Conquering ‘The Norman Conquests’ Without Going Broke

By Gabe Cohn

  The cast of "Table Manners," part of Alan Ayckbourn's "The Norman Conquests," at Dorset Theatre Festival. (Photo by Taylor Crichton)

The cast of "Table Manners," part of Alan Ayckbourn's "The Norman Conquests," at Dorset Theatre Festival. (Photo by Taylor Crichton)

DORSET, WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, and WESTON, VT.: On a recent April evening, a bottle of champagne was popped in the back of a limousine. The passengers were on their way to an evening at the theatre, and they were celebrating. Sound like New York City or London? Try Vermont. The limo was sponsored by Dorset Theatre Festival and Weston Playhouse, and was en route to a performance of Living Together at Northern Stage, the first stop for the play in an ambitious collaboration among the three Vermont theatres.

It all started with an idea to stage The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of comedies written by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn in the mid-’70s. Living TogetherTable Manners, and Round and Round the Garden all take place over the same weekend, in the same house, with the same cast of characters. The trilogy has often been done in repertory, as it was in a 2009 Broadway run at Circle in the Square. But rather than shoulder the entire load alone or all at once, these three theatres have banded together to coproduce all three plays, with the same cast and design team (but different directors) tackling each production in turn.

“It’s kind of an Olympian effort to do all three,” says DTF artistic director Dina Janis during a break from tech rehearsals for Table Manners, which runs June 16-July 2. Living Together ran at Northern Stage in April and May, and the final play, Round and Round the Garden, runs at Weston Playhouse July 21-30. In total, the three plays’ run time adds up to 6 hours and 45 minutes.

The concept of doing the entire The Norman Conquests this way started with an idea Janis had two years ago while she was driving around Vermont. Weston and DTF had “been trying to find ways of collaborating directly,” she says. “Not just mutually helping each other, but [collaborating] program-wise.”

Adds Weston’s producing artistic director Steve Stettler, “We wanted to cross-pollinate our audiences.” Janis saw The Norman Conquests as the ideal project. “You have three distinct plays that can be enjoyed and produced on their own merits,” she explains. “But if you try to do the whole thing, it’s a total throwdown.”

Meanwhile, Northern Stage had just finished a $9-million theatre complex. And, like DTF and Weston, they recruit casts and creative teams primarily from New York City. So bringing them in to complete the trio felt like a natural fit.

The theatres quickly decided to use the same cast and design team among the three productions. But when it came to directors, they struggled to find a single person who could devote the amount of time needed for a three-month project, not including rehearsal time. Eventually they decided to enlist different directors for each.

Armed with the three directors, the teams went to New York City to hold auditions, which, according to Janis, were something of an all-star draft, with each theatre recommending performers. “We were able to expose each other to whole new groups of actors that we didn’t really know so well,” says Janis.

It wasn’t just a new experience for those behind the table. The actors felt the difference as soon as they walked into the audition room. Between the three directors and theatres, there was a small crowd watching the auditions.

“I don’t think [the actors] were expecting St. Joan’s Tribunal,” Janis jokes. “We started giving them all a warning before they came in the room.”

For the actors, performing in a trilogy has been a rigorous experience so far, and there’s still one play to go. “It’s like the work is never over—in a good way,” says Jenni Putney, who plays Annie. “Having three different directors means that we see the plays through three different lenses. There are always new ideas to find and intentions to play.”

But it was helpful for the performers to see The Norman Conquests as one cohesive work, as opposed to taking it play by play. During early rehearsals at Dorset, the team worked with a “mashup” of the script, which blended all three plays and showed them as one fluid story, lining up the scenes in each play chronologically. 

It wasn’t just the cast that created a cohesiveness to the three productions; the design did too. Set designer David Arsenault had his work cut out for him, considering that “all three stages are wildly different,” he says. “One is a thrust stage and two are proscenium stages. But even the prosceniums vary drastically in their proportions and size.”

Each play in The Norman Conquests takes place in a different part of a house at the same time: Table Manners in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden in the garden. The challenge was trying to create a through line for the entire design of the trilogy “while also honoring the individuality of each space.”

For Arsenault, these connections came through in the details, in “the shapes of doors, the moldings, and the dressing.” For example, audiences can see doors leading to what would be the other sets, and see the garden of Round and Round the Garden through the windows in the other two plays.


Dorset Theatre Festival
Dorset Theatre Festival presents
the Alan Ayckbourn comedy
“Table Manners”

June 16-July 2
at the Dorset Playhouse,
104 Cheney Road in Dorset.

 

  David Mason, Jenni Putney, Richard Gallagher, and Mark Light-Orr in “Living Together,” part of Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests,” at Northern Stage. (Photo by Rob Strong)

David Mason, Jenni Putney, Richard Gallagher, and Mark Light-Orr in “Living Together,” part of Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests,” at Northern Stage. (Photo by Rob Strong)

But the collaboration didn’t end onstage. The theatres promoted each other’s shows and shared about the productions on social media, cross-pollinating their audiences and adding to the feeling of camaraderie between the theatres.

The theatres even physically transported patrons to each other’s shows. For performances of Living Together, Weston Playhouse and Dorset Theatre Festival (both of which are closer to each other than Northern, which is about an hour away) organized a special option for their patrons to see the show: a limousine, with senior staff members of both theatres on board, would drive them out to Northern Stage. The package came complete with a champagne toast, making it not just a show but a special event. “We found a lot people who were more interested in the production because it was a part of something larger,” says Weston’s Stettler. That included donors, who were attracted by the exciting new collaboration. It ended up being a major selling point for all three productions.

By all measures, the experiment has been a win-win for the three theatres—proof that collaboration, the lifeblood of any production or rehearsal process, need not be limited to a single theatre or creative team but can include multiple institutions. Instead of competing for resources, theatres can pool them together to create ambitious work. “It celebrates what we do in a really cool way,” says Janis.

Stettler concurs: “I believe that if one of us is strong, it benefits everybody.”