Just a Stage? | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published February 3, 1999 at 10:00 a.m.

A sign planted at the corners of Main and North Union streets by Memorial Auditorium touts Burlington as “one of the nation’s most livable cities for the arts.” It’s a proud distinction, to be sure, albeit a bit dated — the arts-friendly title was conferred on the city almost a decade ago, according to Paul Ugalde, development director at Burlington City Arts.

The sign is also good news to the tourists so vital to municipal health: a small confirmation that gambling on the Queen City, a cultural candle in the northern wilderness, will probably pay off. And if the sign is not enough assurance, there’s John Villani’s book, The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, which ranks Burlington sixth in the nation, ahead of larger burgs like Telluride, Key West and Ithaca.

To some local theater artists, however, that sign has had a mocking edge. As local theater artist G. Richard Ames suggested at last Monday’s Burlington City Council meeting, the sign might be revised to read, “The somewhat livable city for almost all the arts.” But certainly not for theater.

The meeting marked the second time in the past three months players and producers in the greater Burlington area have convened in City Hall’s Contois Auditorium to discuss the absence of an affordable, accessible performance and rehearsal space downtown. The Flynn Theatre isn’t really an option, most say, because it’s too expensive. Community troupes pay roughly $1,135 to rent the space for a weeknight performance, and $605 for a rehearsal, according to Flynn programming coordinator Aimee Petrin.

Even Lyric Theatre — a perennial Flynn tenant — is having trouble making ends meet at those rates. Escalating costs influence everything having to do with their staging “blockbusters 80 percent of the time,” according to executive director Stan Greenberg. At Monday’s meeting, he also noted the increasingly difficult search for rehearsal space. Scheduling around other Flynn shows doesn’t help matters.

Nor do long-term plans for a “black box” theater that Flynn Marketing Director Tom Ayres says may be under construction in early 2000 — emphasis on the “may.” In the meantime, the shell game continues. Who knows who’ll be left standing a year from now? As actor Paul Soychak said at the meeting, “We’re almost reaching desperation level.”

The absence of a downtown playhouse is not news, of course. Neither is the fact that theater artists don’t much like the situation. But what has changed is their approach to the problem. Since their “speak out” last October — moderated by Ugalde, who offered valuable tips on how to get an audience in City Hall — a four-thespian committee drafted a proposal requesting greater access to Contois Auditorium, where Burlington City Council meetings have enjoyed a long run, interrupted sporadically by arts events.

What the theater committee has proposed may not read like Mamet, but it speaks a language that powers-that-be can relate to: numbers. Eight companies contributed to the survey — Balaganchik Productions, Champlain Arts Theatre Company (CATCo.), Firefly Productions, Green Candle Theatre Company, Green Mountain Guild, Lyric Theatre, One Take Productions and Open Stage. Together they produced 36 shows in 1998, each show involving anywhere from six to 200 production personnel and contributing an estimated $330,960 to the local economy. Some 25,400 people attended the shows, the proposal adds, coming from as far away as Montréal and Boston. The proposal does not include an estimate of the impact those “cultural tourists” have on the local economy, but speculates that it is “substantial.”

The message rings clear: Thespians have earned their keep. Now it’s time to invite them in from the cold. Veteran actor and proposal coauthor Paul Schnabel — absent from the meeting owing to his work on Rutland filmmaker David Giancola’s latest action movie, Ice Breaker — puts it in perspective: “How many years can you be loading out when it’s 20 below?”

Few are as acutely aware as Schnabel of the possibility of canceled or curtailed performances in the absence of reliable theater space. In August 1998, his year-old Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, a 40- to 50-seat space above Ken’s Pizza on the Church Street Marketplace, was shut down by city fire marshal Terence Francis for building-code noncompliance — right in the middle of the run of Heart of a Dog.

Getting the space up to code would have cost in the neighborhood of $20,000, Schnabel says. And while he doesn’t fault Francis for doing his job, he says that he still feels disappointed. “We were really close,” he says of the space, “but it wasn’t quite it.”

Whether Contois Auditorium is “it” remains to be seen. Although the space is also currently used for public performances, theater artists object to what CATCo. artistic director Veronica Lopez-Schultz, a coauthor of the proposal, calls a “frustrating” system for gaining access that, in the end, results in a “tenuous” reservation of the space.

The physical space itself is deteriorating, she adds, in the absence of a regular theater presence. The stage is chewed up, the drapes are too long and getting ratty, and the lighting “is an injury waiting to happen,” she says. “If there were more of a presence in there on a regular basis, you would find so much upkeep and improvement of that space as a result.”

Ironically, if there is a chief weakness in the Contois proposal, it is the testimony it gives to the indefatigability of local theater artists in the face of the medium’s staggering logistical and financial demands. Indeed, the local theater scene is teeming with survivors. And some of them pass semi-regularly through a sort-of downtown playhouse just a block from Contois Auditorium — the Rhombus Gallery Artspace. His space “has done a good job,” says Rhombus director Marc Awodey, but is “quite inadequate for the job of creating the sorts of dynamic productions that would be of the broadest interest to local audiences.”

What Rhombus is adequate for is noteworthy just the same. Located on the mezzanine level of an old stone building at 186 College Street, the venue is host to the Rhombus Theater Project and an array of other art and literary events, including offbeat poetry and prose readings — like the “Charles Bukowski New Year” — the weekly Burlington Coffeehouse, a monthly acoustic musicians co-op, the Minimal Press Collective, visual art shows, and a soon-to-be-resumed film series starring a video projector that once served aboard a 747.

It’s a busy space, in other words. It’s also fairly raw and not ideal for theater. The ceilings are low, the makeshift stage tiny and uncurtained, the wooden bench seats borrowed. Some of the 900-or-so square feet is taken up by an office and two other small rooms. The size and layout makes the space better suited to readings and one- or two-person performances than full productions, Awodey notes. Nevertheless, a good many shows have gone up there since Rhombus came into being in November 1997, and many a theater artist locked out of this or that venue has found it a short-term sanctuary.

Maintaining that sanctuary is now the task of Stephen Goldberg, the playwright-director who crossed the street to help Awodey when Schnabel lost the Off Center above Ken’s Pizza. His current projects include a series of readings of well-known 20th-century plays, “just to get people out to hear them, without doing a big staging.” While that low-key approach may be what Awodey refers to as Goldberg managing “in his own weird way, which is almost like not managing,” he notes that “there are tradeoffs in working with brilliant artists.”

It was Goldberg, after all, who wrote The Delivery specifically for Rhombus last spring, incorporating the gallery’s rooms into the set. The site-specific approach also worked for Green Candle Theatre Company’s October 1996 production of Saucy Jack, a play set in a bar and performed in comparable digs, at 135 Pearl Street. Increasingly, Green Candle is making the bar its home base.

The problem of finding theater space — and it is definitely a problem for companies out to stage more conventional theatrical fare — is itself a work-in-progress. And even with a proposal on the table that was warmly received by several members of the Burlington City Council, the future may bring as many questions as answers. As Goldberg notes, looking back on the four shows he produced at Contois, the municipal auditorium may work in the short run. But it will never be the ideal independent “home” where artists can come and go as needed.

What’s more, getting “favors” from city government can have a compromising effect. “You end up being overly careful and ultimately the work suffers,” Goldberg says. “The ideal situation would be if the city gave theater companies a building and said, ‘You manage it. It’s yours.’ A city isn’t remembered for its restaurants or department stores, but for its culture.”

This is the first in a series of articles examining the state of local theater.