BRATTLEBORO—Even after five years as the manager of the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, Jon Mack can still be freshly excited about the possibilities the space has to offer.
Although only a tiny theater and gallery, Hooker-Dunham presents events that might not otherwise find a place to be seen in the area. From music and visual arts to innovative theater and dance, Mack has programmed a diverse variety of art and artists.
But he still has more to do. Mack’s new project is something he calls “an exciting peer collaboration of playwrights and actors to develop new work and talk about the challenges they face.”
On Sunday, April 15, from 7 to 9 p.m, Hooker-Dunham is launching an “incubator” project designed to give developing artists — both in the performing and the visual arts — an opportunity to hone their skills.
Writers and actors will meet bi-weekly to discuss their work, to read works in progress, and to present their work to each other on the Hooker-Dunham stage. The group, facilitated by Cassandra Holloway and Mack, will meet every other Sunday for a series of six sessions. Anyone who wishes to participate may join the group.
“To put it as simply as possible, the playwriting/acting group is an opportunity for peers to help each other to develop their craft,” Mack says.
Artistic safe haven
Holloway and Mack’s goal is to establish a safe haven for theater artists to develop ideas — a space where they can be supported by peers to overcome blocks and challenges.
“Here, writers can present work or parts of work that are still in development,” Mack says. “Others in the group can then give their supportive reactions to what is presented. If all goes well, we can put the work up on the stage to see how it plays on the boards.”
Whether a play or a scene from a screenplay, the writer can then get a sense of how the work looks and feels acted out in front of a live audience.
“This is important because theater is a community event where people feed off each other,” says Mack. “Creativity does not just happen, it needs to be nurtured. It thrives on the support of a community, not only in the general sense of being friends of the arts, but also in the specific sense of having supportive peers collaborating to help each other develop their abilities and venues where creative work can reach a receptive audience.”
Initially, these sessions will be structured around conversations in which creators can discuss what they perceive as their greatest challenges.
Authors will then give full texts or portions of writings that they’re working on to actors and other authors, who will read the work. There will then be discussion about the work, with the intention of helping writers think through the challenges they face.
“If authors wish, portions of their work will then be acted out on the stage to give them an opportunity to see how their dialogue and actions might work in a theatrical context,” Mack says. “We’ll conclude each meeting with a bit more conversation and planning for the following week.”
Holloway and Mack decided to limit this playwriting/acting group to six sessions.
“I wanted something finite so participants would not be overwhelmed,” Mack says. “They could say to themselves, ‘okay, that’s what I’m joining up for,’ and thereby be more ready to commit to the whole thing.”
After these six sessions, Mack believes participants should get a feel for how this project functions and whether it fills their needs to have a receptive group of writers and actors to work with.
“Since we have the every other Sunday model, six meetings will bring us into summer — a time when people’s schedules often change,” Mack says. “If this turns out a success, participants then can as a group decide when to start a subsequent set of sessions.”
‘A jam session of creativity’
When Mack first took over as manager of the Hooker-Dunham five years ago, he initiated something similar to this project.
“The earlier version of this when I took on running the space on a not-for-profit basis was called ‘Act Out!’” Mack says. “Here, a plethora of local talented individuals showed off their latest works of theater and music.
“I invited artists to bring anything they had to share, hoping it would turn out to be sort of like a jam session of creativity. I think I was over-optimistic to believe that everything would then flow spontaneously and naturally. I came to realize a bit more structure than that was needed.”
Nonetheless, Mack is still convinced that Hooker-Dunham is an ideal “incubator” space, both for conversation and for presentation. With a small stage and about 75 seats for the audience, it is less intimidating than larger venues in town.
“It’s intimate enough that a small group of people feels comfortable — and large enough to accommodate full-scale productions,” he says.
While the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery has long been a showcase for the polished work of accomplished performers and artists, it has also been a space where artists and performers can develop their skills.
Both the gallery and the theater have shown themselves to be well-suited for this role as an incubator of aspirational artists.
For instance, since 2016 the Hooker-Dunham has hosted the AxWound Festival that has attracted international attention. The festival features independent horror films written and directed by women who have found this medium a means of offering striking re-imaginings of horror themes from a woman’s standpoint — a stark contrast to the often violently anti-feminist traditional horror themes.
“Hannah Neurotica, the festival’s organizer and founder, already had been showing once a month for several years independent horror films at our theater, for which the audience turnout would be either small or large, and that was fine with her,” Mack says. “In conjunction with that, she established her annual film festival here, bringing from around the world independent horror filmmakers to a really remarkable event.”
Over the years, Hooker-Dunham has grown to the point where it hosts a resident theater company, Shoot the Moon, that Mack says continually presses the edge of the envelope with exciting work that challenges theatrical conventions.
It also frequently hosts exciting productions of the Vermont Theatre Company. VTC recently transformed both the theater and gallery into an imaginative “Mecca” for their production of Athol Fugard’s Road to Mecca.
“Besides our resident theater company, other local theater groups have used our space when needed, such as Rock River Players and even Apron when Next Stage was being renovated,” Mack says.
In addition, Hooker-Dunham has served as a launching pad for many first-time endeavors. The theater has proven to be an ideal site for many stand-up comedians, magicians, and mentalists to develop their acts.
“Its intimate space gives audiences a sense of immediacy that aids developing artists to hone their skills and enhance their impact,” Mack says.
To further this aim, Mack wants to make Hooker-Dunham as available as possible.
“We want to encourage developing artists [to] utilize the theater for a minimal fee for the opportunity to ‘get their feet wet’ by performing for the first time in a public setting,” he says.
Anyone who is developing a theatrical or musical act that hasn’t been previously seen in public is invited to contact the theater management via the Hooker-Dunham website (www.HookerDunham.org) or emailing HTDandG@sover.net.
Mack realizes that Hooker-Dunham has its limitations.
“The main limitation being that Hooker-Dunham is not handicapped accessible,” he says. “I have tried to overcome this obstacle, but it remains daunting.”
Nonetheless, Mack believes the disappearance of a venue like Hooker-Dunham would be a loss for the arts in Southern Vermont.
“The theater is such a sweet space, which is great for presenting plays and movies,” Mack says. “In addition, our gallery is a fantastic venue for a small show.
“For example, the gallery has for the past several years hosted shows of student work from the In-Sight Photography Project, and continues to have a permanent section of the gallery devoted to In-Sight students’ photography.
“The Grammar School also uses the gallery to display the work of its students and will present student work during Gallery Walk on April 6 and by appointment throughout April.”
A modest vision
With so much happening at Hooker-Dunham, Mack remains amazingly modest about what he does.
“Believe me, I am not so grandiose as to contend that I am creating the Public Theater in Brattleboro,” he says. “Art requires creativity and I have the space to help that happen. I want to encourage local artists. I am not trying to get rich. All I am asking is that it doesn’t cost me any money.
“Fundamentally I believe creative works need to be nurtured. But I hardly claim I am the only one in the area with this goal. Brattleboro is filled with people and organizations that work on nurturing the arts. Places like NEYT and In-Sight Photography have long pushed for these same goals.”
Nor could Mack say that what he is doing is out of some altruistic generosity of heart.
“Frankly, I have a lot of fun running the place,” he says. “It’s not arduous work. I just have to arrange schedules, keep the lights on, and change the toilet paper in the bathrooms. My rewards are that I get to see, and sometimes even be in, a lot of terrific shows.
“At the end of each year, as the time comes for me to consider if I want to take on the ordeal of running Hooker-Dunham for another year, I realize I get a lot out of it. I also realize that I am appreciated in the community for keeping this space alive and active.”