A year of creativity

The arts community in a nutshell (or two)


BRATTLEBORO — 2017 was another year of creative new spaces and bold productions. New state-of-the-art venues and mind-provoking theatrical performances once again enhanced an already vibrant arts community.

The Stone Church on Main Street underwent a makeover in renovations to improve the acoustics and revamp the church's image. Owner Robin Johnson created the new performance space using as much of the historic buildings' original materials as possible, outfitting the venue with a bar, with an end purpose to attract more well-known musicians to the area.

The building of the new contemporary trapezium heard around the world for the New England Center for Circus Arts opened early last summer. Having outgrown its Cotton Mill location, NECCA's new facility offers endless possibilities for drawing international circus festivals to town, providing even more of an economic boon to Brattleboro.

The Brattleboro Music Center also outgrew its facility on Walnut Street, finally realizing a long-held dream for a home of its own. The new BMC campus at 72 Blanche Moyse Way, off of Guilford Street and across from the Living Memorial Park, has ample space for student and faculty recitals, two multi-use classrooms, a music library and 12 teaching studios, a studio for percussion and high-quality acoustics and soundproofing throughout.

The new Ad Hoc Art Gallery at 23 Canal St., Bellows Falls filled a need for a stand-alone art gallery in town. As economic development director for the Town of Rockingham in 2016, Emmett S. Dunbar got the idea after talking with area artists. Artists Garrison Buxton and MC Noyes and Dunbar worked together for a centralized location to create and share art with the community. Noyes said, "Being part of a brick and mortar gallery has brought great energy to my work and online sales."

On a smaller scale, but worth noting is Danny Litchenfeld's opening of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center to be used as a theatrical stage for Vermont Theatre Company's production of "The Christmas Carol." Because the stage would need to be dismantled nightly for the museum to open during the day, and the stage reassembled at night for the performance, VTC's stage manager, Eli Coughlin-Gilbraith and directors Jessica and Jay Gelter came up with a creative solution: Present the Carol like a Victorian traveling play with minimal props and a small cast. Jessica described the resulting set as "shabby and chic," perfectly suited for an old train station such as the museum.

Also on the theatrical front were several ground-breaking productions. Main Street Arts, in collaboration with the Town of Rockingham and numerous regional businesses and institutions, unveiled its first full-stage musical in decades to appear at the Bellows Falls Opera House, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Directed by David Stern, he enlisted members of New England Youth Theatre, New England Center for Circus Arts, Sandglass Puppet Theatre, Vermont Theatre Company, The River Theatre, and Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. to collaborate in this high-caliber production of love, loss and blood-soaked revenge. Materials for the revolving set was donated by LaValley's Building Supply with supplemental funding from Cota and Cota and High Meadow Rovers. The set built by Stern and crew was amazing to behold.

Sandglass Theater's production, "Babylon," a puppet show based on the stories of real refugees who settled in Vermont, shared a timely story about the plight of refugees in a powerful way. Puppets of a woman from Afghanistan, a man from Syria, a man and his daughter from Burundi, a boy from Salvador, and then the ghost of a German woman from the Second World War ... and a caterpillar, because crossing the road is a long and dangerous journey, presented shocking, but fleeting, images of refugees' suffering.

On the lighter and unusual side was Adam Strauss' "The Mushroom Cure" at Putney's Next Stage. The New York-based artist and comedian gave a theatrical performance of his self-medicating journey to cure his unmanageable obsessive-compulsive behavior with psychedelic mushrooms. According to the New York Times last year's sold-out show "mines a great deal of laughter from disabling pain." Strauss said that the performance is "comedic but also dark at points," and that "some will laugh and others will cry."

New England Youth Theatre was one of only a handful of theaters given rights to the coveted "Tuck Everlasting" in the Samuel French pilot program following the play's closing on Broadway. Claudia Shear's and Tim Federle's screenplay based on Natalie Babbitt's novel poses the question, If you could live forever, would you? The cast included not only NEYT students but also students from Brattleboro School of Dance, and musical accompaniment was provided by the Pit Band Program in a collaboration with the Brattleboro Music Center.

Guilford Center Stage maintained its Vermont connection theme this season premiering Guilford resident Michael Nethercott's "Our Enemy's Cup," a dramatic story of the French Revolution that Nethercott also directed, and four one-act plays by Jean Stewart McLean (mother of Don McLean, co-founder of Guilford Center Stage), both performed at the Guilford Grange.

And as always, there was a robust showing of the work of artists.

Brattleboro's Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts featured artists that occupied the main gallery in two-month time slots. Among the exhibits were David Rohn's watercolors; Eric Boyer's metallic sculptures; Emily Mason's printmaking techniques; and a side-by-side solo exhibition "Oils & Watercolors" by MGFA founding artists Petria Mitchell and Jim Giddings, maintaining the gallery's mantra to feature innovative works by mid-career and established artists in a variety of media.

Gallery North Star in Grafton also featured the work of nearly 30 artists showing a wide range of styles including that of Paul Stone's colorful interpretations of country scenery, to Robert Carstens' pastel paintings and the whimsical, lovable dairy cows by Woody Jackson.

At Gallery in the Woods in Brattleboro, its Roots to Resistance public art installation of twelve, 8-foot portraits of women activists from across the globe is in response to the recent political climate. It is displayed to create a connection for the viewer to the pathways of social change; to imagine themselves stepping forward to make a change in their own communities.

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CX Silver Gallery in West Brattleboro and Brattleboro's River Garden Gallery on Main Street also exhibited a wide variety of artists, contributing monthly to the first Friday of the month Gallery Walk where participating businesses also displayed artwork for viewing.

The annual tradition of art associations participating in open studio tours, coinciding with American Craft Week in spring and fall, continued. In addition, Brattleboro-West Arts added an extra weekend last fall, Rock River Artists held its own tour in July, and Putney Open Studio Craft Tour had its Thanksgiving weekend tour (named a Top Ten Vermont Winter Event by Vermont Chamber of Commerce).

And we must not forget the gallery at 118 Elliot, curated by Lisa Mendelsund, a renovated facility that was built specifically to showcase art and music. Brattleboro-West Arts utilized the facility for "17 Artists — 4 Days," a collected showing of the artists' work, the River Gallery Schools' "Off the Wall Auction" took place there, and exhibits ranging from the local large-scale oil paintings and small pastels by Ralph DeAnna to the bold colors of Lauren Olitsky's abstract acrylic paintings were on view there.

As a music venue, 118 Elliot hosted everything from contra dances to jazz events, Sarasa Chamber Music to the international music of the Balkan Cafe, to calming Sunday music. Plus, BrattRock! a youth rock festival featuring local young talent which filled inside and outside space last fall.

Music of every genre took center stage in other places in Windham County as well. Wilmington's Historic Memorial Hall, Putney's Next Stage Arts, Guilford's Community Church's Friends of Music at Guilford, in the Baptist Church on Main Street, in the River Garden, the Latchis Theatre, Stone Church Arts in the Immanuel Episcopal Church in Bellows Falls all hosted concerts and choirs. Music events by The Brattleboro Women's Chorus, Rock Voices, a cappella groups, the Brattleboro Concert Choir, and Eugene Friesen filled the seats.

Among the many things Latchis Arts organized at the Latchis Theatre were screenings of Met Live: in HD, giving the audience live operatic performances sans travel to big cities.

The Brattleboro Music Center launched its 2017-18 Chamber Music season last November celebrating its new facility, that included a December tribute to one of its teachers in a concert featuring former student, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, on piano. Yellow Barn residency concerts, Marlboro Music Festival, and the Windham Orchestra all maintained full season schedules to offer generous opportunities for the classical music lover. And, in a region that welcomes folk and Americana music, it is a popular destination for performers across the country.

For years, the Vermont Jazz Center has presented renowned musicians and introduced emerging artists to the Brattleboro audience. This year that included jazz master Sheila Jordan, The Billy Childs Quartet, and Camille Thurman and the Darrell Green Trio.

There was no shortage of local authors promoting their recent publications either. Thomas Fontaine published his new children's historical novel, "The Grafton Cavaliers," a Civil War book, written for the sixth-grade level reader; Natalie Wise's book "Happy Pretty Messy," a light-hearted instructional on how to cultivate beauty and joy even when life gets messy; Tom Namaya's book of poetry, essays and short stories, celebrates a life well lived with reminders to cherish the small moments; and a year would not be complete without a new book from celebrated Newfane author Archer Mayor who revealed his newest Joe Gunther novel, "Trace."

Not surprising is the number of authors who reside in Windham County considering the Brattleboro Literary Festival has been drawing authors here annually for 15 years, who discover the area is an inspiring place to work, as did 1700's Playwright Royall Tyler and later novelist Rudyard Kipling.

And festivals abound. The Southern Vermont Dance Festival celebrated its 6th anniversary last summer, the Brattleboro Film Festival and the Women's Film Festival screened many films and documentaries juried by the BFF and the WFF committees. BFF's presentation of "Fight for Justice in Rwanda" about four brave women who changed history for example, or one of WWF's 40 films directed by and about women are informative and entertaining films not found in mainstream media.

Although not affiliated with either of the film festivals, it would be remiss to not mention the documentary "Audrie and Daisey" that screened at Hooker-Dunham Theater. It is a heartrending documentary about the impact of sexual assault compounded by social media on two different girls in two different American towns presented by Windham County Safe Place Child Advocacy Center in Brattleboro.

This is only skimming the surface of events that took place this year to entertain, education, and delight in and around Brattleboro, named One of the Ten Best Small Art Towns in John Villani's book, "The 100 Best Art Towns in America."

And it is still going strong.

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 261


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