Bread Loaf students join with professional actors in summer stock theater

Books and papers are strewn about the floor of the Burgess Meredith Little Theater on the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College. Actors file in toward the open stage from all sides, grabbing chairs for a courtroom scene in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Those not in the scene sit offstage and follow along with their scripts.
As the sun lowers over Worth Mountain outside the theater’s open doors, the actors run the trial scene again and again during their evening rehearsal for “A Tale of Two Cities.” The production is running nightly at the theater on the college’s Ripton campus this week, from Aug. 1 through 5, at 8 p.m.
Director Brian McEleney switches seats on occasion, providing feedback on how the scene might look from different angles. He also springs up and enters the stage to provide instruction on storytelling. “We need the Marquis to care about this,” McEleney says to one actor.
McEleney came to Bread Loaf for the first time in 1984 as an actor and has returned almost every summer since then as both a director and an actor. “A Tale of Two Cities,” which he adapted himself for this year’s play, marks his seventh summer directing a production at Bread Loaf.
“I fell in love with the place,” McEleney said. “You can’t get rid of us. It’s a fantastic, creative, intellectual environment.” 
Since its inception, the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English has placed a significant emphasis on the theater arts. “Harking back to Greek theater, theater was central to the community,” McEleney said, indicating that the play, the “artistic communication of the summer,” serves a similar purpose at Bread Loaf. The six-week School of English graduate program ends next week.
McEleney picked “A Tale of Two Cities” for the 2018 production because he believes it addresses the central issues of our time. One vital question raised by the play is how to deal with division in society, he said.
“Revolution and income inequality have a lot to do with the world we’re living in now,” he said, adding, the play encourages viewers to consider, “How do you achieve a revolution with grace and empathy and a sense of positive inclusion?”
McEleney, also the head of the Masters of Fine Arts Acting Program at Brown University/Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., brings a group of professional actors with him to Ripton each summer to form the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble. Aside from starring in the main production, the actors visit the Bread Loaf School of English classrooms. There, they help the students in the master’s program learn how to interpret literary texts in creative and dynamic ways.
Two professors and 13 students join the professional actors in the production under McEleney’s lead. The students of all ages come with a variety of acting experience.
In her fifth and final year at Bread Loaf, Robyn Lee Horn, an acting teacher in New Jersey, plays the citizen prosecutor in “Tale” and acts in the ensemble. Horn has acted in three Bread Loaf productions. “The theater element at Bread Loaf is a really big reason why I wanted to come here,” Horn said. “The productions have been more than I could have expected. I feel like I’ve really learned so much, and it has affected my directing style — it’s been wonderful.”
“A Tale of Two Cities” also stars student actors with little acting experience. Aurélien Royer, a teacher in a city outside of Paris, acted in a few plays early in his schooling, but has not been in a production since. Royer first heard about the play during Bread Loaf’s introductory remarks.
“I was like, ‘OK, why not?’ I’m trying to learn the language in a different context,” Royer said. “I play a bloody French revolutionary, strangely enough. I don’t know why,” he added jokingly.
Despite lacking a substantial theater background, Royer has greatly enjoyed preparing for the production of “A Tale of Two Cities.” “The acting ensemble makes it so easy for us to play with them. They prepare everything, and when we come, we just have to play. That’s very cool,” he said.
Horn agrees that the atmosphere is open and inviting.
“Really anyone who wants to be involved can be involved. So, you’ve got these top-of-their-game professional actors who are incredible, you have people who’ve never stepped on stage before, and it really does feel like a community endeavor,” she said.
The rest of the Bread Loaf students make up an engaged audience.
“So often they know so much about these texts. People get all of the illusions, so it’s exciting to have such a fired up and interested audience,” Horn said.
Tickets for “A Tale of Two Cities” are available by calling the reservation line: 443-2771. Tickets are free, but space is limited. Performances run Wednesday, Aug. 1, through Sunday, Aug. 5, at 8 p.m.

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