Carol Dunne paves way for parity in theater with new grant

The Pussycat Foundation issued Dunne a $1.25 million check to establish the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle

by Zach Cherian | 10/3/17 12:05am

Over the summer, theater professor Carol Dunne received news that her vision to help support female theater professionals and artistic directors at the regional and national level had been endorsed by Helen Gurley Brown’s Pussycat Foundation. Since that decision, the Pussycat Foundation issued Dunne a check to the tune of $1.25 million to establish the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle. Such a grant, specifically aimed to support the careers of women in the theater, is unheard of and represents a major opportunity for theaters all over the nation.

The story behind the realization of the grant is also quite remarkable. According to Dunne, it was both a mixture of serendipity and a testament to the vitality of the theater community at Dartmouth and in the Upper Valley that led to her achievement.

“We really have a triangle of artistic strength in the theater up here that we’ve built,” Dunne said, referring to Dartmouth, Northern Stage and the New London Barn Playhouse, the three centers of theater in the Upper Valley.

According to Dunne, the board members of Gurley Brown’s foundation had been on a retreat and had chosen New London as the destination. Members of the foundation were familiar with Dunne’s work, and so during their retreat, the board members decided to see Dunne perform at the New London Barn Playhouse. Afterward, they invited her to dinner and asked to hear her story and larger perspectives on theater, which resonated with the group, Dunne said.

“I found that in talking about my vision for great theater and my vision for community engagement and my vision for the power of theater to change lives, the board members and their cohorts really got excited by my story — the good parts and the negative parts, where I talked about some of the challenges of being a woman in the theater, working my way up rather than being hired with bells and whistles,” Dunne said.

Dunne recounted that she had a follow up meeting later, and this time brought a plan which would eventually materialize into the grant she holds today.

“I created a white paper, which was very much the program that you see now,” Dunne said. “Five women artistic directors, a major funding initiative that supports the artistic director’s vision and, most importantly, sponsors a mentorship for another woman. That’s one of the centerpieces of the program.”

As a function of receiving the grant, Dunne will be responsible to award four other female artistic directors across the country.

“I feel like that day changed my life, because that ‘yes’ has now created so many ‘yeses’ for other women that I’ve been working with to make this grant a reality, and it is a reality, it has been funded and Northern Stage received it this year as the first recipient for one year,” Dunne said.

Dunne also has a variety of roles in the Upper Valley. She is the producing artistic director for Northern Stage where students often go on to intern, perform and work at while attending school and after graduation.

Olivia Gilliatt ’08 is currently playing Nora in “A Doll’s House” at Northern Stage this season. Gilliatt has known Dunne for over a decade.

“I’ve been very lucky to have [Dunne] as my mentor,” Gilliatt said.

As both a graduate of Dartmouth’s theater program and a current professional at Northern Stage, Gilliatt is familiar with the benefits that such a grant can bring to Northern Stage and theaters like it.

“Under [Dunne’s] artistic directorship, [the Northern Stage] has undergone this massive renovation,” Gilliatt said. “More than just the physical renovation of it, they’ve been revamping the way they do the season, and their artistic mission of changing one story at a time is something that they’re working very hard to implement in new ways and with the voices of local playwrights, which I think is amazing. Receiving a grant which helps further that mission, I think it’s fantastic.”

Dunne was also instrumental in weaving together the Dartmouth undergraduate experience and that of the Northern Stage with her creation of the experiential term, which allows Dartmouth theater students to spend their off term working at Northern stage in a professional capacity. The “E-term” was recently given institutional support from Dartmouth, according to Dunne, solidifying the longstanding bond between the two institutions. The BOLD grant, then, will support both Northern Stage and the Dartmouth community as well.

Claire Feuille ’18, a theater major who participated in the “E-term” and is planning on acting professionally after graduation, echoed the excitement surrounding the grant and the praise for Dunne.

“[Dunne’s] a force,” Feuille said. “She can do whatever she puts her mind to in the theater world. I think she’s perfect for that type of grant.”

Dunne mentioned that there are very few stipulations attached to the grant, and the main benchmark for theaters who wish to apply is that they must have an operating budget of over $500,000.

While the initial circle of female artistic directors who will receive funding from the foundation is limited to five total, she hopes that the initiative’s success will expand it to many others over the years.

“I think the goal is to grow the program until there is parity in the American theater,” Dunne said.

The BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle promises to help make that vision a reality.