hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




New lease on life

Theater company’s move to downtown Bennington opens possibilities



Contributing writer



When Oldcastle Theatre Company had to vacate its home of 18 years last fall, some feared for the future of the local theater group.

But a blow that could have been fatal has turned instead into an exciting opportunity. Oldcastle is preparing to launch its 2012-13 season at a new space in the heart of downtown Bennington – one that will allow it to expand its season and offerings.

Renovations got under way last month at 331 Main St., a former Knights of Columbus hall only a few hundred feet west of the “Four Corners” at the center of downtown.

“If all goes well, we’ll be able to go into rehearsals and do two or three plays this fall and early winter,” said Eric Peterson, Oldcastle’s producing artistic director.

Oldcastle mounted its last play at its former home, the Bennington Center for the Arts, last October. Finding and acquiring a new home, and getting it ready for use, has taken some time.

After months of dealing with engineers, designers and building tradespeople, “I’m anxious to talk to actors again,” Peterson said.

Oldcastle was born in 1972, organized by five actors who had studied together in New York City. They formed a company that toured New York, Vermont and New Jersey. Peterson, one of the five, was a Bennington native, so the company developed close ties to this area.

In 1977, Oldcastle took up residence in the Everett Mansion at Southern Vermont College. In the early 1990s, husband and wife Bruce Laumeister and Elizabeth Small began working on the Bennington Center for the Arts, on Route 9 west of town, and invited Oldcastle to be part of it.

The performance space at the arts center was crafted with Oldcastle’s needs in mind.

“The theater was built for us,” Peterson said. “We got to design that acting space.”

Oldcastle presented its first production at the arts center’s 300-seat theater in 1994 and continued to do several plays a year through 2011. But in June 2011, Peterson received a letter from Laumeister and Small asking that Oldcastle move out.

“All I know was what was in the letter,” Peterson said. “They wanted to go in a different direction.”

Moving an established theater company isn’t easy.

“We had 18 years of stuff there,” Peterson said. Supporters helped the company find storage space at two locations in Bennington and at a barn in Pownal. Then Peterson and Oldcastle’s board of directors began searching for a new home.

Finding the right space
Several towns in the region invited Oldcastle to consider them.

“We were seriously wooed by a Berkshire town,” Peterson said. “But we really wanted to be in downtown Bennington.”

Bennington has a number of vacant buildings. The former Knights of Columbus hall, next to the H. Greenberg & Son Inc. building supply complex, “was the only building we went into and felt immediately that it would make a great theater,” Peterson said.

The two-story brick building was constructed in 1948 on an odd-shaped lot, which makes the building not quite rectangular. The Knights of Columbus held meetings, dinners and dances there, roller-skated in the main hall, and had a bowling alley in the basement, Peterson said. Buildings of that area were constructed for strength, not merely to meet code, he said, so it’s relatively easy to convert them to other purposes.

The Knights of Columbus moved out four or five years ago. The Greenberg family bought the structure and used it for storage and special sales.

Details of ownership of Oldcastle’s new home “are being worked out,” Peterson said, adding that “the Greenbergs have been wonderfully generous.”

Bob Howe, a member of Oldcastle’s board of directors, and his son, actor Richard Howe, designed seating modules for the new theater to allow rapid changes of seating arrangements, from traditional proscenium to three quarters to theater in the round.

“This has the potential to revolutionize how small professional theaters are set up,” Peterson said.

A frequent limitation in small theaters is that seat 22, for example, is always in the same place relative to the stage.

“This flexible configuration will help to refresh the theater experience,” he said.

Other designers who have worked with Oldcastle in the past are also lending their expertise, Peterson said.

Along with conversion of the main hall, Oldcastle is renovating the building’s entrance to make it barrier-free and installing an accessible restroom. The company recently received a donation of a 1,500-volume theater and film library, which will go on the second floor. The basement will provide space for set and costume shops, storage, rehearsal and dressing rooms, and a green room.

Costs – and benefits
The overhaul is expected to cost a little more than $1 million.

“We’ve had a very good response thus far to fund raising,” Peterson said.

About $700,000 has been donated or pledged. Patrons will have the opportunity to buy a seat, and Oldcastle is also looking for corporate sponsors.

