- Mary Ann Lickteig
- Chris Caswell, vice president of Off Center for the Dramatic Arts' board of directors
Three years after going dark, Off Center for the Dramatic Arts finally opened last week in its new space, a black box theater in Burlington's New North End. Nearly 50 people streamed through the doors and settled into red-cushioned seats to hear snippets of four new plays at the 13-year-old, volunteer-run incubator designed to support theatrical risk-takers and launch their work.
Playmakers, an event in its 10th year, gives playwrights a chance to hear actors read 20 minutes of their work-in-progress to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. Actors took turns onstage, reading a role or stage directions while the audience of playwrights, actors and producers laughed or sat in rapt silence and then clapped — applauding their colleagues, as well as the long-awaited return of Off Center.
"I cried when I came into the theater," playwright Pamela Formica said. "It's so great to be back."
COVID-19 shuttered Off Center in March 2020. Four months later, the board of directors decided the nonprofit couldn't afford to keep its Old North End space and gave up the lease. In September 2022, the directors revealed the location of their new home — a former UPS Store at Ethan Allen Shopping Center — and announced plans to open that November.
"We were hoping to get things definitely off the ground by December," said board president Laura Roald, an actor, teacher and director, "but, you know, renovations happened. And we all know how those go."
Construction workers and Off Center volunteers tore out the carpet, installed an 11-by-22-foot Masonite stage flush with the concrete floor and painted the whole thing black, along with the walls. Out went the drop ceiling; in went the grid, a curtain pipe (with another to come), new LED lights, new speakers and a rear exit. The stage has a 6-by-9-foot rear-projection screen built into its upstage wall, a new feature for Off Center. And the seating is raked; volunteer Kevin Christopher, cofounder of the Saints and Poets Production Company, designed four platforms, giving audience members in the back rows a clear line of sight.
The new space, at 1127 North Avenue, seats 80 and can accommodate 100 when artists don't require a big stage, such as speakers or standup comics. By contrast, the "garage space," Off Center's longtime home in a former loading dock on the corner of Archibald Street and North Winooski Avenue, sat 65. The space next door, which the theater subsequently occupied for less than a year, sat about 30.
During a March 10 visit by a building inspector and two fire marshals, board vice president Chris Caswell and board member G. Richard "Rick" Ames learned that they were cleared to open.
"As soon as they said everything was good, we both cried," said Caswell, an actor and a member of the sketch comedy troupe Stealing From Work. A grand opening will take place on Saturday, April 8, from 4 to 7 p.m.
Waiting for three years is challenging, Caswell said, especially for an organization that is completely run by volunteers. "There are so many of us that love this space so much and believe in it so much that we put in a lot of time and heart to make sure that it was available again to the community," she said.
Caswell likened Off Center to an "off-off-Broadway house." The board keeps rent affordable — $200 for a one-night show and $1,000 for an entire week — so that artists don't need "a money machine" to back them.
"This is where stuff starts," Caswell said. "This is where experimentation happens; this is where, you know, you can fail and get back up again; this is where you can try something new and then shape it into something that is going to work. It's where you can just try, let loose — like, be an artist."
Playmakers, the inaugural event in the space, on March 27, fit that description.
"Theater isn't theater until it's in front of an audience," Caswell said. "So the point is to get plays that are on the page on the stage and then learn from it."
"It's a bit vulnerable," said playwright Conor Casey, whose play (working title Virginia Sunrise) garnered lots of laughs along with empathy for his main character, Felix, a Civil War reenactor and Broadway actor wannabe.
Casey, a state representative from Montpelier, started writing plays a year and a half ago. A newcomer to Playmakers, he appreciates the process. "It makes you want to get right back to the computer and tweak any loose ends that you heard in the dialogue," he said. Playwriting is isolating, he added. "This is the nourishment, I think."
Playmakers runs on one Monday of each month, typically from October through May. So far, two shows are booked at Off Center: Writer and performer Ames will stage his one-man show Remains to Be Seen: The Deadventures of Cemetery Gary from April 20 to 23, and Full Circle Theater Collaborative's show choir will perform on May 5 and 6.
On with the shows!