It’s one thing to celebrate your 20th birthday. It’s quite another to be the still-new head of a theater company with a couple decades of other people’s work to look back on and all the future to anticipate. That’s the situation Cristina Alicea finds herself in, and as the producing artistic director of Vermont Stage Company, she’s in reflection mode — while charging ahead. As she puts it in VSC’s new season brochure, “We plan to make the most of this milestone year.”
Having joined the company in the fall of 2011, replacing longtime director Mark Nash, Alicea, 34, isn’t burdened by nostalgia about what has come before her. But she doesn’t discount the legacy — surviving 20 years as a nonprofit arts outfit itself merits a standing ovation — and she has made the past a touchstone in this year’s lineup. Over a recent breakfast at Mirabelles, Alicea talks about how her programming took shape.
“I like starting out our season with something a lot of our subscribers saw in 2001 and loved,” she says, referring to the play Art. The Tony-winning comedy by Yasmina Reza examines, on the surface, what constitutes visual art and, at a deeper level, the bonds of friendship.
The popular work figures in VSC’s history, but this version, of course, has a fresh cast and director, Tara Lee Downs. And, as Alicea points out, “We’ve grown so much that a lot of people haven’t seen it.” Indeed, an entire generation has grown up over 20 years. Like every performing-arts organization, VSC counts on welcoming a new crop of theatergoers.
If those younger theater fans show up for Winter Tales in December, they’ll find a Vermont Stage tradition — in transition. For one thing, Alicea remarks, “It’s the first time without Mark.” Nash conceived the seasonal variety show featuring both traditional and local, original stories and music nine years ago and has staged it each year since. This time, Alicea is directing, and the unabashedly feel-good production for “the dark days of winter” will showcase some brand-new stories by members of the Burlington Writers Workshop and poetry from the Young Writers Project, as well as songs written and performed by seasoned participant Patti Casey.
The new year brings a contemporary play, Other Desert Cities, written by Pulitzer finalist Jon Robin Baitz. Having opened at Lincoln Center just two years ago, the work is “powerful, so reminiscent of classic American plays such as [those of] Eugene O’Neill,” Alicea says. The story concerns an old Hollywood family, one member of which decides to write a tell-all memoir and expose a devastating family secret. Local thespian Mark Alan Gordon will direct.
Alicea will take the reins again for Venus in Fur, which VSC’s brochure describes as “a seductive comedy about love, lust and literature.” Sounds alluring, no? But when Alicea first picked up the play, she says, “I read it and then threw it against the wall.” Still, the work — written by David Ives and based on an 1870 German erotica novel — kept bugging her “in all the right ways,” she says. Eventually, she thought, If it is affecting me so emotionally, I just have to do it.
VSC’s final production next spring is an original commissioned by Alicea that she calls “a leap of faith.” That’s because it can be risky to schedule a work that isn’t finished yet. But Alicea trusts that The Quarry — the collaboration of a pair of Vermont brothers — will deliver.
Written by emerging playwright Greg Pierce with original music by Randal Pierce, the play concerns “an eerie discovery” in a marble quarry that turns a Vermont town in on itself. The world premiere in the FlynnSpace “explores unconventional relationships, notions of home, aging, Vermont geology, love, guilt, second chances and the wide-ranging powers of the unknown,” reads the season program.
Despite that sweeping description, Alicea says The Quarry will be “a very stripped-down performance, with a piano as primary set.” Directed by Margo Whitcomb, the work will unfold through scenes and monologues. “It’s all about the story,” Alicea says. And isn’t it always?
With this lineup, the overarching story of Vermont Stage Company continues, weaving its history into its next, well, stage. “I feel this season came together so perfectly,” Alicea comments. “It starts with a play that harkens to our past and ends with a new play by a Vermonter who is just starting to explode in the American theater scene.”
It will be something to talk about when, “in April or May,” the director concludes, “we’ll do a big celebration of our 20th.”
Vermont Stage Company’s 2013-14 season opens with Art, by Yasmina Reza, on October 9 at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. For more info or season tickets, visit vtstage.org. Single tickets at flynntix.org. Also see the Seven Days arts blog, Live Culture, for more theater news.