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On the Waterfront

State of the Arts

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When Waterfront Theatre opened its doors in the Lake and College building last summer, Burlington's performing-arts community got a long-awaited gift: a small, dedicated theater space available to local companies. Under the direction of Matt Wohl, who leased the facility from owner Main Street Landing Company, Waterfront debuted with a lively schedule. A re-constituted Green Candle and Vermont Theater Ensemble were among the presenters who stepped in.

But after the first few months, activities tapered off. By spring, the theater space was dark most nights. On May 1, Wohl moved on to devote himself to his production company, renamed Outside the Box, and his improvisational Kamikaze Comedy troupe. "I like producing and directing more than managing a space," he says.

Main Street Landing "re-developer" Melinda Moulton took over administration of the 140-seat auditorium. Rechristening it the Black Box Theatre, she redefined "Waterfront Theatre" to refer to all the public areas on the building's third floor: the Black Box, two reception areas, a conference room and the new, 240-seat Film House, which opens next month during the Burlington Book Festival.

BBF organizers have rented "every available inch" of the building, says Moulton. Other clients -- presenters such as the Vermont International Film Festival, businesses looking for meeting space and families planning weddings and bar mitzvahs -- can use just one or a few rooms, as needed. This flexible approach will make for a "really vibrant, happening place," Moulton predicts.

But making theater happen takes more than just good intentions and savvy property management.

Basic design is an issue at the Black Box. Its name suggests versatility, but stadium risers and bolted-down seats -- recycled from the old Cinema 9 -- severely limit directors' options. "There's no wing space," points out actor Wayne Martens, whose Death of a Salesman was the theater's inaugural event. "There's no place to put a set. It's a lecture hall."

Other awkward features: a tech booth on a side wall from which a section of the stage can't be seen, and a large window on the wall behind the stage -- before sunset, light leaks through the curtain.

Wohl denies these are problems. "It's a great space," he insists. "I will do shows in that space in the future." Technical glitches were ironed out after the first month, he says. And though Wohl concedes that the number of shows dropped off after the fall, he calls the trend "a scheduling thing": "We had a group that was going to take six weeks of theater time and they backed out."

Some producers did return. Catalyst Theatre, which presented the 9/11-themed The Guys last October, staged The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in December, and has scheduled a three-weekend run of Howard Zinn's The People Speak next month. Artistic Director Veronica Lopez agrees that in the beginning there were technical difficulties, such as sound bleeding in from the adjacent atrium. But she sees these bugs as "growing pains" that are far outweighed by the venue's benefits. Commodious green-room amenities, a box office in the lobby and underground parking make the facility "heaven," Lopez says. "Waterfront Theatre is just a gem, and we're doing everything we can to make it work."

Burlington playwright Maura Campbell, whose one-woman show Tying Up Sandima was part of the opening lineup, also returned in the winter, with a fundraiser for Kids on the Block. Technically, the space isn't perfect, she acknowledges. "There's no loading dock onto the stage," so presenters have to park on the street and carry stuff in.

Lighting and sound seem to have been beefed up since Moulton took over, Campbell suggests. At last weekend's The Lion in Winter, staged by Russ Longtin of Johnson State, sound and lighting were "great," Campbell says.

Less great, though, was attendance. That was also a problem under Wohl. Some say the theater didn't do enough to help publicize shows.

"We gave people marketing opportunities," he counters, citing an email list with 800 names and poster sites in the lobby. Beyond that, though, "groups have to market themselves," Wohl suggests. Moulton helped publicize Waterfront shows last year through her business advertising, and now posts events on her website, but agrees that groups are responsible for their own marketing.

That's not easy for money-strapped, volunteer companies, even though Moulton has lowered rent at the Black Box from the previous $300 to $250 a night. One free and effective alternative is word of mouth, suggests Martens. But when shows only run through two weekends, there's not much time for that.

More visibility would also help, offers Campbell. "When you drive by the theater, you need to know there's a theater there and something's happening," she says.

Everyone agrees that building up a new venue takes time. And Moulton has plenty of that. "It may take five years to take off," she predicts. "We don't see the performing arts as a big money maker. It's our gift to the community." One, it seems, that may take a while to unwrap.

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"Wonderful . . . lively and polished!" That assessment, attributed to Seven Days, was one of five testimonials on a flyer for St. Mike's production of My Way -- sent out before it opened. It's unlikely any of the other publications cited had seen the play yet, either. Guess there wasn't room to indicate which shows the accolades referred to.

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