The little theater that could
Jon Mack, left, and Evelyn Gelter in a scene in Vermont Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”

The little theater that could

After a successful first year, Jon Mack is hopeful for the future of the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery

BRATTLEBORO — Jon Mack is somewhat surprised that running the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery (H-D) should still be fun.

After about 18 months of managing the small theater in downtown Brattleboro that's tucked away inside a building that once was an old shoe factory, Mack says the place “is actually doing extremely well, thank you,” and even made a small profit this year.

H-D is run on a not-for-profit, cost-sharing model (“I am finished with the for-profit world,” Mack says). There is no paid managerial staff and all income beyond expenses goes directly back into the theater.

“With this year's profits, we have upgraded the lighting for the stage, with the instrumental help of Jerry Stockman. Installing a new light board, we have much more control on how the stage will be lit.”

Mack's goal is to keep “a unique and very special place alive and vital to the community.”

He elaborates.

“The Hooker-Dunham is an intimate theater and gallery where a wide variety of performance and visual arts can find expression. The theater is quite a little cavern, which is terrific acoustically and has reasonably comfortable seating and perfect sight lines. Furthermore, it has a real legitimate stage.”

Mack is aware that Brattleboro has other performing spaces.

“There are a wonderful variety of venues in our area, each filling a unique set of needs,” he says. “The Hooker-Dunham is particularly ideal for performances that require the combination of an intimate setting, excellent acoustics, a raised theatrical stage, and stage lighting at a minimal cost.”

However, Mack is the first to concede that the theater has its limitations.

“The place is not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible,” he says. “The only means of egress are stairs, so some people with disabilities simply are not able to come to this theater. Of course, we regret this.

“Certain organizations that once used the space and now get grants that require ADA-compliance, such as the Woman's Film Festival and the Literary Festival, no longer can use the Hooker-Dunham for their events. While it remains an important goal to make the theater fully accessible, keeping the theater alive and thriving until that day arrives is our goal.”

Since he began his tenure as manager under the auspices of Cracked Glass Productions, Mack has overseen significant improvements to Hooker-Dunham. The new light board makes illumination possible in multiple areas of the stage and LED lights bring color onstage for theater and concerts. Also, the stage itself has grown by seven feet.

“We also have an improved green room,” says Mack. “And professional cleaners are giving the place a much-needed spruce-up with regular maintenance.”

An incredible array of artistic events have taken place at Hooker-Dunham in the past year-and-a-half, including music, film, theater, stand-up comedy, workshops, classes, and community benefits.

“I could not be more pleased what's happened so far,” says Mack. “More than 50 separate events and gallery shows of all sorts have taken place, all different, exciting and innovative. And the theater is already booked for most of the spring of 2016.”

Hooker-Dunham has been host to a variety of film festivals and presentations, such as the Kopkind Colony's CineSLAM and a benefit showing of a documentary about the Gee's Bend artisans, with some of the famed quilters in attendance.

A special movie event was the Women in Horror Film Festival. Curated by Hannah Foreman, this festival presented independent short horror films by women directors, with panel discussions by directors and others involved in creating the films.

It was so successful that, coming in 2016, Hooker-Dunham will offer Horror at the Hooker, monthly Tuesday night showings of independent horror films curated by Foreman.

H-D has presented musical events of all kinds, including tribute bands and blues; innovative jazz with artists such as Wanda Houston, Eugene Uman, and Peter and Will Anderson; Open Music Collective faculty and student concerts; original folk/rock/indie explorations from artists such as Damaris and Barefoot Movement; and Irish/Scottish traditional and world music by such groups as Alba's Edge and The Ukuladies.

As a venue for theater, Hooker-Dunham has become a home away from home for theater companies and individuals, such as Vermont's Northeast Kingdom's Bread and Puppet Theater, Saxtons River's Main Street Arts, and the Pioneer Valley's Real Live Theatre.

Mack says his space is an ideal venue for one-man shows like Charles Monette's Becoming Van Gogh and Jerry Levy's Marx in Soho and The Second Coming: Marx Returns.

When Next Stage in Putney was renovating its own space this fall, its theater-company-in-residence, Apron Theatre Company, presented a staged reading at Hooker-Dunham.

Speaking of resident companies, Hooker-Dunham itself now has one of its own, Shoot The Moon Theater Company. With Josh Moyse as its artistic director, Shoot the Moon has set the goal to present “challenging, provocative, innovative, entertaining theater” for three productions per year.

This will include its popular Annual Fear-Fest, which in past years presented original adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula (in which, as van Helsing, Mack had the privilege of stabbing a vampire in the heart). In 2016, the company is planning to adapt work by J.P. Lovecraft.

