The Burlington waterfront has become home to the Champlain Valley’s newest theater company this summer. The Red Stage Theatre Company, a newly formed group of performers from all over the country, is setting up shop in the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. For many involved, this is their first foray into the world of small theater companies, and the members of Red Stage hope to bring a new vision to theater in Burlington.
Rather than perform for the sake of performing, Maryna Harrison, who will be directing the groups’ two productions, said they chose plays that carried a message.
“Early on, we knew we wanted to produce plays that ask big questions,” Harrison said. “We want to give people a theatrical experience.”
Starting in July, Red Stage will be performing the Archibald MacLeish play “J.B.” and, in August, a newer play by Adam Bock called “Five Flights.” The shows will be presented in the performing arts center’s Black Box theatre.
In a city known for its diverse arts scene, the group looks forward to this season’s performances and hopes to make Red Stage a long-term summer tradition in Vermont.
“We want to make Burlington our home,” said Artistic Director Kohler McKenzie, a Burlington native.
Red Stage Theatre grew out of a friendship shared by acting students. It started earlier this year when a group of graduate students, working on their masters of fine arts in acting at Rutgers University, decided to form their own organization. McKenzie convinced the troupe of 12 actors and directors that Burlington was the perfect location. Once the actors relocated to Vermont for the summer, they knew they made the right choice.
“I know Burlington and I’d boasted to everyone that it is a very artistic community,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said the members of Red Stage have varied backgrounds, but share the same passion for theater. McKenzie said his love of performing didn’t come to him until he was in school at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. Studying both political science and theater, McKenzie decided to pursue his art when looking into graduate school.
“For me, I found theater to have the power and ability to make strong social statements,” McKenzie said.
Once at Rutgers, McKenzie knew he wanted to start a theater company. It was there that he met Harrison, who’d had 10 years experience acting and directing plays in New York City. Harrison, who has also performed with the Moscow Art Theater in Russia, said she prefers directing plays rather than performing them because she feels she’s more creative behind the stage, so to speak.
“I love acting, theoretically, but I don’t like doing it,” Harrison said with a laugh.
But for Red Stage actor Aaron Ballard, performing has always been one of her first loves. A native of South Carolina, Ballard said she wanted to take her acting to the next level when she enrolled as a graduate student at Rutgers. For her, acting is like becoming a storyteller for an audience.
“In a way, we communicate what it is to be human,” Ballard said.
Actor Gregory Perri also appreciates that connection between audience and performer. Hailing from New York, Perri said being part of Red Stage is the perfect next step in his theatrical growth.
“You’re part of a group, part of something that is larger than oneself,” Perri said.
The Red Stage Theatre Company has been busy rehearsing for “J.B.” in preparation for the play’s two-week run in July. “J.B.,” which takes its story from the biblical Book of Job, follows wealthy banker J.B. who loses everything and tries to find understanding in his suffering.
Written by MacLeish in the late 1950s, the dramatic verse play won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 1959.
“We were moved by the play’s questions it asked about humanity and human suffering,” Harrison said.
After the July 19 performance, the company will hold a special panel discussion with local theologians to discuss the show’s religion and morality themes.
Starting in mid-August, Red Stage will switch dramatic gears and perform “Five Flights,” a touching comedy. Written by up-and-coming playwright Bock, “Five Flights” shows the humorous ups and downs of a family and its eccentric friends dealing with a recent death.
“It’s really sweet and funny, without being sappy,” Harrison said.
Red Stage also started a series called “Shakespeare Goes Green,” which strings together scenes written by the Bard dealing with the interconnectedness of nature and people. Performances are accompanied musically by the actors’ Recycled Trash Band. Red Stage is hoping to perform “Shakespeare Goes Green” at a handful of events this summer.
Harrison said as Red Stage gains traction in the Burlington area, they hope to offer camps and clinics for middle and high school students interested in theater.
But for now, the members of the Red Stage Theatre Company are focusing on the upcoming season and have high hopes Vermonters will be drawn to their enthusiasm and love of theater.
“It’s only through the love and dedication of the people in this company that this is happening,” Harrison said.