When two local companies team up to better our community, magical things can happen. JAG Productions based in White River Junction is partnering with King Arthur Baking Company in Norwich. While a theater company and baking company seem an unlikely pair, together they are co-producing a beautiful series of performances, “Theatre on the Hill.”
“Theatre on the Hill” will take place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings between August 13 – September 12 on the grassy hill behind King Arthur Baking Company in Norwich. Preceded with food and drinks provided by Upper Valley favorites such as Munchie Rollz, Griddle and Groovy, and Wolf Tree, “Theatre on the Hill” is an outdoor theater series featuring an array of performances from workshop productions to concert musicals, to staged readings.
Jarvis Green, Founding Artistic Director of JAG, spoke of his desire to give audiences, “a hybrid of all the many ways in which we are thinking about producing theater.” Suzanne McDowell, King Arthur’s Vice President of CSR and Sustainability, wrote about supporting Green’s vision. “The idea of Theatre on the Hill was born out of the natural link between food and art and the potential for King Arthur Baking to offer a vibrant, living stage for JAG’s work.”
JAG and King Arthur Baking Company first came together through JAG’s ambassador partnership program in which organizations or businesses interested in promoting marginalized voices and adopting anti-racist policies can find creative ways to partner with JAG and support their work. This particular program came about after a year of building a relationship between the two companies and through Green’s desire to create in-person programming for the community before heading back into the theater in the fall. Luckily for all of us, this manifested in an outdoor theater experience not to be missed.
So, what can we expect to see at this event? A little bit of everything. Starting off the series will be a workshop production of a play that was first featured as a staged reading at JAGFest 4.0. JAGFest is a yearly new works festival that invites up-and-coming Black playwrights from all over the country to stage their new pieces here in the Upper Valley. The play a curious thing; or superheroes k’aint fly by Jeremy O’Brian, a “90-minute queer romance… exploring the universal question of parenthood in a world laden with danger,” was the hit of the 2019 festival.
For the following two weekends, Green himself is directing a concert version of Next to Normal (Yorkey & Kitt), a Pulitzer-Prize and Tony-Award-winning musical that explores mental health and a family dealing with crises. “You’re going to get that sensation of artists connecting to a score and singing beautifully… but you’re also going to be rooted in truth and in reality.” Green speaks of the stigma surrounding mental health and how presenting these stories in a fashion that evokes empathy, such as musical theater, can help normalize dialogues around difficult subjects. “As someone who has family members and friends that have struggled with mental health,” he said, “I think that’s the crux or foundation or root of why I wanted to do this piece.”
Next up, Life in Sepia: Vermont’s Black Burlesque Revue, will take the stage. This piece builds a narrative around the history of Black burlesque in America through a variety of performers including our own local Golden Mystique. The revue will be “femmeceed” by duo Kia Warren and Liza Colby who will weave the story of American Black burlesque through eight performers, each taking on a decade in this historical burlesque journey.
Closing the series will be a staged reading of For the Love of Jazz by playwright Raven Cassell, another JAGFest alumni. First performed as a radio play during JAG’s 2020 COVID-restricted festival, this “jazzical” follows the story of a young woman navigating life and love during the Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s and ’30s. Green lauds Cassell’s work, “She’s written this really beautiful contemporary play that’s also rooted in classic American theater.”
With this partnership in mind, where does the intersection of baking and the performing arts lie? “Baking, it’s a collective experience,” said Green. “Baking allows for conversation and storytelling. When I grew up, I was always in the kitchen with my mom and my grandmother. I remember so vividly the stories they used to tell as they would bake. Baking just allows for folks to connect in a way that removes boundaries because of this shared experience.”
“I hope that during ‘Theatre on the Hill’ series, people will shop at King Arthur and then while they’re [cooking or baking], have an experience about the work and what they saw and have conversations with their families about some of the themes we engaged with them on during the series.” McDowell agrees. “Just as art does, food tells stories, evokes emotions, and activates our senses,” she said. “The act of connecting food and art has powerful potential to promote diverse voices, experience, and perspectives.”
Green is incredibly enthusiastic about this work. Green speaks of theater as he speaks of baking, focusing on its ability to connect people. “I want to lead with storytelling because that’s where we connect as human beings,” said Green. “How do we tap into your heart? That helps us be the change that we want to see. And I think that’s the power of theater.”
Also evident is his deep love of Vermont and of our community. “I love Vermont. I love the beauty of Vermont. I feel like [the Upper Valley] is full of vibrant, community-driven folks.” Green is looking forward to this series continuing JAG’s relationship with the community and bringing new faces into the mix who will want to become a part of making this theater happen and join in helping ensure this work becomes a part of our community for years to come.
Green is also hoping this is the first of many community-based collaborations. King Arthur Baking Company is not the only local group that has helped make this project come to life. Speaking with Green, it became clear that this is truly a community project that has involved collaboration from several well-known local businesses such as Northern Stage, the Center for Cartoon Studies, plus an army of local volunteers. “I think this series is going to speak to the power of partnerships. We don’t have to live in isolation about how we’re supporting each other’s work. It doesn’t just have to be JAG doing this. It takes all of us. I think it will be kind of an entry point for people to lean in and say yes, I like what you’re doing, how can I support? I feel like there can be some cool partnerships and I hope that a big institution like King Arthur gives people more permission to lean in. I want to diversify what partnership looks like.”
Overall, Green hopes that this series is “a reminder that you can have the beauty of gathering again and enjoying glorious theater that’s rooted in reminding us of what happened and where we need to go. This is an opportunity for hearts to mend and to come together.” McDowell seconds this notion. “In our relatively small community, theater makes a powerful impact,” she said. “It can engage individuals from all backgrounds, creating a shared experience that still allows for diversity and difference to blossom, and JAG is a perfect example of that.”
What else can we look forward to from JAG? Green is optimistic to see an outdoor summer series return in the future, and this fall and winter, readers can catch more of JAG at Juke Joint, JAG’s annual fundraising dinner-theater cabaret in November and at JAGFest 6.0 in February 2022.
In the meantime, pull up a picnic blanket, cushion, or any of the provided seating and come take in one (or more!) of the wonderful performances this August and September at JAG and King Arthur Baking Company’s “Theatre on the Hill” on Route 5 in Norwich. n
Tickets are $25.00 and available at www.jagproductionsvt.com/theatre-on-a-hill. The event will be wheelchair accessible, restrooms are in the KABC facility, and parking is available in both lots. Seating is first come; first served and local food and beverage will be offered beginning at 6:30 PM. Performances will begin at 8:00 PM. See you on the hill!