BRATTLEBORO—After more than 400 events — three dozen runs of theatrical shows; about 75 musical performances; more than 50 films ranging from French New Wave classics to the Ax Wound Film Festival (independent horror films made by women); numerous benefits for local organizations; political lectures; poetry festivals; a dozen gallery expositions; musical comedy classes; Marlboro College drag shows; burlesque, scene study and playwriting groups; and young-performer one-person shows — Jon Mack is stepping down as manager of the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery.
“After all these years of managing productions at the theater, I looked at my calendar and all I had on it was ‘take out the recycling,’” says Mack with a laugh.
The reasons around his stepping down are varied but interwoven. They include the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed public venues around the world and took a big toll on live theater.
“Certainly the pandemic had an effect,” Mack says. “It went from my being a volunteer and making ends meet [for the theater] to my just paying bills and having no income at all. It’s also a strain on the building, which has storefronts, and many are under great duress.”
He says the new management of the Hooker-Dunham building “really feels they should find a way to use the space that brings income to the building.”
“When you have a pandemic, it’s very difficult to see when one could, in good conscience, bring audiences in, so it becomes a very difficult proposition,” Mack continues. “For all theater this is an extraordinarily difficult time. We thrive on the audience actor interaction.”
Despite recent offerings using livestreaming and video technology, “it’s nothing like a standing ovation [...] or even an audience sitting silently and being with you,” he says. “It’s a very powerful experience and creative on both ends.”
The pandemic and H-D’s response
When the pandemic struck last March, Mack canceled all live shows at the theater.
“The concept of the space essentially paying for itself through people using the place became null and void,” he says. “We held on, realizing that many, many people had it immeasurably worse than we did, but it was painful to have this gorgeous space and not be able to use it.”
In response, livestreamed performances were attempted, but Mack was “frustrated with the limitations of Zoom for a complex performance.”
“Then I talked with Bahman Mahdavi and we developed the SOLOs series concept: individual performances videotaped live with social distancing.”
Rock River Players founder Annie Landenberger became co-producer, and together she and Mack made eight shows that have so far received more than 2,000 YouTube views and are accessible to everyone on Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV).
Those shows have included 30 actors, more than a dozen directors, and several local writers.
“And the actors have been so grateful to have this opportunity with so little else happening,” says Mack, who also expresses gratitude for BCTV videographer Austin Rice and Josh Moyse, founder of Shoot the Moon, the theater’s resident company.
Mack also expresses his gratitude for local theater companies that used the space as their home-away-from-home venue, and to Hannah Foreman, who showcased the work of independent women filmmakers there.
“The Hooker-Dunham is perfect space for incubating new performers, new acts, new shows,” says Mack — “new theater groups like Turbulent Times Theater doing challenging plays, solo acts like Ezlerh Oreste, Bill Forchion’s Billosophy, and Jonas Cain’s It’s a Magical Life.”
While Mack clearly loves the theater space, he also recognizes its challenges, which include an “urgent” need for improved ventilation — especially following the pandemic — and full accessibility.
“It is a gem of a small theater,” he says. “Acoustically excellent. Because of the way the seating tiers were built, there is literally not a bad seat in the house. It is intimate. It is a true theater with a raised stage and good stage lighting and terrific acoustics.”
“In theater, one often goes for immersive theater and by being in this space that’s all enclosed, you really have an experience of being in the theater,” he says.
Unfortunately, he says, the theater sits below street level and can be reached only by stairs.
The cost to make the theater compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act design standards “are vastly more than the theater could achieve, and grants are not forthcoming, because it is part of a commercial building,” he says.
“Since we value inclusivity, we continue to hope that this will one day be remediated. But that’s not easy to solve and it’s very costly, with no possibility of anybody ever seeing the money come back,” Mack adds.
He never intended to become a theater manager, saying he “got into it to do theater. I’m happy we did it; I’m very proud of what we did.”
“And I will definitely act,” he says. “I don’t love producing, to be honest; I’ve done it out of necessity. But talk about herding cats — producing and managing are all about herding cats.”
Still, the Hooker-Dunham holds a special place for Mack.
“It’s a really unique space; there’s nothing like it,” he says.
He takes heart for the Hooker-Dunham Theater’s future, recalling the success story of an Upper West Side New York City Theater called the Thalia.
That theater went out of business, but now, as part of Symphony Space, it has been refurbished, made accessible, and is back in operation.
“Do I hope that one day [the Hooker-Dunham] will become fully accessible?” Mack asks rhetorically. “Absolutely. I wish it will be fully accessible and well-ventilated some day. I really do.”
Mack moved to the area in 2008 for its creative and artistic appeal as well as its natural beauty.
“As a psychology professor most of my adult life, I’ve always taught that the creative urge — whether as artist or audience or both — is essential to what makes us human,” he says.
After he moved to Vermont, Mack, who “did 15 years of political theater in New York City’s East Village,” auditioned for and was cast as Mr. Smith in a Vermont Theatre Company performance of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. He had “the great fun of performing the role on the Hooker-Dunham stage,” he says.
“For a couple years I’d been discussing with a group what it might take to make a theater work, when I learned that the Hooker-Dunham was losing its manager and its fate was uncertain,” he recalls.
So Mack decided to step up.
“I said, ‘You got nobody to run the theater and I would like to manage it — if I can do it with no strings attached,’” Mack says. “All you could do was break even, but I said, ‘I don’t care; I’m beyond that.’ To me it was a golden opportunity, if I had free rein.”
Mack talked with building owner Simi Berman, who, with her late husband Leo, in developing the former Dunham shoe factory into a seven-story maze of offices, apartments, and retail space 25 years ago, turned what had been a vast storage room into a performing space after they “fell in love with underground cinema in Italy and decided to transform the space here.”
Berman agreed to the plan.
“And that was it. It was a phone conversation,” says Mack. “I shook hands with the person who managed the building, and we were off.”
Mack started managing the space under the umbrella of his production company, Cracked Glass Productions.
“The first thing we did was ‘Act Out!,’ which invited everyone to come and do their own thing, and we had about 25 people,” he says.
“I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to run the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery these past seven years. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
And he talked with Moyse about creating a resident company — Shoot the Moon —at the theater, which they went on to do, performing at least three shows each year.
The theater life
Talking with Mack, it’s clear he has both the heart of a thespian and the chops of a manager who has coped with the vicissitudes of a space that needs a boost.
“Sure, there have been single-night rentals that had email chains a mile long and times when promotors’ visions of audience sizes were unrealistic,” he says. “Sometimes there were demands that couldn’t be met or things that got screwed. Sometimes nerves got frayed, but theater companies like Shoot the Moon and VTC and other theater organizations such as Main Street Arts and Apron Theater Company have done everything from old chestnuts to completely original work.”
During Mack’s tenure, the theater brought to the stage classics including Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, challenging drama like Jean Genet’s The Maids and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, new plays like Will Eno’s Title and Deed, and original work like Shoot the Moon’s Trump’s Fifth Avenue.
“We’ve had seasoned actors with years of professional experience and new actors performing publicly for the first time. Bread and Puppet Theater performed Fire, celebrating its first performance 50 years ago,” Mack says. “Although I was an unpaid volunteer, I was richly rewarded not only in the pleasure of hosting some great shows, but also with opportunities to perform, produce, write, and direct.”
His favorites include Act Out!, “putting on high heels and a gown to play the haughty Madame” in The Maids, portraying Alfred Hitchcock in Cameo, playing Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, “bringing my rock and roll compatriots” from New York (and Guilford) to perform Dylanophrenia, enacting T.S. Eliot’s classic poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and playing the misogynistic professor in the Rock River Players’ production of David Mamet’s Oleanna.
One of his very favorite moments in theater was when he performed the Mr. Smith character for the Vermont Theatre Company in the Hooker-Dunham Theater. In the scene, he recalls fondly, a maid “who is always interrupting” storms off the stage and his character slams a door behind her.
“Well, I slammed it a bit too hard and the door and frame came crashing down, and I said, ‘We’ve got to get a new maid,’” he recounts.
“It was probably my best ad lib,” he says with a big smile.
What will Mack do next?
“I don’t know,” he says with a smile. “The last SOLOs episode I produced, ‘Sense and Nonsense,’ I loved, but it was the most intensive thing I’ve done in years [...] If I have a choice, the thing I most want to do is act.”
Meanwhile, Mack is putting together a short video highlighting a few of his favorite moments and celebrating the unique Hooker-Dunham Theater.
“I am delighted to have had the opportunity to organize, perform in, and turn on the stage lights and imagine I’m Charlie Parker when I practice the saxophone,” says Mack. “As I’ve said, I consider myself very lucky to have had this opportunity.”