we have going on here. It really brings our mission home. The following is a quote from the Bennington’s interim director, David Pilachowski:
“We are, once again, delighted to be able to host this program of live music in the Museum’s Courtyard and to make it available free of charge. This is such a joyous series that brings people together safely to celebrate music, enjoy good food, and have fun.”

The Wilburton
Courtesy Tajlei Levis, Director of Special Events.

What outdoor events do you have planned this summer?

In past summers, a favorite Wilburton tradition was Farm Night, a weekly dinner party with organic vegetarian fare catered by Earth Sky Time, served outdoors on the Wilburton’s terrace. It was a joyful gathering for guests and the local community, with live music.

This summer, the Wilburton invites the public to “Tuesdays in the Tent,” a Vermont variety show cabaret, produced by Tajlei Levis. With sunset views over the Battenkill Valley, the Wilburton’s marble patio and outdoor bar provide a natural outdoor stage, framed by the Pavilion Tent. Specialty cocktails and snacks will be available for purchase. The entertainment will be anchored by a guest cabaret singer each week with musical director Michael Garvey at the piano. There will be previews of material from new musicals, old favorites, sing-a-longs, sketches and stories. Performers who would like to be involved should email [email protected] The cabaret will run from 7 to 8:30 and will be followed by a dance party in the tent.

The Wilburton is launching the summer with a Bridgerton Weekend, with a dress up garden party, croquet and lawn games, theme cocktails, and a chance to learn regency ballroom dances.

What are you most looking forward to this summer season?

We are looking forward to sharing the joys of the Wilburton with the community again. There’s something magical about being a part of an audience. Even more so for an outdoor performance.



Additional Indoor Events

Taconic Music Festival
Courtesy Jane Duda, Communications Director.

What events do you have planned this summer?

Taconic Music is excited to present its fifth summer season, which we’ll be presenting both live and livestreamed. We are offering a series of four faculty concerts, two NextGen student concerts, masterclasses, open dress rehearsals, and more. All of the concerts are free of charge for the public, thanks to the tremendous generosity of donors from across the country and the world, our yearlong sponsors and season advertisers. The repertoire is very wide ranging, with each concert including a work by a female composer. The summer festival runs for four consecutive Saturdays at 7:30pm beginning June 19.

NextGen concerts are on June 28 and July 12 at 7pm. Masterclasses are on June 21 and July 5. All concerts and Masterclasses will take place at the Riley Center for the Arts at Burr and Burton Academy, and concerts will also be livestreamed on our YouTube channel and accessible through it and our social media.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing, and who is advising you on the guidelines?

Although the news on the health front is heartening, guidelines remain something of a moving target, so we will be doing a similar balancing act to what we did last year, with a still limited, but more expansive, audience, most likely fully-masked. We are fortunate that, after our experience last year, we have the resources and boots-on-the-ground knowledge to adjust quickly. We can turn on a dime, if we need to. So the key for us is primarily to keep our ticketholders informed (and to that end, we will be requesting reservations in advance, so we can communicate ahead of time, as needed).

What are you looking forward to most this summer season?

High on the list is the return of our Chamber Music Intensive students, who were unable to attend last summer. They are a group of nine, twenty-something performers, coming from graduate-level music programs (or recent postgraduate degree recipients), whose dedication to learning and playing at a high level is unmatched. We deeply missed their presence, drive, energy and enthusiasm for chamber music last year. We are also looking forward to seeing colleagues again; wonderful musicians from all over the world. We’ve missed many of them and look forward to the camaraderie that comes of making collaborative music. We look forward to welcoming back the many longtime audience members whose faces and enthusiasm we missed last year—and hopefully some new ones as well. And, of course, the music! We plan on making these four weeks a pure celebration.

Bennington Performing Arts Center
Courtesy Jennifer Jasper, Executive Director.

What events do you have planned this summer?

Oldcastle Theatre Company, the resident professional theatre company at Bennington Performing Arts Center in Bennington, just announced its 49th season. The season opens with Jeff Baron’s “Visiting Mr. Green” which opens July 9. “Shakespeare’s Will,” by Vern Thiessen is a tour de force for Oldcastle alum, Katrina Ferguson, and will open August 6. And we are very excited to have Jillian Armenante, directing “The Turn of the Screw” by Jeffrey Hatcher (from the story by Henry James) opening on September 3.

What health and safety guidelines are you implementing, and who is advising you on the guidelines?

We are following Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) guidelines for masking, air quality, actor housing, etc. Our staff is fully vaccinated and following all guidelines for distancing and sanitizing. We will be requiring audience to wear masks in the building until at least June 30, when we will reassess depending on what AEA requires.

What are you most looking forward to this summer season?

We’re looking forward to having audience in the theatre again!

We don’t have the option of an outdoor venue at our location, so we’ll be producing and performing on our stage inside. We were awarded a Cultural Facilities Grant from Vermont Arts Council for replacement of our existing A/C with state-of-the-art heat pumps. Along with that, we replaced the roof and put in air cleaners and venting to ensure the safety of everyone in the building and to meet AEA requirements. Being closed gave us the time to make all the changes necessary to safely produce live performance in the space.

We look forward to seeing all of you this summer!