DORSET >> Dina Janis is happy when her audiences are on their toes. Every summer, Dorset Theatre Festival's executive artistic director has her stage offer up a slate of plays aimed at bringing out the best in its actors – and throwing the crowd a new wrinkle.
"We headed into planning this year knowing we had two exciting projects lined up," Janis said. "They are the historic co-production with Northern Stage and Weston on 'The Norman Conquests,' and the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's 'The Way of the World.' Also, we added a managing director, which is helping us take our success to a different level."
Enter Molly Henninghausen, who now fills Dorset's new position of managing director. She holds an MFA in theatre management from the Yale School of Drama, and was managing director and fellow at the Yale Cabaret and Center Stage in Baltimore.
"I was incredibly excited by the work produced and developed at Dorset," Henninghausen said. "The Festival was committed to growing the American canon by fostering new plays in all aspects of development."
In 2016, that will include four plays between June and September:
The Norman Conquests: "Table Manners," by Alan Ayckbourn, June 16 - July 2
In a historic collaboration with Weston Playhouse and Northern Stage (Brattleboro), Dorset will present "Table Manners," the second play in Ayckbourn's acclaimed comic trilogy, "The Norman Conquests." All three companies will share a cast and creative team, and Dorset's production will be directed by Evan Yionoulis.
"Evan brought with her some terrific actors, as she has taught at Yale for many years and really has a superb roster coming through that top program," Janis said.
All three plays are set during the sexual revolution of the 1970s and take place over the same weekend at an English country estate. Each play occurs in a different part of the house with Dorset's being in the dining room.
"Dear Elizabeth," by Sarah Ruhl (Regional Premiere), July 8 - July 23
Ruhl's new play, "Dear Elizabeth," records the 30-year friendship between two of the most celebrated and honored American poets of the 20th century: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
A recent hit off-Broadway at The Women's Project, Adrienne Campbell-Holt will direct. The show will feature a rotating cast of Broadway actors, and the video production technology seen last season in "Outside Mullingar." Director of design Michael Giannitti said he welcomes that return.
"We enjoyed exploring the use of video projection in production last summer," Giannitti said. "It will be rewarding to continue to develop this technical capacity again. When done well, [it] can transform the space in profound ways and can lend itself to the poetry of this play."
"The Way of the World," by Theresa Rebeck (World Premiere), July 28 - Aug. 13
Dorset continues its commitment to developing new plays with a world premiere of Rebeck's "The Way of the World," a contemporary retelling of the sardonic masterpiece by William Congreve.
Starring Tony honoree Kristine Nielsen, it's set in the Hamptons, and follows a good-hearted heiress who has become prey to the approaches of an unscrupulous party boy. After he seduces her, making the older woman a figure of public ridicule, their romance is dead in the water.
Rebeck, one of this generation most prolific writers, will also direct. Her body of work spans TV, movies, and theatre.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," by Lanie Robertson, Aug. 18 - Sep. 3
Lanie Robertson recreates this look into the life and times of jazz great Billie Holiday. The year is 1959, and the place a seedy bar in Philadelphia. The audience sees one of Holiday's last performances, four months before her death.
More than a dozen musical numbers are intertwined with salty, often humorous, musings, revealing a portrait of Holiday and her music. Janis will direct, and for her, the story is personal.
"I grew up on the road with two jazz musician parents, and was fortunate to have known folks like Tony Bennett and Miles Davis," Janis said. "They truly influenced who I've become as an artist and person."
Dorset's design team, will work to transform the Playhouse into a jazz club, with table seating on the stage and in the house. Keeping things fresh, Janis explained, is paramount to her purpose.
"Our growing audience base these past few years has been drawn in great part to our brand as a place where you come to expect the unexpected," Janis said. "This was a revelation for me, and gave me the confidence to program a season with that idea at its heart."
Dorset Theatre Festival is located at 104 Cheney Rd, Dorset. For tickets and info call 802-867-2223 or visit: dorsettheatrefestival.org.
— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist