'Our Town' grant to support Putneyfest

Maria Basescu, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project, shows off the renovated theater in Putney. Kristopher Radder Brattleboro Reformer

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PUTNEY — Out of 274 eligible applicants, Next Stage Arts was one of 89 chosen to share grants totaling $6.89 million to support projects that help communities address developmental challenges using local arts resources.

Next Stage — in partnership with the town of Putney, the Putney Historical Society, the Vermont Folklife Center and Narativ, an international nonprofit that trains people in storytelling and listening skills — will receive one of these National Endowment for the Arts Our Town project grants. The $50,000 grant will go towards supporting Putneyfest: A Collaborative Celebration of Vermont History, Arts and Culture. Putneyfest will be a year-long project of gathering, creating, and showcasing Putney residents' stories. This will culminate in a two-week festival, Legacy Putney.

"One of the beauties of Next Stage and distinguishing factors of Next Stage is really the range of the kinds of cultural events and programs that we can do," Maria Basescu, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project, explained.

Aiming to represent a range of voices from youth to elders, various religious communities in the greater Putney community, and the many varied backgrounds that make up the story of their beloved town, Legacy Putney hopes to create an oral history archive to share with future generations well past the 2018 festival and celebration.

"We are thrilled and honored to receive this prestigious award," Basescu said. "It is powerful validation of our project as a cultural hub for this community and will be instrumental in our efforts to broaden and deepen our community engagement."

Inspired by the community reaction of love, commitment, and support to the rebuilding and subsequent reopening of the historic Putney General Store as well as the creation and renovation of Next Stage's own building, the Putney Historical Society and Next Stage, along with the Putney Library, area schools, and the town, decided to create Putneyfest and Legacy Putney.

Legacy Putney will be a celebration of the history of Putney and the people who make that history so rich and varied. The question of who comprises the remarkable community and what stories do they have to tell is the genesis of the festival and project.

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"The arts reflect the vision, energy, and talent of America's artists and arts organizations," said National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu. "The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support organizations such as Next Stage Arts Project, to cultivate vitality in their communities through the arts."

After observing the community reaction and attendance for the past three years to films created by Putney Central School students who have worked with Vermont Folklife Center, it was clear that Putney had stories to tell and a desire to hear them. The students presented stories based on themes such as food and agriculture, for example. They would interview community members with expertise in whatever thematic area the students happen to be exploring. They turned these stories into films and showed them at Next Stage. This is an example of the kinds of projects that Legacy Putney plans to do in a variety of ways.

To help, Legacy Putney is bringing in Narativ, an international storytelling company that will do a workshop in September to help train the facilitators of the project in effective and successful storytelling and oral history gathering techniques. Bringing in this outside perspective will help to complement local storytelling resources and provide a fresh perspective on Putney's rich history and stories. Narativ works with various communities and governments worldwide.

With a goal to engage segments of the population who may not be as involved in the arts and culture community, Legacy Putney hopes to bring more people to be involved in the cultural activity at Next Stage and in the community via outreach.

After heading out into the area to gather stories, history, and explore ancestry, the culmination of the stories and information gathered will be presented during a 10-day to two-week festival in May 2018. Stories will be shared potentially through theater, music, or film presentations. People may even have the opportunity to share family recipes via the Next Stage kitchen. The possibilities are nearly endless for what forms the presentations will take.

Michelle Stephens is a regular contributor to the Reformer. She can be contacted at juiceboxconfession@gmail.com.