Its fall again, with colder, shorter days and the kick-off of crisp and sparkling new seasons from Salem’s dozen live theatres.
Personnel at two important entities, Pentacle Theatre and The Verona Studio, have been engaged for months, doing the absorbing work of designing rich offerings to captivate audiences in 2017 – 2018.
Live theatre is unique among the arts, says Pentacle Theatre’s Executive Director Lisa Joyce, because “no two performances are alike. The audience joins the actors and the crew for shared and unique experience, breathing the same air.” She cites research showing that live theater affects audiences more profoundly than movies, TV or televised theater; a 2014 University of Arkansas study showed that people “gain in knowledge, tolerance, and more,” in memorable and personal ways when they experience a live performance.
Even in the era of smartphones, “Live theater still matters,” says Randall Tosh, president & co-founder of The Verona Studio, “because a healthy society has to have an arena where… problems can be examined through the lens of art. And the presence of live actors, on stage, gives that examination an immediacy that is lacking in digital media – or in any other art form, for that matter.”
The two institutions are a study in contrasts; Pentacle Theatre is 63-years old, owns a large, established venue in a picturesque setting with plenty of parking. The Verona Studio is an intimate, 60-seat space in the Reed Opera House in downtown Salem.
“The Verona Studio is, in theater terminology, a ‘black box’ theater,” Tosh says. “Generally, black box theaters are associated with more experimental or ‘avant-garde’ productions, both in terms of play selection and staging. Usually, the space is simple and unadorned, without an elevated ‘stage.’”
Pentacle, on the other hand, says Joyce, offers theatre-goers “more directors, more volunteers, more productions, more seating [and] larger productions.” It also provides more conventionally beloved programming, such as this winter’s fundraiser, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” which will be presented in the Elsinore Theatre’s castle-like setting.
“At a time when arts organizations go under for lack of support, Pentacle Theater enjoys the support of donors, sponsors and foundations,” Joyce notes. “We put on nine productions each year, with volunteers doing almost all the work.”
Tosh describes the aesthetic of the compact The Verona Studio, saying, “the audience is very close to the actors. We tend to do very contemporary, small-cast plays, usually with less than four characters. Our sets tend to be very simple – we like to compare them to haiku.”
Pentacle Theatre’s season selection process is “a community process,” says Joyce. “For the 2018 season, we even polled our patrons for feedback… A committee reads plays, works with directors and develops a list against which directors propose.”
As a result of this collaborative process, 2018 will see Pentacle presenting such well-known or premiere works as, Cabaret, The Elephant Man, Calendar Girls, Dracula, The Little Shop of Horrors and the 1992 Tony Award-winner for best play, Dancing at Lughnasa.
This season The Verona Studio will feature four closely-curated offerings, including the one-actor Novecento, about a baby abandoned on a transatlantic liner who becomes a brilliant jazz pianist, the Pulitzer-Prize winning and intense ‘Night Mother, with a cast of two female actors, and the biting and compassionate dark comedy Straight White Men, by an acclaimed young playwright, which examines the reality of privilege.
As September passes, both theatres will be weaving tales about love for Salem audiences. Starting on September 29, the Pentacle stage will present Almost, Maine, a work comprised of 9 short plays that explore the nuances of love in “a beautifully structured play, with nifty surprise endings” according to a 2013 New York Times review. Almost, Maine was included in Smith and Krause’s Best Plays of 2006.
“I love that [Almost, Maine] is directed by one of our most experienced directors, Katie Lindbeck,” Joyce says. “Her cast includes two long-time actors and four cast members new to our organization: Kat Baird, Clyde Berry, Jason Ramey and Marc Wassom,”
The Verona Studio’s season begins with Annapurna, a two-person drama that describes the emotion-charged reunion between a woman and her cowboy-poet husband after a 20-year separation in a filthy trailer in the wilds of Colorado. Called “funny,” “poignant and moving,” “a story of human redemption” and “a story of grace” by a Raleigh, NC reviewer in 2015, Annapurna will feature actors Jodi Deming and Jay Howe.
By John Cariani
September 29 – October 21
The Verona Studio
By Sharr White
September 14 – 30