Vermont Coffee spills onto the stage
MIDDLEBURY — Coffee and theater enthusiasts can now blend their two passions at a single address — 1197 Exchange St., where Vermont Coffee Co. (VCC) has just opened its new playhouse.
The new playhouse is the brainchild of longtime local thespian Deb Gwinn and her husband, VCC founder and CEO Paul Ralston.
Members of Addison County’s thriving arts community are already familiar with the investments that Ralston and Gwinn have made in the local theater scene.
For 18 years, the couple ran a popular summer Shakespeare festival at the Inn at Baldwin Creek/Mary’s Restaurant in Bristol. Gwinn and Ralston retired the festival in 2014, around the same time that Paul embarked on expansion of the VCC space within the Carrara complex on Exchange Street.
“We took on a lot more space, and we had this area of around 2,400 square feet that we didn’t quite know how to use,” Ralston explained.
Since the space at this point served no clear corporate purpose, Ralston and Gwinn sized it up for other uses. They agreed that it would make a great, 70-seat performance space — also known as a “black box theater” — for small productions under the artistic direction of Gwinn.
“Local people might know my work from Shakespeare in the Barn at Mary’s and performances at the Town Hall Theater,” said Gwinn. “At the playhouse, we hope to bring original work to a small, intimate venue, where friends can meet to enjoy creating and performing.”
Ralston, Gwinn and others pitched in during the past several months with painting and other chores to ready the playhouse for its grand unveiling the past Sunday, July 10, with an open house that included a performance of the play “Billy The Kid Sister.” Admission for the grand opening was free, and organizers will look to keep future ticket prices at $10.
Gwinn and Karen Lefkoe were among the local actors in the cast of “Bill The Kid Sister.”
“It’s going to be the beginning of what we hope is another nice little community space where performances happen and where people come together,” Ralston said of the new facility. “Our vision for it is primarily theater.”
It will also occasionally serve as a recording venue for Ralston’s weekly, one-hour radio show called, “The Reluctant Politician.” The show airs Thursdays at 1 p.m. on WDEV 96.1 FM. The show is intended to help citizens learn about elected positions and hear from the people who currently hold those offices. The show also features commentary from people familiar with the politics and economics of running for office.
“We are going to do some live, before-studio-audience shows for the radio, and hopefully have some candidate debates and things like that,” Ralston said.
“We imagine this pace as being flexible,” he added. “A lot of things happen in this industrial (park) area that support the arts… ”
The playhouse is yet another example of Ralston’s effort to make Vermont Coffee — and the Middlebury industrial park in general — a place for people to gather. Last year he launched his neighboring café.
A Vermont Coffee Playhouse website is currently under construction. That site will advertise upcoming performances and serve as an on-line conduit for ticket sales, according to Ralston. Tentative plans call for monthly shows at the new playhouse, with individual performances following a Thursday-Sunday pattern.
Gwinn will cull her players from the wealth of theatrical talent in the county, including Lefkoe.
“I think (the playhouse) is a terrific addition to the arts community, because we don’t have a lot of small performance spaces,” Lefkoe said, noting the more elaborate THT, Addison Repertory Theater and Middlebury College venues.
“Deb has a unique vision for a theater, and I think it will be a great addition,” she added.
Lefkoe’s fans will see her in December as part of the Middlebury Actors’ Workshop production of “It’s a Wonderful Life, A Radio Play” at THT.
Gwinn will also recruit from beyond the Green Mountain State. For example, the famed Gare St. Lazare players from Ireland will be performing at the playhouse in mid-October. They will perform two of Samuel Beckett’s prose pieces that they have adapted for stage: “The End” and “First Love.”
More information about Gare St. Lazare can be found at garestlazareireland.com/home.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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