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Midd's Town Hall Theater Is Back in Action

State of the Arts


Published July 9, 2008 at 6:51 a.m.

From Cyrano
  • From Cyrano

It's taken 10 years and $5 million to refurbish Middlebury's Town Hall Theater, which reopens this week as a testament to the community's commitment to preserving its past and enlivening its downtown.

A regular slate of performances, starting with an original adaptation of the 1899 play Cyrano de Bergerac, is expected to invigorate Middlebury's night-life in all seasons. "We're already filled for the fall," says Doug Anderson, the venue's director. In addition to theatrical and musical events including a local staging in August of the opera La Bohme the space will be used for weddings, dances, birthday parties, yoga and aerobics classes, Middlebury College student productions and an indoor farmers' market.

"We're becoming a community center because arts centers don't pay for themselves," Anderson explains.

He's got to keep the joint jumping to cover its $300,000 annual operating budget. The Town Hall Theater is run by a private, nonprofit corporation.

The ability to raise serious money for what Anderson describes as an interior renovation and exterior restoration suggests that the theater's support circle will find ways to keep its books balanced. The overhaul was initially calculated to cost $1.5 million. But the total turned out to be more than triple that estimate. "Every time we turned around, there was something else that had to be done to the place," Anderson says.

The bell-towered brick building overlooking the town's green crumbled into disrepair after being sold to private interests in the 1950s. Built in 1884, it originally housed municipal offices as well as a theater used for civic gatherings and entertainments, including a skit by vaudevillian George M. Cohan. As designed by local architect Clinton Smith, the theater featured a curved wooden balcony and an ornate stage. Both were ripped out about 50 years ago. Stained-glass windows fabricated by Kokomo Opalescent Glass of Indiana were encased in bricks. The slate roof developed leaks and the walls started tilting outward at alarming angles.

"It was just a big barn filled with bats," recalls Karen Lefkoe of the Middlebury Actors Workshop. Her semi-professional troupe, which is performing Cyrano this week, began staging plays in the 225-seat theater as it was slowly resurrected.

Planners were guided by a single surviving photograph of the original interior archived in the nearby Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. The stage and balcony were rebuilt, a drop ceiling was removed, and the stained-glass windows were unbricked and polished. A few salvaged artifacts, such as a chandelier lit by 40 gas jets, have been modernized for reuse.

The building has also been expanded to house the theater's offices, while other downstairs areas have been transformed into a mirrored rehearsal studio, a 10-person dressing room and an art gallery that opens this week with a show of photos of Vermont hill farms. A pair of newly installed spiral staircases connects the dressing room to the stage, where a work crew was hanging lights last Saturday afternoon.

"It's like being handed everything you've ever dreamed of having," Melissa Lourie, director of Cyrano, said as she blocked out scenes for the show. "This is going to be a wonderful space for all sorts of performances."

Lourie, an acting instructor at the University of Vermont, said the Middlebury Actors Workshop chose to inaugurate the Town Hall Theater with Cyrano because it's a "family-friendly, festive piece." Usually, she added, the workshop stages "edgier" productions.

That works fine for Anderson. The Town Hall Theater director points to a flip side of its status as a privately funded institution: "We can put on strange and edgy shows without worrying about public funding issues."

CORRECTION: This story originally stated - incorrectly - that the Vergennes Opera House is municipally subsidized. It's not. We apologize for the error.