If construction proceeds on schedule, the inaugural production in the new theater will be Thornton Wilder’s romantic farce “The Matchmaker” in October, followed by the premiere of Carlton Carpenter’s musical “Northern Boulevard” in November.

Carpenter, an Oldcastle regular, “has had an extraordinary career as an actor, singer, songwriter, novelist, and musical theater playwright,” Peterson said.

Then, “if the calendar doesn’t run out on us,” Oldcastle will revive “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” in December.

The 2013 season, projected to have six shows, will begin in April with “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive,” a one-woman play about one of the area’s best-known residents.

“We really search for pieces that speak to people in New England,” Peterson said. “One of the responsibilities of regional theater is to do plays about the region. We look for plays written by Vermonters.”

Oldcastle will share its building with a second company, the Oldcastle Actors Express, a non-Equity company that works with children’s audiences. And it’s looking for a third company.

Peterson expects the building will also host theater classes, movies, lectures, live music and a small gallery of local artwork in the lobby.

“We want this building to be used as much as possible,” Peterson said.

Boost for a downtown
Peterson said he expects that Oldcastle’s move downtown will be good for both the theater and its new neighbors.

“The future of downtown Bennington is very bright,” he said. “Exciting things are happening. We want to be a major component of that.”

He said he hoped most theatergoers would park on the east side of the Four Corners and walk from there, passing downtown shops and restaurants on the way to the show.

“The more bustling downtown is, the more exciting theater will be,” he said.

Actors should appreciate the downtown location too, as they’ll be able to walk to a restaurant after the show for a meal and to unwind.

“We almost always have more than 50 people on staff” at some point during a production, Peterson said. Those lighting and sound technicians, costume mistresses, and stage hands will add to the impact of the audiences Oldcastle draws downtown.

“Every downtown organization would kill to have live theater on Main Street,” said John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp., which is dedicated to the support and improvement of Bennington’s downtown.

When an Associated Press story about Oldcastle’s relocation went national, “we got calls from all over congratulating us,” Shannahan said.

Shannahan’s group has a committee working on organizing monthly “downtown nights,” with shops and restaurants open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the first night of a new show, so that visitors can eat and shop before curtain time.

At the same time, several academic institutions are opening branches downtown, downtown parks are being revitalized, and plans are afoot for a downtown food co-op, Shanahan said.

“The theater is an asset to downtown,” Shanahan said. “We want to make sure downtown is an asset to the theater.”

More space for performing arts
With Oldcastle gone, Bennington Center for the Arts is slowly building its own performing arts series, said Elizabeth Small, the center’s curator. Shows this year have included a touring production of Mozart’s opera “Abduction from the Seraglio” in June, classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala in July, and pianist Mackenzie Melemed in August. Tom Rush is coming in September, and the classical MiXt trio will do a show in October.

“We have a beautiful hand-made Fazioli grand piano from Italy, and our acoustics are fantastic,” Small said. “We want to have a full schedule of music.”

The center also works with local colleges to host lectures, training sessions, and convocations, Small said.

“These are the sort of things we want to do” with the center’s theater, she said. “We have a lot more flexibility.”

For its part, Oldcastle also will have more flexibility in its new home. Because of restrictions set by the Bennington Center for the Arts, the company was down to four shows a year before it was asked to leave, Peterson said.

Downtown, the company plans performances from spring through fall and one show during the winter.

“There’s an awful lot of theater in this area for certain months of the year,” Peterson said. “We want to expand to other months. There should be enough of an audience in the winter for the theater we want to do.”

So the company’s forced departure from the Center for the Arts, he suggested, may turn out to be surprisingly good for the theater group and for Bennington.

“The worst thing and the best thing have both happened to us,” Peterson said.



What’s in a name?

More than a castle

Oldcastle Theatre Company chose its name before it took up residence in the Everett Mansion, the “old castle” at Southern Vermont College, where the troupe performed from 1977-93.

But Eric Peterson, the company’s producing artistic director, explained that the name also makes reference to something farther back in theatrical history.

Sir John Oldcastle was a real person during Shakespeare’s time, and Shakespeare wrote him into a play as a comic character under that name. When Sir John’s family objected, Shakespeare changed the character’s last name to Falstaff. “Falstaffian” has become an adjective in its own right, denoting a rotund, jovial, bawdy person.



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