Merrimack Repertory Theatre sets Sale

Show must go on for MRT's new artistic director

Courtney Sale is looking forward to reopening the MRT for her first season as the new artistic director.
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When Virginia native Courtney Sale arrived in Massachusetts back in March, the theater scene was beginning to undergo some drastic changes. The COVID-19 pandemic had dimmed the stage lights at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, sending all cast and crew members home. As of today, Sale, the MRT’s new artistic director, is hoping to reopen this fall in full swing.

Despite the major setbacks, Sale’s spirits have not dimmed.

As the newest Nancy L. Donahue Artistic Director for the MRT, Sale is both the first woman to hold the title and the first to hold the position since it was named after Donahue, the MRT’s Founding Chair. Sale hopes to bring to the theater a voracious curiosity, a respect for the audience and community, and plays that inspires our shared humanity.

“We’ve just announced the next season, and I’m excited about the stories we will share with audiences,” Sale said. “We moved two productions from last season — ‘The Lowell Offering’ and ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ — into this year. With managing the tremendous transition of our world, I am so glad we are able to keep these artistic teams intact.”

‘The work is the reward’

The world premiere of ‘The Lowell Offering,’ originally scheduled for this past spring, will instead make its premiere Oct. 14 and run through Nov. 8.

Sale had very limited access to the performing arts growing up in rural Virginia. Her only exposure was her school’s annual play, directed by one of her teachers. Fast-forward a few years to her 15th summer, when she participated in a summer theater program at Boston University. (Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing?)

Sale said that early experience opened the world for her in terms of the possibilities of theater.“I began to understand the world through dramatic literature, collaboration and sharing with an audience,” she said. “Experimental learning transformed my thinking. I knew this is what I wanted to commit my energy to.”

Sale previously served as associate artistic director for the Indiana Repertory Theatre and spent the last three years leading the Seattle Children’s Theatre in Washington state.

The latter theater serves an annual audience of more than over 150,000 with an annual budget of $6 million.

Sale’s directing credits there include “Black Beauty,” “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” and “The Little Prince.”

“My favorite is always the next one,” Sale said. “The work is the reward. I am looking forward to directing ‘Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ in 2021.”

‘We deserve to be … transported’

Of working in a variety of communities across America as a freelance artist and institution member, Sale has noticed a common thread — each audience is a beautiful, complex mystery.

“People come to the theater for all sorts of reasons,” she said. “My hope is MRT will prismatically speak to our community — whether to open hearts, upset assumptions, challenge thinking, or to laugh out loud in a group.”

Sale has a long list of writers she is deeply interested in producing at MRT. She said they are artists who have singular voices and crack open incredible heart space for audiences. She and the rest of the MRT staff will be conducting a short series of interviews with playwrights they’d love to amplify at the theater.

“We are the empathy gymnasium for humanity,” Sale said, referring to the relevance of theater in today’s world. “If theater is dying, then it has been doing a terrible job since sixth-century B.C. We deserve to gather in community, to quiet ourselves, to listen attentively and be imaginatively transported. We get to try on new ideas, new ways of thinking and feeling. Those are qualities of being human that we always need.”

Who Is Courtney Sale?Born in Amherst, Va.Age 40Earned BFA from Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle Wash.Earned MFA from University of Texas at AustinMember of the National Theatre ConferenceMember of Stage Directors and Choreographers SocietyServed as associated artistic director at Indiana Repertory TheatreServed as director of Seattle Children’s Theatre

MRT’s 2020-2021 Schedule“The Lowell Offering”Written by Andy Bayiates and Genevra Gallo-BayiatesDirected by Jess HutchinsonOct.14-Nov. 8Holiday Show: TBANov. 25-Dec. 20“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End”Written by Allison Engel and Margaret EngelDirected by Terry BerlinerJan. 6-24“Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”Written by Ken LudwigDirected by Courtney SaleFeb. 10-28“Wild Horses”Written by Allison GregoryDirected by Courtney SaleMarch 17-April 4“Young Americans”Written by Lauren YeeCo-production with Portland (Ore.) Center StageMay 19-June 7“Every Brilliant Thing”Written by Duncan MacMillan with Jonny DonahoeMay 19-June 7

Season subscriptions for all 7 plays start at $133; student subscriptions $70. Visit www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678.