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Next Stage sets up shop in historic Putney church

Goal is to create a performing arts center for the community

PUTNEY—The General Store isn’t the only historic landmark in this town enjoying a second chance at life.

Nearly two years after the United Church of Putney held its last religious service, efforts are under way to transform the historic building into a community performing arts space.

The church disbanded in June of 2009, and two months later, the board of the Putney Historical Society voted to accept the property and spent about a year trying to figure out a use for the building.

“The church building itself is a pretty vital part of the community,” said Stuart Strothman of the historical society. “But the church couldn’t find a way to keep things together financially. It’s a large responsibility for us, but it is also a major asset.”

The question of how the historical society could best leverage that asset was key.

Since its last religious service, the church had been the site of monthly community suppers, as well as regular meetings for support groups. The historical society wanted to maintain those activities while expanding the possibilities.

It took a benefit concert, held at the church in the wake of the November 2009 fire that destroyed the general store for a second time, to provide the inspiration for a new plan.

The success of that show, Strothman said, demonstrated that the church had a lot of potential as a performance space.

“The place has decent acoustics, and the size is just right, about 170-180 seats,” he said. “We knew the place needed work, but it’s a historical gem.”

Now, after about a year of study and work, the historical society has come up with a plan that would preserve the historical character of the church, while turning it into a performing arts space that the whole community could use.

The Next Stage Arts project is the fruit of all that planning. It is the new nonprofit umbrella group that is in the process of turning an old church into a building full of possibilities.

Building the team

Strothman said that the historical society assembled a formidable team to study the feasibility of the plan.

Chip Greenberg, who runs an architectural firm in Putney and has served on the boards of a number of nonprofit arts organizations, helped put the study together.

Joining him was Eric Bass of Sandglass Theater in Putney, Barry Stockwell of Twilight Music and the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery in Brattleboro, and music producer and songwriter Billy Straus.

Strothman said that Bass’s and Stockwell’s experience with managing performance spaces, combined with Straus’s extensive experience in the music industry, were critical, as was Putney Historical Society President Lyssa Papazian’s expertise in historical restoration and grant writing.

But Strothman said the biggest coup for the historical society was getting the services of John Burt, whose work in rehabilitating the Clayton Opera House in the Thousand Islands region of New York state is considered a model for small-town arts efforts.

After a careful evaluation, Strothman said that the historical society found that the idea of a performing arts center “would be physically and economically feasible,” and that it would create “a new, vital identity for this building, which will provide income and entertainment for Putney residents and visitors.”

He added that the general store project showed that the historical society is capable of doing the fundraising and planning necessary for a major project.

“The challenge is going to be developing a partnership, and building the collaboration and logistics that are necessary to do a project like this one,” said Strothman.

A fixer-upper

Strothman said the building needs considerable work.

For example, the back addition where the bathrooms are located is rotting, he said, and needs replacing altogether. Paint is peeling on the embossed tin ceiling upstairs, and the cushions on the pews are worn and threadbare.

But work has already been done to upgrade the performance area. The altar was removed, and now there are a level stage, a couple of light bars on the side for stage lighting, and a $10,000 electrical upgrade for the building.

“Building a stage was the first thing we did right out of the gate,” said Straus.

The pews aren’t going anywhere, Stockwell said, but they will likely be moved a bit to provide more tiered seating and improve the sight lines for theater and other performing arts.

“It’s still a historic building, and you want to preserve as much of it as you can,” he said.

Strothman noted that careful attention will be paid to the church’s historic character while providing the necessities of a modern performance space, such as a good sight lines, a green room, and accessibility.

Even without those qualities, the space has served as the setting for a few well-attended concerts and events over the past few months.

“It’s not ideal now,” said Strothman, “but the building is structurally sound and, even though the place still needs work, it’s been a busy place already.”

“There has been a tremendous amount of things going on here, despite all the work that’s being done,” added Straus. “Most of the work going forward can be done around the shows.”

The biggest job still to do, said Stockwell, is building an exterior elevator to bring disabled patrons to the upstairs performance space.

Filling the space

Stockwell, a Putney native, is excited about the project. He will be the one who will manage the space, book the acts, and help out as a house manager.

He acknowledges that he will be drawing upon his experience running the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery in Brattleboro for the past few years.

“We’ll make the space available to anyone, but it will be the core groups — Twilight Music, Yellow Barn, the film series that Billy [Straus] is planning — that will be the regular users,” he said.

“The key to making any space work is variety and reaching out to different groups,” he added. “That’s what we hope to do with Next Stage.”

The Hooker-Dunham Theater seats 99, and Stockwell still plans to use it for the smaller shows and new acts that Twilight Music promotes. But having a venue that seats roughly twice as many people offers more flexibility.

“I’ve been doing the Twilight on the Tavern lawn concerts for the past few summers,” he said. “Now, I’ll not only have a space for when it rains. I’ll be able to do those shows throughout the year.”

Seth Knopp, artistic director of Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Putney, said that for years, his organization has wanted a year-round venue in town.

“We like being part of the community and want to have performances in Putney beyond just the summer,” he said. “This is a great space. The sound in here is naturally beautiful for music. There’s a little natural reverb, but performers aren’t swimming in it. Performers can hear themselves play, and there is an honest sound here.”

Straus agreed. He has recorded many shows over the past few months in the church.

“Even with a tin ceiling, there’s a good, natural sound,” he said. “The proportions of the room are good, and the curved sides help break up the standing waves of sound. The pews break up a lot of sound waves, too.”

Straus hopes to start showing films at the church in June. A projection screen and a surround-sound system has been installed, and window shades to block out the light from the huge church windows are coming.

“There’s a pent-up demand for quality entertainment on a local level,” he said. “The idea that you don’t have to go to Brattleboro or Keene to see a movie, or that you can drop the kids off for a movie, is great.”

A downtown rebirth

All the people involved with Next Stage hope it can be part of the return of a vibrant downtown Putney.

“Putney has had a tough couple of years. With the General Store opening up by the end of the summer, I think things will be hitting their stride soon,” said Straus. “Next Stage dovetails nicely with the General Store, and other things are coalescing around what we’re doing.”

For Stockwell, it’s all about seeing one of the landmark buildings of his hometown get another chance to thrive.

“It’s right downtown, and so many people in Putney have a connection to the old church,” he said. “Everyone has a little piece of it. If we can offer food, music — the whole package — and have it available to the whole community, it will be a great thing.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).

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