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Company Be to present ‘Love Letters’ in intimate setting

Plays always take place on large, raised stages, complete with lights, sets and oversized velvet curtains, right? Wrong. There’s a whole genre of theater the Addison County scene has been missing that doesn’t need any of these frills. It’s black box theater.
These plays — known in the biz as “equity waiver plays” — are often more obscure and are presented in theaters with 99 seats or fewer. This weekend, a new offshoot of Middlebury Community Players — Company Be — will present “Love Letters,” written by  A. R. Gurney, in the intimate 75-seat playhouse at Vermont Coffee Company.
The play has two actors, no props, no sets and no memorizing.
“Two people read a lifetime of letters to each other,” explained Kevin Commins, MCP board of directors vice president and founder of Company Be. “It’s a beautiful play … The actors are free from the constraints of props, sets and memorization, which means they can focus on acting.”
Jim Stapleton and Diana Bigelow, who are married to each other, will play the two characters in “Love Letters” for the second time. The couple first performed this play at Holley Hall in their hometown Bristol last fall as a benefit show, but that was far from their first show together.
Stapleton and Bigelow have been active in local theater since their arrival from the Pacific Northwest in 2009. They have worked as writers, actors, directors, vocalists and storytellers in Ripton; Vergennes; Rutland; Ocracoke, N.C.; and Off-Broadway in New York City.
“We thought, well we’ve done a number of things that were well received in Bristol, so why not bring something to Midd?” explained Bigelow, who hasn’t left the stage since fourth grade.
So, during artist Susanne Peck’s opening reception at Jackson Gallery in the lower level of Town Hall Theater in July, Bigelow was chit-chatting with Commins and found her chance to bring “Love Letters” to Middlebury.
“It’s funny and witty,” Stapleton said of the play. “There are a lot of laughs, and yet it’s a very touching story.”
This weekend’s performance of “Love Letters,” though just pitched to Commins last month, has been two years in the making. Commins has been stewing on the idea for Company Be, but didn’t have a good venue … until now.
“The playhouse has a light grid, stage, sound, parking and comfy seats,” Commins said of the Vermont Coffee Company Playhouse on Exchange Street. “It’s the kind of black box theater everybody dreams of.”
“Love Letters” however is the first and only play scheduled for Company Be so far. The new company is not intended to add expense or stress to the MCP board. Instead, Commins is looking for folks willing to direct plays; people who may have theater backgrounds with a small pet project they’ve always wanted to produce.
“The goal is to do plays we don’t normally do,” he said, clarifying that MCP is not changing its core repertoire of more traditional plays meant for the large stage of Town Hall Theater. “We’re looking for plays that demand more from the audience, plays that cover topics that are controversial, classic theater that’s not immediately approachable and also new plays by local playwrights.”
It’s an opportunity for thespians to stay fresh, work on their craft and be seen; an opportunity to “be in the theater.” Hence, Company Be.
“I understand directing is a huge commitment,” Commins said, but Company Be directors will have lots of freedom. Once the play is approved by the MCP board, the director will receive a modest budget and “go with God,” said Commins. “We’ll stay out of it.”
Commins, a 1976 Middlebury College grad who spent 32 years in Los Angeles writing and developing made-for-TV movies that aired on the Hallmark Channel and the like, also hopes this will connect the town with the college. “I want to bridge the gap between the college and town theater,” he said. “They are both very talented.”
Don’t miss Company Be’s the first production of “Love Letters” this Saturday, Aug. 26, 8 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 27, 2 p.m.
Editor’s Note: Interested in talking with Kevin Commins more about directing a play? Email info@middleburycommunityplayers.org.

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