All the world’s a stage — it is at least in downtown Saxtons River, Vt., over the next two weekends.
The third annual Great River Theater Festival opens this Friday, July 6, with a series of six plays from four theater companies performing through Sunday, July 5.
The inspiration for the event came from David Stern, artistic director of Main Street Arts in Saxtons River, one of the companies performing works at the festival. When he began working in his position in 2015, he noticed a lot of community and small professional theater companies working in isolation.
His observation led him to create the 4-County Theater Collaborative, a group of nearly 20 theater companies in Cheshire and Sullivan counties in New Hampshire and Windham and Windsor counties in Vermont coming together for a series of meetings about sharing resources.
One of the initiatives that came from the meetings is a shared stage prop and costume database operated by Arts Alive! in Keene. Another was this festival, at which 14 plays were performed at four local venues the first year.
“What we took away from the first festival is that all of us were so busy we didn’t see each other’s work,” said Stern. “If we’re bringing all these companies together and don’t make the space to do that, we’re underserving each other.”
Another plan as part of the collaborative was to expand the festival from one to two weekends — which is happening this year for the first time.
Scaling back on the number of shows was also the result of the festival’s growing pains, and as a result, a variety of other events were added to the event schedule. The first Great Tent Event is happening this year’s festival on Saturday, July 6, featuring a dessert contest (Bake Your Art Out); a Sandglass Theater rod puppet workshop; Fairy Tales and Fairy Houses workshop with Tracy Girdich; music by Christy Wendlandt and Brendon Thomas; a community jam session; teen storytelling session; and food for sale by Jamaican Jewelz.
A photography exhibit, “Hush of the Footlights,” opens July 8 at Main Street Arts featuring the work of Marek Jagoda and Ea Maples, fine art photographers who have spent the last three years together exploring interesting places and historic buildings including many abandoned theaters throughout New England.
Kicking off the theater festival is a performance Friday, July 5, at Main Street Arts of the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which tells the story of a transgender punk-rock singer (viewer discretion is advised). There will be four more performances of the play throughout the festival.
“It’s about learning to love yourself and appreciate the life you’re in,” said Stern, who is directing the play. “As heartfelt and gut-wrenching and true as we can make the story — that’s where we’re trying to go. In the 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall riots, it seems apropos.”
The theater space will be turned into a “pretty sordid dive bar,” Stern said. “What I hope audiences will experience is a real step into someone else’s existence that begins to feel like their own. It’s universal in that way I think.”
Main Street Arts will also stage a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” for five performances opening Saturday, July 6, at Vermont Academy’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center.
Also opening the evening of Friday, the 5th is Loom Dance Ensemble’s “What the Jellyfish Knows,” a tale of the natural world and the urgency of protecting the oceans, also at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center — a matinee performance follows on Saturday, the 6th and two more on the 13th and 14th.
After performing in Dubai and other parts of the world, the Loom Ensemble has recently decided to make Vermont its home base.
The Vermont Suitcase Company performs “L’Odeur De Moliere (the Doctor and the Dowry),” for two performances to close the festival Sunday, July 14, at Main Street Arts.
Maryland-based company Happenstance Theater will stage “BrouHaHa” that same evening at Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center. The play follows of troupe of Edwardian eccentrics on the precipice of the apocalypse. The play, inspired by the existential comedy of Samuel Beckett and historic and modern images of refugees, is interwoven with dark humor.
The idea of the theater festival is to create opportunities to raise awareness of the caliber of regional theater (and theater companies with ties to the region) as well as growing audiences.
At its core, the festival by design is meant to help ensure the future of community theater based on the belief of strength in numbers.
Vermont Academy has allowed the use of its theater space for the festival, and the hope is to add a completed downtown amphitheater as a venue next year and continue to grow the festival with further sponsorship.
“The dream is to see it become a theater and music festival over three weekends,” said Stern.
The Great River Theater Festival opens this Friday, July 5, in downtown Saxtons River, Vt. Ticket prices vary for the performances, with a festival pass at $50 ($40 for seniors) and youth prices for all shows except “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to which those under 16 are not admitted. A full schedule of festival events and ticket prices can be found at greatriverfestival.org. For more information, contact Main Street Arts at 802-869-2960 or