Middlebury Acting Company's Melissa Lourie Brings Cutting-Edge Theater to Vermont | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Theater

Middlebury Acting Company's Melissa Lourie Brings Cutting-Edge Theater to Vermont


Published December 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Melissa Lourie - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Melissa Lourie

Melissa Lourie seems to know everyone in Weybridge. While volunteering at the town's recycling center, which she oversees some Saturday mornings, she calls many locals by name. She jumps into casual conversations easily, as if picking up an earlier narrative thread.

The lifelong thespian's social fluency isn't surprising. Not only has Lourie spent plenty of time studying the human condition, she's also used to speaking in front of large audiences, whether onstage as an actress or in her current gig as artistic director of Middlebury Acting Company.

Since arriving in Vermont in the early 1990s to teach on an adjunct basis at the University of Vermont, Lourie has become integral to the state's theater community. Before she cofounded MACo in the early 2000s, Addison County had no theater company quite like it, she said.

"I wanted to have a certain level of professionalism ... so I felt like I needed to start my own thing," Lourie recalled of cofounding MACo, which, until 2020, was called Middlebury Actor's Workshop. (The name change signified no major changes in the company's operation.)

Unlike the Middlebury Community Players, another long-standing and well-received group in the area, MACo pays its actors, and it often casts professionals from the Actors' Equity Association. Lourie said that, in those cases, she uses a special appearance contract, which is less of a financial burden on "little, tiny companies" such as MACo.

Beyond financial considerations, though, Lourie wanted to fill what she considered a void in the region's theater offerings.

"I wanted to bring really challenging, literary, provocative, honest, high-quality theater," Lourie said. She aims to illuminate Vermont stages with works that compel audiences to ponder human nature. Past shows have included everything from Kate Redway and Stephen Rosenfield's American Radical, a chronicle of suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton; to Paul Zindel's dysfunctional family drama The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

The company's next show is a seasonally appropriate version of Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol, adapted and directed by MACo board of directors president Gary Smith. It runs at MACo's home base, Middlebury's Town Hall Theater, for two weekends: December 3 through 5 and December 9 through 12.

Town Hall Theater - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Town Hall Theater

Trained at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and a veteran of stages in New York City and its environs, Lourie cofounded the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in 1987. She produced its first show, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and starred in it as feisty ingénue Hermia.

MACo's first production in 2001, under its former name, was a series of six 10-minute plays called "Streaks of Theatrical Lightning."

"They were very funny. We picked hilarious plays," Lourie recalled.

Though many of its productions skew serious, such as William Shakespeare's Macbeth and Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, MACo produces comedies, too. Its most recent show was John Patrick Shanley's comedy-drama Outside Mullingar, which the playwright recently adapted into the feature film Wild Mountain Thyme.

"She's done a great job of balancing familiar work with more challenging work," said Mark Nash, former artistic director of Vermont Stage. Nash was one of the first people Lourie worked with in Vermont. She appeared alongside him and his wife, Kathryn Blume, in Jane Anderson's The Baby Dance during Northern Stage's 1997-98 season.

Originally planned for a 2020 run at Town Hall Theater, Outside Mullingar was paused and rescheduled for fall 2021 when the pandemic disrupted live events.

Ultimately, MaCo presented the four-person Irish play not in the theater but in a large tent on the grounds of Middlebury's Swift House Inn. Before the final performance, Lourie took to the makeshift platform stage to address the show's unusual circumstances and the company's adaptation to performing during a pandemic.

"We stripped away everything we could possibly strip away," she told the audience of the production — for instance, by eliminating complicated set changes and excess props. "What we're left with ... is what is essential: the actors, the characters, the playwright's words and the audience."

She wasn't exaggerating. Set dressings were flipped, inverted and altered to look different from scene to scene, and lighting alone was used to signify the boundaries of certain locations.

"She tends to take fairly out-of-the-box approaches," Nash said.

Smith's A Christmas Carol exemplifies those tendencies. Formerly the producing artistic director of the Theater of the Seventh Sister in Lancaster, Pa., Smith has produced the beloved holiday classic many times and once starred as Ebenezer Scrooge. In his view, most adaptations of A Christmas Carol err by losing Dickens' voice.

"What is almost always taken out is his stunningly powerful, poignant, provocative [narration]," Smith said by phone. "If you're not using Dickens' voice, you're really not doing A Christmas Carol. You're just stealing the plot."

Smith's version puts Dickens' prose front and center: The members of the large cast take turns as narrator. All the familiar story beats remain, but they're tied together with more social commentary than most adaptations offer.

Lourie and Smith described MACo's production of A Christmas Carol as an opportunity to showcase the organization's values. Holiday productions tend to be priced to fill the coffers. For this one, however, the company will offer tickets on a sliding scale, keeping things "in the spirit of the transformed Scrooge," Lourie said.

Smith called it a "pay-it-forward production."

MACo will expand its offerings in 2022 with a new summer play festival called American Dreaming. An incubator of sorts, the festival builds on the exploration of race and identity that MACo undertook with the American Dream Project, a series it presented online in late 2020 in response to the racial reckoning that exploded earlier that year.

Burlington-based New York City transplant Gina Stevenson, a playwright and new member of MACo's board, pitched American Dreaming to Lourie after watching the 2020 online series.

"We're really trying to focus in on plays that are saying something important about where we are at this moment in time, social issues that they can communicate or discuss through storytelling," Stevenson said by phone.

"This new play festival will be an opportunity to do more diverse plays," Lourie noted.

American Dreaming will culminate in a series of staged readings of three brand-new works, which have yet to be selected. After 100 submissions poured in during a single week from around the nation, Lourie, Stevenson and a panel of 12 readers have begun combing through the plays to find those that best answer a central question: What does the American dream mean today?

The staged readings will be presented in a tent at the Swift House Inn — with a "festival atmosphere," Lourie said.

From the big social issues raised in the American Dream Project to the clever stagings of Mullingar, MACo's pandemic-era programming underscores Lourie's commitment to thinking outside the box.

"She does know what she likes, but she's always willing to let people explore and experiment," Smith said.

For his part, Nash praises Lourie's touch with actors and her ability to meet their needs, saying, "This is a true humanist when it comes to working with artists."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Outside the Black Box"

Related Stories

Related Locations

Speaking of...