NORTH BENNINGTON, VT — Ask any theater denizen, and they'll be the first to admit: the more intimate the performance venue for live professional stagings, the more gratifying the experience for the audience.
This simple formula must have been on the minds of Living Room Theatre artistic director Randolyn Zinn and her husband, actor and director Allen McCullough, when they brought their New York stage experience with them on an annual basis to North Bennington.
The couple, both with long New York stage careers to their credit, began the theater four years ago, and have become local fixtures.
Opening Aug. 3, Living Room Theatre will present two one-act plays, "Playing with Fire," by August Strindberg, and "Overruled," by George Bernard Shaw.
The plays are well suited in the production milieu for which Living Room shows have become known in the area.
Staged on the grounds of the historic Park-McCullough House in North Bennington, the company's plays are primarily acted out in the carriage barn. The couple own a home on the lands, as McCullough is a direct descent of the eponymous former owners of the grand Victorian mansion museum.
Then the Living Room trademark: the play may or may not stay in the carriage barn. In all likelihood, it could saunter out somewhere on the estate.
For these two shows, Zinn said she couldn't give away all the secrets, but smiled in conceding that "accordions and sunsets will be involved."
"The carriage barn is a dream for me as director for its beauty, intimacy and acoustics," Zinn said between rehearsals. "When we staged 'Uncle Vanya,' I made separate sets in four locations and moved people around act-by-act. The intimacy of our productions means that audience size remains small. That has financial implications, but the theatrical experience is incomparable."
The evening will run about an hour and a half. Zinn and McCullough will co-direct both plays. While McCullough usually acts, this time he said he'll take a breather and that Zinn "will have a turn on the boards."
Zinn said the husband-wife artistic team is always curious about style and substance in their myriad forms, and love both Strindberg and Shaw.
"'Playing With Fire' is a rare Strindberg comedy," Zinn said. "The Shaw is delightful from beginning to end. It's uncanny how well these plays go together. Similar preoccupations, even similar words. They both end with the characters going off to a meal."
McCullough concurred with Zinn, adding that in its play selection, Living Room seeks to investigate many theatrical approaches. He cited several past productions as examples.
"After three site-specific productions of Chekhov plays, last year we switched gears with Ionesco's surrealistic 'Exit The King,'" McCullough said. "Then this past June we offered a largely unknown modern masterwork by Jason Wells titled 'Men of Tortuga.' We like to change it up."
And change it up they do, not just in the works they perform, but also in their methods.
To that end, Zinn emphasized that the rehearsal process was critical to all involved in a Living Room production. She said that cast and crew investigate scripts "with joy and depth, accompanied by good food."
"With each new rehearsal period, we begin with a read-through and dinner with the cast at our home in Brooklyn," Zinn said. "We provide snacks in the studio, and sometimes improvisations will center around a meal or a picnic."
Then, Zinn continued, when the troupe arrives in North Bennington, they live together and pull ingredients from the couple's organic garden, and others, and cook together.
The kitchen is where they discuss their work, for hours around the dinner table and after performances when they continue to work on the plays, Zinn added.
"Kitchens are a lot like rehearsal rooms because both rooms balance creativity and generosity and end up nourishing everyone involved," Zinn said. "Audiences will feel the special camaraderie among our actors onstage."
ON STAGE ...
What: "Playing With Fire" and "Overruled"
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, Aug. 3-13
Where: Living Room Theatre, Park-McCullough Historic House Carriage Barn, 1 Park St., North Bennington, Vt.
Cost: Pay what you will; suggested price $30
Information: 802-442-5322 or lrtvt.org
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist