PUTNEY—In the aftermath of two catastrophic fires at the Putney General Store, the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene, and the economic recession, Maria Basescu said she saw “an amazing community of people” come together to support the village.
Residents helped the Putney Historical Society rebuild the General Store — and renovate the United Church of Putney building when the congregation disbanded and the Historical Society purchased it.
At that time, Basescu served on the Board of Directors of Next Stage Arts, which was in its fledgling phase and is now based in the former church.
Now, she is the nonprofit arts organization’s executive director, and she has taken her observations on what a community can accomplish and transformed them into Legacy Putney, a “celebration of Putney arts, history, and culture,” Basescu said.
Legacy Putney is a 10-day festival featuring music, storytelling, puppetry, theater, dancing, lectures, food, film, photography, and literary readings, with events in Next Stage and at other venues in town.
Although the initial idea was Basescu’s, in true community fashion, Next Stage Arts has numerous partners — schools, businesses, artists, individuals, public officials, and arts organizations — to help make Legacy Putney happen. The Vermont Folk Life Center and the Vermont Humanities Council are involved, too.
“I’ve been very deliberate in the outreach,” Basescu said.
During the work on the general store and the former church — which would soon become Next Stage’s home base — locals donated lumber to be used in the construction of the two buildings.
This struck Basescu as a notable and touching act of giving.
“These trees were grown for many generations on local land. The roots, time, sense of place, and generosity — that’s huge!” Basescu said.
“It got me thinking,” she said, about where we come from, and “what makes this community what it is.”
Basescu wanted to honor that and utilize Next Stage to create a project that leaves something for future generations.
She worked with the Selectboard, and Cynthia Stoddard, who was Town Manager at the time, to apply for an “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The town officials were very supportive, Basescu said.
By working with numerous public and private entities, Basescu positioned Next Stage as a viable candidate for the Our Town grant.
It worked. Next Stage received $50,000 from the NEA, an additional $40,000 from the Fresh Sound Foundation, and $5,000 from the Harmon Foundation.
A common theme across nearly all of the festival’s programming is storytelling. Basescu described a May 4 show, which begins with an evening of Putney stories, as the “keynote event."
Work on it began in September, when members of Narativ, a storytelling group founded by Murray Nossel, came to Next Stage to train participants in the Narativ style of interviewing.
“Fourteen people were chosen for the workshop, and they had to apply,” Basescu said. The winners represent a mix of ages, genders, and types of work they do, she noted.
After their training, those 14 participants fanned out into the community to gather stories from Putney people. Funding for the Narativ workshop came from a grant from the Vermont Folklife Center, and the recordings made during the interviews will get archived at the center.
“On May 4, most of the 14 people, and some of the people they interviewed, will share their stories from the stage,” Basescu said.
‘Everything is free’
“One of our key objectives for Legacy Putney is to bring people to Next Stage who may never have set foot in Next Stage before,” Basescu said.
“To that end, everything is free,” she said. There is no admission cost to any attendee for the entire festival’s programming, including the food served at some events. The only exception is the monthly supper, which is an ongoing event, and that’s by donation.
Otherwise, “we’re not even asking for donations” at the remaining events, said Basescu, who noted, “we consciously designed this to be as open and inclusive as possible.”
Participants at one event can even get paid for their efforts. The “Calling All Cooks!” event on May 12 features samples of favorite family recipes, provided by locals.
“The dish can be anything that’s meaningful to you, even Jell-O with marshmallows in it,” said Basescu, who added that “people will be reimbursed for their food costs if they want.” All cooks will also receive two free tickets to a Next Stage event, and a chance to win tickets to a free Next Stage cooking class.
After guests fill up on goodies, they can stay for a contra dance.
Basescu pointed this out as just one example of “the range of things we do to celebrate all of Putney. And, food is a great way to bring people together.”
As part of the Indigenous Voices of the Land program on May 9, students from The Grammar School will prepare and serve foods using local, indigenous recipes.
Three members of the Native American community, Rich Holschuh, Claudia Hears Crow, and Manunshesh Mekenok, will tell stories from the Native people in Putney and the region.
Basescu noted it was crucial to include the stories of Native American people in Legacy Putney, because they are part of this region’s history.
At each event throughout the festival, the organizers will set up a station where attendees can easily donate nonperishable groceries and toiletries to the Putney Food Shelf.
This fits in with Basescu’s goal of giving back to the community.
She pointed out that during the $1.7 million capital campaign for building Next Stage, $650,000 of the money raised “came from this community — not grants, foundation money, or tax credits.”
“We are a little rural spot in southern Vermont with a lot of needs,” Basescu said. “And it feels really good to give back. This is what Legacy Putney is about: honoring, and giving back.”