Hooker-Dunham remains one of the main venues used by Vermont Theater Company (VTC). Last year, it presented I Never Sang for My Father, and now is bringing back A Christmas Carol, which VTC and Hooker-Dunham plan to make an annual event.

“Building on last year's enormously popular show, this year features wonderful actors from delightful young actors to 'seasoned' actors like myself,” continues Mack. “Filled with the music of a delightful array of Christmas carols, it's the classic story of the redemption of the miserly misanthrope, Ebenezer Scrooge.”

And guess who plays Ebenezer? You got it.

“I get the wonderful opportunity to play Scrooge again,” says Mack gleefully. “Few roles in theater offer such a chance for such a miraculous transformation, and the way each and every cast member gives their all to make their part moving and believable is a delight. My part is an actor's dream. It has everything except the joy of dying on stage. But I do get to see some dead people.”

Mack says he has found the experience very enjoyable, but demanding.

“How many times can you play a character that goes from bad to good,” he says, adding that VTC was not required to use him. However, he says he guesses that VTC could sense a true theater ham when they found one.

In addition, area organizations, including Windham Child Care Association, The Commons, Post Oil Solutions, Brattleboro Winter Shelter, Morningside Shelter, and Gee's Bend Artisans, have used H-D to hold benefits.

“Hooker-Dunham is a wonderful, warm, inviting space for benefits, and almost invariably they have been sold out,” says Mack.

He says he is pleased Hooker-Dunham is able to host topical, awareness-raising, and sometimes controversial shows, revealing many points of view, such as in the Brattleboro Solar Summit, Ask a Sex Abuse Survivor, and Firefighters and Architects for 9-11 Truth.

And then there are some strange events at Hooker-Dunham in a class of their own, such as the evening of poetry, music, multimedia, and journalism by Vortex 2, or Triskaidekaphobia Valentine's Day.

“For me personally, it has been a total thrill to have all these wonderful groups come through the theater and to see the energy, and enthusiasm of all our local talent as well as the touring groups that come to our town,” says Mack. “Audience response is always enthusiastic.”

Nonetheless, Mack is willing to admit to a few downsides to running Hooker-Dunham.

“Day in and out, it takes a lot to keep this little ship afloat,” he says. “Sometimes great groups, well-promoted, don't get the draw they deserve. Occasionally, people treat me like I'm a businessman or hired hand rather than a facilitator.”

H-D is also special to Mack for a more selfish reason.

“Of course, it's a wonderful space for me to perform in myself,” he confesses. “I'd performed here many times before taking on managing the space and always loved the theater. While, of course, no one need cast me in a show they are doing at the theater, I have been delighted to have been given the opportunity to participate in several productions at the theater.”

What's in the future for H-D?

In 2016, Mack is launching a free monthly scene-study experiment, ACT OUT, Act II. Local actors and directors will be able to develop scenes from classics, current shows, original works from initial readings to fully realized scenes, that will culminate in end-of-year showing of a completed piece.

“The idea is not to conduct any sort of class, but to provide a supportive environment for people to develop their skills as actors and also as directors,” says Mack. “We'll start with cold readings of material and move on to developing scenes. We'll also do some improvisational work. When we feel we have enough material to be shown, we'll put on an evening of the work that emerges from the workshop. I'm planning to make this open to all, regardless of prior experience, and see if we can get consistent enough involvement to make a go of it.”

For further information about this adventure and for updates on its development, check out

Let's face it: Jon Mack is a driven man. When not preparing for a show, maintaining and enhancing the theater and gallery, booking new shows, or maintaining the H-D website, newsletter, and Facebook page, he is continually adding to a website of his own:

“I hope my blog will be a useful resource for people engaged in community/local theater,” he says “I've recently completed a series of three articles on what I consider one of the most crucial aspects of effective theater: learning one's lines as completely and as early in the rehearsal process as possible.”

Mack addresses other issues here too.

Based on his personal experiences, he writes a continuing essay entitled, “The potential benefits and significant dangers of living communally.”

In it, Mack writes about several interrelated themes that are dear to his heart: keeping the flame of social, economic, and political equality alive in these troubled times; the value and challenges of non-professional creative expression; and the failure of his professional field, psychology, to meaningfully address the human condition.

“This article continues to receive the largest number of page reads on Reflections in a Cracked Glass,” says Mack.

If all this is not enough, Mack is also writing awork of fiction, The Other Box, inspired by the writing of Haruki Murakami. Posted initially as a short story, he is now extending it into a novel which will be available this coming April.

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