MIDDLEBURY —Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater (THT) last week was once again hosting a sizable audience.
But those assembled in THT’s sumptuous performance hall on Thursday were not taking in a play; they were learning about how to help returning soldiers and their families deal with the real-life drama of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other war-inflicted mental health issues.
The five-day seminar for health care professionals and counselors was the first major conference hosted by THT, as it tries to carve out a dual identity as both an arts center and a major convention venue, something Middlebury has been lacking.
Executive Director Douglas Anderson said the THT recently has been striking partnerships with local lodgers that he hopes will lead to many future conferences in the refurbished building at the top of Merchants Row.
“Because of the Middlebury Inn and the Marriott and this lovely space here, we now have critical mass to think of this town as a convention location,” Anderson said. “What could be more attractive? You could go to a more impersonal motel and lock everybody away for five days, or you could have your convention in all of Middlebury. It seems to be a very powerful recipe.”
A year ago, Middlebury would have been hard-pressed to accommodate a conference the size of last week’s gathering on PTSD, conducted by the Bethesda, Md.-based Center for Deployment Psychology. Offered through the federal government, the conference was put out to competitive bid. Because the conference was advertised for up to 125 participants, the Middlebury Inn couldn’t host the entire event by itself. But inn officials knew there was now a facility right across Court Square that could.
“Without the THT, we couldn’t have done this thing,” said Guy Rossi, the Middlebury Inn’s director of marketing.
“We told Doug (Anderson) that we wanted to picture THT as an extension of our meeting space.”
Fortunately, the theater was available for the duration of the conference. The Middlebury Inn put in its bid, which was successful. And having the conference in the area proved particularly timely, as many Addison County soldiers will soon be part of a major Vermont National Guard deployment overseas.
David Riggs, executive director of the Center for Deployment Psychology, said more than 50 people ended up registering for, and attending, last week’s conference.
“I liked it; we have never spent a lot of time up here; it is a neat little town,” Riggs said.
Participants were able to sit comfortably in the performance hall as presenters used the THT’s big screen for presentations. During breaks, people could take in the scenery and check out local stores and restaurants.
By all accounts, the conference was well received by the participants, as well as those who served them.
“They stay at the inn, they eat at the local restaurants and shop at the local stores and they are delighted to be here,” Anderson said.
“It’s an economic revenue driver, for sure,” Rossi added.
Anderson and Rossi hope last week’s conference is just the first of many. And early signs are encouraging, because the THT’s dance card is already pretty full through next May — and not all of the bookings are theater-related.
On Oct. 24, the THT will host the Vermont Ski Museum’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. This event has most recently been held in Stowe, but a Middlebury venue seems perfectly a propos this year, given two of the inductees: Bill Beck and the late Bobo Sheehan, two Addison County residents with stellar skiing resumes.
“This is a big deal,” Anderson said of the event, which will be hosted in cooperation with the Waybury Inn.
On Nov. 6, THT hosts the Vermont Downtowns Conference — which ironically had never previously been hosted in a downtown, Anderson noted. The conference will focus on ways to invest in, and support, the state’s downtowns.
In its first year, the THT hosted 43 plays and musicals, 16 concerts, three wedding receptions, 10 winter markets, 253 classes for children and adults, six dances, 15 Middlebury College events, the Middlebury Town Meeting, and many other events.
“We designed the theater to be able to do this, because the arts will never pay for themselves,” Anderson said of revenue-generators that go beyond plays and concerts. “The fact that we have this other kind of income stream here is very important.”