Thursday July 27, 2017
“Theatre is always at its core about bringing people together to witness a story being told,” says South Burlington resident Jena Necrason. She and her husband, John Nagle, both founders of the Vermont Shakespeare Festival, have been bringing audiences together since launching the nonprofit in 2005, inviting them into what Necrason describes as an “experience.”
Why Shakespeare? “Because history repeats itself,” says Necrason. Though the plays are 400 years old, their themes are still relevant today, resonating with questions about what it means to be human.
As a couple, they enter the stage with a 40-plus year professional background in performing, directing, and education. But their passion for acting goes far back. “I was a kid artist,” Necrason said during a conversation last week. “I was always dancing, moving. It was healing.” Later, when she moved to New York City, she studied dancing, then acting. “I found my tribe, where I belonged.”
For Nagle, whose family was involved in acting, he recalled, “Always being artsy.” Who would have thought that he’d eventually study biology in college? But he quickly realized the sciences were not for him and signed up for a few theatre classes. “Instantly, I knew this is what I should be doing,” he said.
The couple met in 1998 during a production of Richard III in New York City, and spent their summers in Vermont holding performances. In 2005, they held a benefit performance for the Champlain Islands Parent Child Center. “It was well received,” Necrason said. “You need to do this every summer,” audience members pleaded. That’s when she knew it was the perfect opportunity to start the Vermont Shakespeare Festival. While the festival originally took place at Knight Point State Park in North Hero, the couple wanted to broaden their audience and make the performances an annual event. In 2012, they added Oakledge Park to their performance venue, and when they moved to Vermont fulltime in 2014 to raise their young son and further develop the company, they added UVM’s Royall Tyler Theatre and Shelburne Museum’s Circus Lawn.
Producing the plays involves months of hard work, yet Necrason and Nagle have developed a system. It all starts early in the year with brainstorming about how the show will play out. During this time, Necrason reads and researches works relevant to the production. Then there’s the fund raising campaign, the marketing campaign, and casting calls; auditions are held in Burlington, New York City or Boston. It is an intense several weeks even before the rehearsals begin. In the end, 35 people are involved: design and creative teams, volunteers, and cast, including student actors from UVM, and Saint Michael’s and Middlebury Colleges. Students from Vermont high schools and colleges also work closely with the company for two weeks each summer. They attend classes taught by the company, and learn all aspects of theatrical production. It is this team of artists, Necrason recognizes, who “help make vision come to life for the audience.”
As with most arts organizations, Necrason and Nagle have their challenges. For the company to run, they need the community’s financial support. “We’re grateful” for the support,” Necrason acknowledged, “but it’s hard to stay afloat.” While they pay the artists, the couple do not pay themselves. “It’s a labor of love,” she continued, noting that the Sunday morning of our interview, the couple had a 9:30 a.m. rehearsal for the company’s upcoming performance of Richard III, followed by a meeting with others working on the production. “It’s ongoing work,” Necrason said. “You fit it in when you can.”
Off stage, the couple “fit in” their day jobs. After working nights as a restaurant manager for many years, Nagle is now a part-time mail carrier and will be teaching acting at Saint Michael’s College in the fall. “It’s always an adjustment,” he said. For Necrason, the balance between life on and off stage has also demanded adjustment. During the couple’s first two years in Vermont, she commuted a few days a week to New York, where she served as head of the Movement Department at The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and taught classes both there and at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Drama Department. Now, her commute is much easier: a short drive to Wake Robin Continuing Care Community in Shelburne, where she has been the program and events coordinator since the start of this year. Her position, she explained, “allows me to stay connected with education and arts in the community.”
Staying connected with audiences is essential to the “experience.” Necrason and Nagle do just that during each production by sharing “a world of truth and possibility” in which people “become more aware of themselves.” Because Shakespeare’s plays are enduring, people are able to find a connection whether it’s political, social, civic, or personal. In this sense, Nagle noted, “Theatre allows us to keep conversations going.”
The plays often make people laugh – another way to connect as human beings. After all, laughter is contagious. And it gives people the opportunity to “take a break from life,” Necrason added.
As Necrason and Nagle hold the final rehearsals before they present Richard III at Shelburne Museum’s Circus Lawn July 29, they are also planning ahead, into the future of the Vermont Shakespeare Festival. In that future, they envision the festival as a “destination event,” a festival that entertains and brings impact throughout all of Vermont.
But you don’t have to wait for that future. You can take part now in a tradition that is timeless and powerful and beautiful. All you have to do is spread your blanket out on the lawn, relax under the borderless sky, and receive the “experience.”
The Vermont Shakespeare Festival presents, for one night only, Richard III, The Anatomy of a Villain, July 29, 6 p.m., Shelburne Museum Circus Lawn, tickets available at FlynnTix.org. Shakespeare’s Richard III is the tale of a ruthless, power-crazed royal who lies and murders his way to the highest seat in the land. In this reimagined script-in-hand presentation, Vermont Shakespeare Festival distills the action of the play with six actors, and puts evil on trial.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor