Brooke Ciardelli: Vermont’s consummate theater proBy Jim Lowe
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo Director Brooke Ciardeli watches a rehearsal for "Evita" at Northern Stage in White River Junction in 2011.
Over the past 16 years, Brooke Ciardelli has proven herself perhaps as Vermont’s most effective theater professional, translating $6,000 in local gifts 16 years ago into a $2 million-plus theater today.
And that would mean little if Northern Stage hadn’t become Vermont’s top year-round theater, often achieving the level of the summer’s legendary Weston Playhouse and Dorset Theatre Festival.
“In John Logan’s play ‘Red,’ the last play I directed for Northern Stage, the character of (artist) Mark Rothko opens the play with the line, ‘What do you see?’ and closes it with ‘Make something new,’” Ciardelli told The Times Argus and Rutland Herald. “Those lines could just as easily have been said as the first and last lines of my time at Northern Stage.”
Last week, the Northern Stage board of directors terminated its relationship with its founder and guiding light, turning the reins over to a new executive director. Statements from both the board and Ciardelli herself, describing the agreement as mutual, were vague, giving rise to all sorts of questions.
There had been difficulties over the years, but no more than reported at other nonprofit theaters. Ciardelli certainly had an unsparing artistic and management style, while the theater had to deal with a roller-coaster economy. But few theaters nationwide can match Ciardelli’s combination of artistic and business success.
Perhaps board member Janet Miller Haines revealed the basic issue when she told the Valley News last week that Ciardelli “was a little bit ahead of us.”
Brooke Wetzel Ciardelli came to Burlington in 1992 to escape the theater, not to start one. Right out of college, she found herself working as an assistant to a producer on Broadway, but she hated the insanity of the New York theater world. After working on various projects in theater and film in the Burlington area, Ciardelli wanted to start her own theater.
“When I first arrived in White River Junction, 16 years ago, I saw an undeniable potential in the empty stage space at the Briggs Opera House and in the downtown village,” Ciardelli said. “I was inspired by the promise of the people I met, driven by the questions they asked, and the kind of theater they demanded — stories that would provoke, challenge and move them.”
Ciardelli sent letters to some 30 people, whose names she had found in playbills, describing the project and asking for money. The mailing yielded $6,000 and, with no one having seen a production, Ciardelli sold 62 subscriptions to the inaugural season.
“Serving the audience that came in drips and dribbles at first and then in floods in later years, provided me with a blank canvas to explore ideas, express feelings and tell stories,” Ciardelli said. “Through the work I programmed and championed, the artists came, and they came back and they grew and celebrated working at what they often called the only theater that gave them as much as they gave us. The artists could often be heard saying, ‘Do not judge a theater by its theater — wait until the lights come down and the first word is spoken.’”
Ciardelli’s artistic success grew. Renowned British actress Lisa Harrow, now living in Woodstock, came to Northern Stage to star in the 2000 New England premiere production of “Wit,” which she had just finished performing in New York.
“I had dreamed of starting a theater myself, and everything I had thought of as being in a theater that I would hope to run, Brooke has already — except for a restaurant,” Harrow said at the time. “I think the sheer force of (Brooke’s) personality, her taste, her standards — the standards that she sets for herself — are excellent.”
Ciardelli herself directed or co-directed 52 of Northern Stage’s 111 mainstage productions over its 16 seasons. Her productions of “All My Sons” (2004), “Les Misérables” (2008), “Hamlet” (2009) and “Amadeus” (2010) each won New England Theatre Conference Moss Hartt Awards for Excellence.
“Brooke Ciardelli is committed to bringing high quality theater and developing new work in her mostly rural community,” wrote Terry Byrne in the Boston Herald. “With Ciardelli’s track record, don’t even think about doubting her”
But topnotch directors have not been unknown in Vermont. Ciardelli was unique in the state for her mix of artistic expertise and business acumen. Before Northern Stage could afford business managers she invented her own formula for growing the theater and keeping it in the black — while increasing the level of its artistic excellence.
With Ciardelli’s financial formula, ticket sales pay for the production, and raised income covers the company’s operational and administrative costs, usually 60 and 40 percent respectively, which are industry averages nationally.
“I have to be able to project that the new play is going to be only 30 percent, the musical is going to do 92 percent, and everything else is going to do 60 (percent) to 70 percent,” Ciardelli said in a 2001 interview.
Most theaters choose a season and try to find ways to fund it. In 2001, the theater had overtaken the $1 million budget mark – without ever going in the red. And that successful combination continued throughout Ciardelli’s tenure.
Ciadelli’s success has not gone unnoticed outside the theater world. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said, “Under Brooke Ciardelli’s guidance, Northern Stage has grown into a vibrant and successful professional theater company,” and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “Brooke has directed one of the most successful rural theater companies in the nation.”
While Ciardelli’s departure was a big surprise to many, including her own staff, she is already making plans for the future. Still, the Norwich resident intends to remain in Vermont with her 9-year-old, traveling to where the work takes her.
In February, she will be directing A. R. Gurney’s “Black Tie” in Vienna. And in April and May, she will be creating and directing her own adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” with a Muslim slant sanctioned for Ciardelli by the Miller family. This was scheduled for May 1-19 at Northern Stage, but its presentation is in doubt.
“While the period of time where Northern Stage was the primary theater I worked with has drawn to close, my desire to tell stories which have the power to change lives has not lessened. There will be sadness and excitement intermingled in this transition,” Ciardelli said. “And now I am embarking on the next chapter of my artistic career with the words ‘Make something new’ guiding me into the future.”
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