Off Center for the Dramatic Arts to Reopen in the New North End | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Off Center for the Dramatic Arts to Reopen in the New North End


Published September 23, 2022 at 2:27 p.m.

Storefront in a shopping center
  • Elizabeth M. Seyler ©️ Seven Days
  • New site of Off Center for the Dramatic Arts
In a press release billed as “big happy news,” Burlington’s shuttered Off Center for the Dramatic Arts announced this week that it will open a black box theater in November, carrying on its mission to encourage theatrical risk-taking by providing affordable space.

“We’re just thrilled,” Laura Roald, president of Off Center’s board of directors, told Seven Days on Thursday.

Off Center is a volunteer-operated nonprofit founded in 2010 in Burlington’s Old North End to lower the cost of performance space, making it accessible for educational and experimental ventures. Its new professionally equipped, 80-seat performing arts venue in Ethan Allen Shopping Center on North Avenue will host shows, events, classes and rehearsals.

“Closing our doors in July 2020 was heartbreaking,” Roald said in the press release, “but that depressing COVID hibernation means we bring a fresh spirit of theatrical renewal to our new space and neighborhood.”

The 1,500-square-foot storefront theater, in the space formerly occupied by a UPS store, will feature a minimalist design “to provide producers a blank canvas for creating intimate shows in a friendly environment,” the press release said. Its grand opening celebration will coincide with Off Center’s eighth Burlington Fringe Festival, which runs December 8 to 11. The eclectic, anything-goes theater fundraiser features a different lineup of 20-minute performances each day.

“We’re psyched,” said actor Chris Caswell, vice president of Off Center’s board of directors.

Burlington has many great theaters, and Off Center doesn’t want to compete with them, Caswell continued, but they tend to be expensive to rent. “We just want to provide a less expensive, smaller venue for people who might not be ready to fully produce a show or want to produce a more intimate show or want to experiment more,” she said. “We want theater artists — and performers in general — to be able to take risks and feel like they can.”

Off Center is a place for playwrights to read and workshop their new work, Caswell said. “Maybe they eventually take it to the Flynn,” she said. “We do see ourselves as an incubator space for theater artists.”

Storefront in a shopping center
  • Elizabeth M. Seyler ©️ Seven Days
  • New site of Off Center for the Dramatic Arts
Off Center opened in June 2010 at the corner of Archibald Street and North Winooski Avenue. Founded by John D. Alexander, Stephen Goldberg, Genevra MacPhail and Paul Schnabel, the nonprofit produced what it called “theater in the garage.” It occupied the building’s former loading dock, which had 13-foot ceilings, a natural proscenium stage and seating for 65.

To keep it affordable, according to Off Center’s website, “every aspect of the organization — from building the risers, hanging the lights, cleaning the bathrooms, planning festivals and keeping the books — is run by a community of local artists and audiences passionate about the need for affordable, professionally equipped performance and rehearsal space.”

In 2019, after losing its lease, the theater moved next door, retrofitted its new space and booked it for the following spring. “I think there were a total of two shows to hit that space,” Caswell said. COVID-19 forced Off Center’s closure in March 2020.

Difficult board discussions followed. “Finally, one brave soul said, ‘We should really talk about moving out,’” Caswell said. That was the right decision, in her view, “because we would have gone under if we had stayed open even three more months.”

The theater closed in July 2020. Board members started looking for new space that November, treading carefully as they gauged the pandemic. Now, said Roald, an actor, director and teacher, “We’ve returned enough to communal life that it seems like it’s the right time to find a space for people to get together for small-scale productions.”

The theater is recruiting volunteers and planning workshops and educational opportunities, Roald said. “We’re excited to move into a period of growth after sitting on our hands for so long.”

Caswell admitted that there have been times when she thought the theater might never reopen. Reflecting back to 2018, when board members learned that Off Center would lose its lease, she said, “We have been in crisis or hibernation mode for four and a half years now, so we are really excited.”

The original print version of this article was headlined "Encore!"

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