Local theaters make summer plans
MIDDLEBURY — The prospect of a COVID-resistant population by July is inspiring leaders of the county’s two entertainment hubs to start planning for a return to in-person entertainment later this year.
Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater will begin offering outdoor events in the sprint and plans to resume its traditional theater education programs this summer and restart in-person performance late summer and in the fall. For its part, the Vergennes Opera House is planning its typical fall lineup of shows and prepping for the easing of COVID-19 restrictions so it can again offer the Main Street facility for private functions.
“I anticipate a run on special events… We expect there’ll be built-up demand,” said VOH board President Gerianne Smart.
Town Hall Theater in Middle bury will begin shaking off the COVID-19 cobwebs in earnest this summer with the resumption of its education programming, under the leadership of Lindsey Pontius. This is the 10th year of such programming at THT.
“She’s planning an exciting summer of camps and classes in partnership with (Artistic Director) Doug (Anderson) and others,” THT Executive Director Lisa Mitchell said.
Assuming COVID-19 is tamped down by President Joe Biden’s target of early July, THT will reopen in a bigger way to indoor activities on Aug. 25 — with the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. The festival was offered virtually last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re hopeful the festival can happen, even in a more socially-distant way, across more venues,” Mitchell said.
THT is organizing an Aug. 21 outdoor celebration as a lead-in to its return to “normal” operations.
If all goes well, September fare will include the Opera Company of Middlebury’s rendition of “Maid of Orleans,” and an original musical called “Showing Up.”
“We’re kind of expecting a slow rebuild of our audiences,” Mitchell acknowledged.
She believes THT will be well-positioned to re-introduce seasonal favorites this winter, including “Nightfires” and a New Year’s Eve performance by The Grift.
Also in the works: “A Christmas Carol” by the Middlebury Acting Co. that will be offered to audience members on a pay-what-you-can basis.
Mitchell is also hoping THT will be able to screen occasional films later this year, seating 100 instead of at the maximum of 232.
In the meantime, THT continues to offer online fare and is preparing a slate of outdoor arts and entertainment events for the spring and summer.
The Opera Co. of Middlebury in June will present “Candide,” a full-length opera on film that will be shot on the THT stage. It will be complemented by a socially distanced orchestra.
“That will be our next, and probably last online performance before we open up for outdoor events,” Mitchell said.
The outdoor attractions will include artisan markets sited along Merchants Row on May 1 and 22. A collaboration of THT and Bundle, the markets will include food purveyors, “art activities,” and live music delivered from the THT steps.
Also, make sure to check out a THT show tent that will be situated in the Marble Works complex between May 22 and Memorial Day. It will host family-friendly and adult improv shows, courtesy of Peter Marino.
A socially distanced “Bees and Friends Fest” is scheduled for June 5 at Vermont Hard Cider property off Exchange Street.
“This is something we’d like to continue, year after year,” Mitchell said of outdoor arts and entertainment events. “We’re proud of what we managed to accomplish (last year), and some of it was due to grant support.”
Last year’s outdoor shows included two performances by Bread & Puppet Theater behind Vermont Hard Cider, and two shows by The Grift at the same location.
Mitchell is inquiring about possible outdoor shows at the Basin Harbor resort in Ferrisburgh, Middlebury Snow Bowl in Hancock, and Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte.
“We realize the THT brand and what we offer is not only tied to our historic theater, we can literally take shows on the road,” Mitchell said. That comment alluded to last spring’s Doc Lyle Sol’s Medicine Show, a musical performance on a mobile stage that traveled through Buttolph Acre and to the EastView retirement community.
“It was a short show — maybe 15-20 minutes — but it really lifted people’s spirits, and felt great,” Mitchell said. “We’d like to do something similar this season, as well.”
Town Hall Theater leaders realize many people have seen their incomes shrink during the pandemic, and they don’t want lack of resources barring them from entertainment. Thankfully, THT has the George and Sue Cady Fund to help subsidize educational programing and tickets for those with financial hardships.
“We felt this was the year to really embrace that fund and promote it more actively,” Mitchell said.
Not that it’s been easy for THT, either.
Sadly, the organization had to furlough a majority of its eight full- and part-time workers last spring. So for the past year, THT has operated with Mitchell, Anderson, and a part-time facilities manager. But Mitchell expects to ramp up staffing — including box office personnel — as revenues start to rise.
“THT’s ability to earn money during the pandemic was decimated,” she said. “If it weren’t for the contributions of so many people, big and small, we would be in a very precarious situation at this moment. The community really stepped up for us.”
The theater also benefitted from loans, state grants and national assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“It’s all been critical in helping us make it to this point, and will allow us to begin the slow reopening in an outdoor season,” Mitchell said.
More information about THT offerings can be found at townhalltheater.org.
VERGENNES OPERA HOUSE
COVID-19 did a number on the Vergennes Opera House’s (VOH) scheduled October 2020-March 2021 season. With in-person events a no-no, organizers focused on a “Broadway Direct” series of shows that people have been able to view online. Here’s how it works: A viewer subscribes to the show by donating whatever sum they want, after which they get a link to five separate 30-minute musical shows performed by exceptional local talent — Bill Carmichael (a.k.a. Bill Walsh), Elisa Van Duyne, Jonny Barden and Caitlin Walsh, accompanied by the expert pianist Scott Nicholas.
The five shows, directed by Sue Walsh, were all filmed at the Vergennes Opera House and each embraces its own theme. The first video, “Stuck at Home for the Holidays,” was released in December. Then there was “Broadway Tunes” in January, followed by “Heartful of Love” in February, “Musical Madness” in March, and, finally, “Performers’ Choice” in April.
Response to the online version of Broadway Direct has been outstanding, according to VOH board President Gerianne Smart. And viewers can tune into previous editions of the series if they’ve only just learned about the show.
“People have been incredibly generous,” Smart added, noting some folks have dropped a lot more into the virtual till than the true cost of a typical show ticket. One couple paid $500.
It’s further evidence that champions of local entertainment will stick with the Opera House during its time of need.
“I didn’t lose one sponsor; the entire season has been paid for,” she marveled, adding performers, musicians, sound technicians and everyone associated with production (who wasn’t a volunteer) was compensated.
Smart and her colleagues are already looking ahead to this fall and the start of the 2021-2022 VOH season this fall. It will likely have a familiar ring, as performers who had their gigs canceled this past season due to COVID will get a new chance to take the stage.
“They are so excited,” Smart said of local artists who are finally seeing a light at the end of the pandemic title after months of being separated from live audiences.
“They’ve been suffocated away from what makes their heart beat,” Smart said. “It’s been hard for them — they can’t make a difference. And it’s hard for us as presenters … because we miss that energy of them coming in and the audience reaction, and restaurants are full.”
Smart and her colleagues hope to soon put the opera house back into circulation as a venue for private functions, including weddings, reunions and baby showers. It’s an important part of the nonprofit VOH’s business plan.
Availability of the hall will be predicated on COVID guidelines issued by the Vermont Department of Health and CDC guidelines.
In anticipation of demand for the VOH hall, Smart noted that residents have had to postpone large gatherings due to the coronavirus.
For more information about the VOH and Broadway Direct, log on to vergennesoperahouse.org.
For inquiries about renting the VOH, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.